Unless you've been living under a rock, you've seen NBC's ad campaign for the new drama Rise.
But what is it actually about? The eagerly awaited series hails from Friday Night Lights and Parenthood creator Jason Katims and Hamilton producer Jeffrey Seller. It stars Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother) as English teacher Lou Mazzouchelli who decides he wants to invigorate his small town of Stanton, Penn. by taking over the high school drama department. With the help of Tracy Wolfe (Rosie Perez), Mazzouchelli manages to round up a rag-tag group of students to put on the controversial Broadway musical Spring Awakening.
The cast is rounded out by a group of young stars, much like the cast of Katims' football drama Friday Night Lights. Moana's Auli'i Cravalho plays Lilette, a sophomore who splits her time between classes and working at a rundown diner to help her mom pay rent. Damon Gillespie plays Stanton High's star quarterback Robbie Thorne and Amy Forsyth (Gwen), Rarmian Newton (Masshous Evers), Ted Sutherland (Simon), Ellie Desautels (Michael) and Erin Kommor (Sasha) make up the rest of the ensemble. Together these teens will stumble through their usual teenage woes while exploring their sexuality, gender, class and dreams under the bright lights of their auditorium stage.
TV Guide talked to Katims about setting the tone for Rise as well as the themes he wants to cover in the show's first run and his vision for future seasons.
This show in particular has, from a visual point of view, a lot stronger connection to Friday Night Lights than Parenthood does. Was that a conscious choice? Why did you want to draw those parallels?
Jason Katims: I did think that when I first heard about the book Drama High and I heard about what it was about and heard about the story. I felt like, I was very drawn to telling that story. Or telling the story that was sort of inspired by that real story. One of the things that I was drawn to was that it felt similar in one way to Friday Night Lights and, while the subject matter is very different, both shows were focused in a small town. They were working class. I felt like I really wanted to tell this story and, in a similar way, have it feel like, "Oh, I feel like I've been dropped down into this town. I just know these people and they feel real to me." It wasn't like you were looking at it from a distance or you were looking down at [the characters]. We weren't speaking down to these people because if they were from this town or that town or they didn't have this or they didn't do that, we're never speaking down to them.
I felt like that was true of Friday Night Lights and I wanted to bring that sensibility, not exactly the same film style, but the sensibility to that. We did lean into that with handheld cameras and stylistically, how we were shooting. In other ways as well, just the storytelling as well. So that hopefully you felt when you watched the show, you felt like, "Oh, I'm connected to these people. I care about these people. They might've made a mistake, but I understand the mistake because I understand the situation."
Tell me a little bit about casting Josh Radnor, because this is a role unlike any role we've seen him play before. What about him made him feel like you knew the Lou you had in your mind?Katims: The guy? It's so interesting because I knew Josh from How I Met Your Mother, but then I also watched his films, which I thought were so excellent, the films that he directed and acted in. I thought, "Wow. He really has a lot of versatility. There's a lot to him". What really made me lock in on him in this role was sitting down and meeting with him. When I sat down and met with him and talked to him about not only Lou, but just the world of this story, why we were wanting to tell the story, all that stuff, I felt like, "Oh, this was totally Lou." It just felt like Josh could've chosen a lot of different shows to be on, a lot of different roles to take on, but this spoke to him. He felt like this was something that he wanted to [do]. He felt like, "I wanna put this story out into the world right now."
[Josh] loses his quiet confidence in the role. I think that really plays nicely into the story because he's somebody that's taken on so much more than he can chew. But, that's what the story, the first season is. He's choosing to direct a show; he's never directed anything. He's taken over the theatre program; he doesn't know what he's doing. He's choosing to do a show that nobody wants to see and nobody wants to do.
Rise will also tackle some sexuality and gender issues. You chose to place both those storylines on the younger actors instead of an adult who's already dealt with the coming out process. What influenced that decision?
Jason Katims: Because I felt like I wanted to tell the stories that were going to resonate most over the course of doing a show long-term. It's like, when you do a pilot and, especially a pilot that's an adaptation from some source material, I feel like I always want to think about, "How am I gonna feel in Season 5?" I want to make sure that I've set up a foundation of stories that are going to be interesting, captivating over a longer period of time.
I just wanted this story that we're telling to reflect as many different types of people that I could, honestly. I felt like it was interesting for me to explore this transgender character. I thought that the idea of Simon, whose sexuality was emerging, was really compelling for me. I felt like it was a very interesting story to tell that he didn't exactly know yet how his life was gonna turn out... Over the course of the first season, you see him sort of struggle with that and struggle with the pressure that he's put upon himself and that his family's put upon to be him a certain type of person.
Will we be seeing the production of Spring Awakening by the end of the season?
Katims: The production of Spring Awakening basically becomes sort of the ending of the first season. It starts with the auditions and goes into rehearsals and we go through the process and then we lead up to the production of the show...We're not gonna see an entire episode that's the production, but we will get to see opening night.
If the show goes two, three seasons, is the loose idea to do maybe a production a season?
Katims: Yes, the idea is to most likely do that, to do a production a season. It depends. In this world of television we live in now, you never know how many episodes they're gonna wanna do. If the network asks to do a similar amount that we did this year, I would say that we do one production. If they say, "Oh, we wanna do a lot more episodes," then I might break it up into a fall production and a spring production.
Rise premieres Tuesday, March 13 at 10/9c on NBC before moving to 9/8c on March 20.