It's impossible to watch Jason Katims' new NBC drama Rise, a series about a modest musical theater department led by an inspirational teacher in small town America, and not compare it to Katims' critically acclaimed drama Friday Night Lights, a series about an underdog football team led by an inspirational coach in small town America. The comparisons are warranted beyond the similar loglines though; Katims returns to the FNL well many times throughout Rise's first season, whether it's in the familiar handheld camera work meant to evoke authenticity and intimacy, a budgetary storyline involving a Jumbotron that is ripped straight from FNL's third season, or merely the use of familiar terminology, including QB1 and Mrs. Coach. But Rise is not Friday Night Lights, and it's because the former lacks the community and its accompanying spirit that propelled the latter to a place in pop culture history.
As anyone who's witnessed the glory of Tim Riggins will tell you, Friday Night Lights was not about football. Rather, it was the story of a community united and affected by the game. As a result, football was merely the vehicle through which the series, which aired for two seasons on NBC before the network struck a deal with DirecTV to produce three additional shorter seasons, explored the myriad issues affecting Middle America. Relevant topics like poverty, race and the lack of opportunity afforded many young men and women in struggling towns across the country were addressed through the show's deep cast, led by Emmy winner Kyle Chandler as charismatic Coach Eric Taylor and his wife, Connie Britton's determined and supportive Tami Taylor.
Within the first five episodes initially screened for critics, it's clear Rise doesn't have the same sense of community through which to explore its own set of timely issues. Set in Stanton, Pennsylvania, a steel town struggling in the wake of the closure of the local steel mill, the show's focus is too narrow to truly capture a snapshot of the people who call it home. The theater department's controversial production of Spring Awakening -- a musical tackling topics like teen pregnancy and abortion and thus is not approved of by many in the town, including the high school principal and some deeply religious parents -- involves only a small section of the Stanton community. Therefore, it isn't necessarily indicative of the overall existence of the people of Stanton.
Unfortunately, it also appears the show has no interest in actually digging into Stanton's larger problems. The social and economic issues affecting the people of Stanton are often glossed over in order to get to the next self-important speech made by Josh Radnor's Lou Mazzuchelli, an English teacher who decides directing the school musical despite never directing a musical in his life is the answer to his existential ennui. The series pays brief lip service to the very real, very serious opioid epidemic that's affecting and killing many people in Appalachia, but the show quickly moves on so Lou can give an impassioned speech in an attempt to convince the school board to give the theater department more money instead of putting it to use to buy the aforementioned Jumbotron.
If Friday Night Lights was about depicting Middle America, Rise is one man's version of what he thinks it should be, and that is a world that provides a free platform for young men and women to express themselves without limits. Lou wants to offer an environment in which it's safe for these select students to dream of greatness -- a romantic notion of a broken public education system, one that's totally admirable and even respectable -- but it is difficult to appreciate or even understand the need for sanctuary when the immediate problems students and their families need to escape -- rising unemployment, skyrocketing drop-out rates, and an increasing reliance on drugs to numb the pain -- don't feel real.
Lou often rushes into situations in which he has no experience to lecture people or to claim he knows what's best for the people of Stanton without appearing to be more than superficially interested in helping those outside his family. The worst part is that the show allows him to be correct in his assertions, which insults the capable and knowledgeable people who surround him, including Rosie Perez's Tracy, a woman of color and the longtime theater director who is forced to swallow her pride for the good of the students when she's demoted for a white man who dreams of having more. One of Friday Night Lights' greatest strengths was that it was unafraid to depict people making mistakes. The show told stories of men and women struggling to make decisions, and sometimes they made the wrong one, but then they grew from it as a result. How can Lou grow alongside his students if he's never seriously challenged?
On the rare occasion an obstacle presents itself, like an underfunded school, Lou doesn't seem to care all that much about what it means. He regularly ignores this fact because he's ... idealistic? A dreamer? He wants to bring the story of Spring Awakening and its universally understood themes to the town of Stanton through the musical's set decoration by incorporating familiar elements like the smokestacks of the abandoned steel mill, but where does the funding to do this come from in a town that's running dry? And how can you tell an authentic story of a town that's suffering when you don't address the very men and women whose livelihood disappeared when that mill closed? By refusing to acknowledge the limitations suffering imposes on the people of Stanton, Lou and Rise both swing and miss at crafting the type of authentic, compelling story that elevated FNL to iconic status.
Friday Night Lights excelled at portraying the complex, layered experiences of the community of Dillon, Texas. For every dealership owner or wealthy new transplant there was a single mother with a son who wanted to succeed at football in order to provide for his family. Or there was a young quarterback tasked with caring for his grandmother with dementia because his father was overseas and his mother was MIA. Friday Night Lights, at its heart, told personal, heartfelt stories about the men and women that spoke to the experiences of the larger community they called home. It told stories of hardship so that when individuals succeeded or when the Panthers won State, it was a true hard-won victory, not just for the young men involved, but the people of Dillon too. A win for the team was a win for the community and its economy. In comparison, Rise seems comfortable to merely hint at a town's suffering through passing references instead of showing it or showing how one might overcome the obstacles placed before them to achieve greatness. Is it because a musical production is not supposed to be as gritty or messy as the sport of football? It is because it's supposed to be, for lack of a better word, a production and not a behind-the-scenes look at small town life?
Though Rise purposefully uses Spring Awakening as a vehicle to explore homophobia, religion and coming out among its young adult cast, the bulk of the storytelling via Lou and his choices don't take the plight of the rest of the town seriously. Yes, this is a show about a teacher and how he inspires his students to grow and dream though participation in a high school production, but if the show wants to achieve the same critical success as the series from which it draws its own inspiration, it needs to be more. It need to focus equally on the mentor, the mentees, and the extended community in which they exist. Only then will it be a truthful depiction of Middle America that's worth viewers' time. Only then will it achieve the greatness within.
Rise airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on NBC.