Fans of “Friday Night Lights” have wondered why the drama wasn’t a bigger hit during its 2006-2010 run. There were a few small reasons, including the time slot and the misbelief that the story was specifically about football, but the big reason was earnestness. “Friday Night Lights” was about community, family, high school, and creating a meaningful life in a Texas town, and it openly wanted to move the viewer. Writer-producer Jason Katims turned away from the ironic tone of so many popular series set in high school. Unashamedly, he wanted to inspire us.
Now Katims, who also made “Parenthood,” is returning to NBC with another high school-set drama bent on stirring us. Called “Rise,” it follows bored high school teacher Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor) as he takes over the theater department with fellow teacher Tracey Wolfe (Rosie Perez), trying to ignite his own passion and the passion of his students. Like “Friday Night Lights,” it’s filled with teaching moments, fierce mentoring, and fraught relationships that need healing, as the story lines jump among the kids’ families in the working-class Pennsylvania town. Lou — the kids call him Mr. Mazzu — believes in the power of the arts to bring out our humanity and joy, in the same way Coach Eric Taylor saw football as a great cure-all.
But, unlike “Friday Night Lights,” “Rise” doesn’t organically arrive at its sweet revelations after building up to them deliberately. “Rise” is far more aggressive when it comes to wringing tears and pathos out of us, with a seeming checklist of juicy issues including alcoholism, trans acceptance, abortion, gay self-acceptance, Christian dogma, anti-Muslim prejudice, and more. The premiere episode, Tuesday at 10 p.m., cycles through more drama and introduces more characters than entire seasons of other series. I can’t help but think that somehow, in notes from NBC perhaps, the show’s emotional current has been amped up to “This Is Us” levels of manipulation. Rather than giving us one wallop per hour, each episode of “Rise” seems to demand — with a bullying, mushy soundtrack — four or five teary-eyed scenes.
That said, “Rise,” like “This Is Us,” has enough going for it to make it more than bearable and, potentially, a hit. On “This Is Us,” the saving grace is the time-jumping storytelling technique; on “Rise,” it’s the sections involving the musical the kids are putting up — “Spring Awakening.” The kids perform together as a troupe, with their roles in the show reflecting their real-life struggles, and those scenes have none of the absurd glitz of “Glee.” They’re more intimate and honest, as the kids commit to their roles, despite the fact that many in the community object to the show’s sexually charged subject matter. Interestingly, “Rise” was co-created by Jeffrey Seller, the theater producer behind “Rent,” “Avenue Q,” and “Hamilton,” which gets a few nods in the premiere.
In a way, the series, based on the nonfiction book “Drama High” by Michael Sokolove, anticipated this moment in our country, as the kids from Parkland, Fla., unite to put on a show — a show, in their case, to push politicians on gun control. Like the kids on “Rise,” the Parkland students are finding power through bonding and participation. They’re rising up, they’re rising to the occasion, and Mr. Mazzu would be very proud of them. That timeliness gives the series added relevance, and it grounds the story in reality. The motivated, uplifting kids in “Rise” aren’t too good to be true.
The cast also includes a few gems. There is a football coach on this show, too, and he is played with remarkable heart by Joe Tippett, particularly as he gets more screen time mid-season. Coach Strickland’s lead quarterback, Robbie Thorne, also happens to be the lead in “Spring Awakening,” and Coach needs to learn to share and, maybe, understand that the arts can benefit a student as much as football. Damon J. Gillespie, as Robbie, is a charmer who is being pushed and pulled by all the adults around him. Along with the coach, his father is pressuring him to give up theater to focus on football, while Lou is pressuring him to commit to “Spring Awakening.” As Coach Strickland’s daughter, Gwen, Amy Forsyth is nuanced and moving as she weathers the fallout of her parents’ tensions. And Ellie Desautels works beautifully as a trans kid.
Radnor, who was the more serious one on “How I Met Your Mother,” is super-serious and very oh-captain-my-captain here. His acting reflects the pushiness of the show’s writing — he’s the most manic of mentors — until midway into the season when he stops trying to make everyone love and respect him. Katims has Lou lecture everyone in town about the value of the arts, rather than just letting that theme arise out of the action. I know, arts funding is in danger, and it’s an important point. But still, subtlety is more potent than clobbering us over the head. If you want to trigger compassion and understanding, it’s best not to use a jackhammer.
Starring: Josh Radnor, Rosie Perez, Damon J. Gillespie, Auli’i Cravalho, Shirley Rumierk, Joe Tippett, Ellie Desautels, Shannon Purser, Amy Forsyth
On: NBC, premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.