NBC’s New “Rise” Pits Football Against Theater

Virginia Sherwood/NBC

Fans of Parenthood and Friday Night Lights will appreciate producer and showrunner Jason Katims applying what he does best — creating heartfelt family-fueled dramas — to his latest project Rise (Tuesdays at 10/9c).

With hints of FNL, Smash and Glee (Hamilton producer Jeffrey Seller is also involved), Katims introduces us to a working-class town where football rules and the theater program is simply an afterthought, if a thought at all. Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother) stars as a dedicated American lit teacher and family man who re-energizes his life when he asks to take on the high school’s lackluster theater department, a job long held and not easily relinquished by his colleague Tracy Wolfe (Rosie Perez).

His first project: the provocative Spring Awakening. His lead cast: the football team’s star quarterback Robbie Thorne (played by the charming Damon J. Gillespie) and the kindhearted theater newbie Lilette (Auli’i Cravalho).

“I really wanted this to be a show that as you watched it you were amazed by … seeing the acting and the singing and all that, but also that you connected with them through what was going on in their lives,” Katims says. “In their home lives, in their family lives, in their relationships so that it would relate on another level.”

And it does. Gillespie, a dance and theater veteran, makes his first turn at a TV drama playing Robbie. “He’s a very stoic type of person … even though, he’s trying very hard to not let anyone see his hurt, his struggle, his anger,” Gillespie shares. “We see that character who has been super quiet, who has all this stuff happening, goes to school, still puts on that front. It’s not just one big explosion, but you see, like, the fuse — you see it getting shorter and shorter and shorter until he finally explodes.”

That explosion may come down to the final episode, as Gillespie teases the season finale as being emotional. “There was not a dry eye in that audience.”

Rise airs on NBC Tuesdays at 10/9c beginning March 13.