My Lunch Also Rises: NBC’s Nauseating Vision of High School Theater

"Rise" twists itself in knots to position Mr. Mazzu as a hero. In fact, he's a giant ass.

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Rise
Finally, a show that understands the true genius of unqualified white men. Photo: Peter Kramer/NBC.

My first attempt at Rise lasted three minutes and 13 seconds. Familiar with the show’s straightwashing controversy, I watched with some skepticism. Still, I wasn’t ready for the train wreck that is Rise, an absurdly out-of-touch drama that treats its ostensible subject, high school theater, with a jaw-dropping lack of respect.

Showrunner Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights, Parenthood) wastes no time establishing Rise’s aim to reestablish straight white masculinity at the center of every story worth telling. It’s a daunting task given that this is high school theater, overwhelmingly the domain of female teachers, queer kids and misfits, but the project proceeds efficiently, subordinating everyone to the rise of its main character, Mr. Mazzu, who will save his high school’s theater program whether they like it or not.

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In a move appropriate to this historical moment, Rise begins by establishing Mazzu as a genius so talented that he requires no expertise to succeed beyond the wildest dreams of the female teachers who preceded him. We first meet Mazzu in English class. Exasperated, he thumps the cover of The Grapes of Wrath, demanding that his students name the protagonist. No one bothers to answer. While this scene intends to establish Mazzu as an unappreciated genius, it offers insight into the producers’ distorted vision of public education. The vast majority of teachers are highly trained, armed with ingenious strategies for facilitating class discussion and well aware that high school students will reject such condescending treatment.

But Mazzu doesn’t need skill; his genius is enough.

Fed up with inferior literary minds, our hero brazenly seizes command of the school’s drama program. The lead teacher has retired, and Mazzu, a theater neophyte, aims to poach control from the remaining drama teacher, a woman with a decade of experience. The principal immediately agrees, shocking even Mazzu when he homophobically acknowledges that Mazzu isn’t “your typical charismatic theater guy.” The principal confides that Mazzu’s colleague, Ms. Wolfe, has been a “pain in the ass” since she was his own student. He delights in the idea of “even-keeled Lou Mazzu” running drama. Troublesome woman of color out, straight-as-they-come white guy in!

After these three minutes and 13 seconds, my wife, a K-12 theater teacher and head of a university theater education program, had enough. After a week, I returned to see how much worse Rise would get.

Three minutes and 14 seconds in, our hero’s journey continues its furious pace. Demonstrating his signature lack of professionalism, Mazzu barges into a dress rehearsal for Grease, publicly informing Wolfe that she’s out. His rationale for halting a nearly-finished production? He’s after “out of the box” programming, like Rent, Hair or Spring Awakening. That’s right: he plans to replace a Broadway cliché with, um, a slightly edgier Broadway cliché.

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We can’t fault Mazzu, who admitted only moments ago that he knows nothing about theater and lacks charisma. Beyond a 1990s production of Fiddler on the Roof, Mazzu’s main exposure to theater consists of a middling attempt to sing along to his teenage daughters’ recording of Hamilton. This mercifully brief but still-humiliating moment sums up the character’s motivation. As Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics tumble awkwardly from Mazzu’s mouth, we realize that, like Tom Joad (the protagonist of The Grapes of Wrath, as any student of an unappreciated genius should know), he aims to reassert a power to which he feels entitled as your average, not-so-charismatic white guy. Nothing will stop Mazzu from taking his shot. People like Miranda and Mrs. Wolfe will no longer hoard the creative riches of the theater. Not when brilliant, unqualified men like Mazzu can shake things up.

Mazzu’s casting technique with his students only exemplifies his self-centered, superficial approach to theater. He refuses to cast Simon, the only male drama regular, in a lead role because he is too short, which will defuse the sexual tension of the show. Sensing that Simon may be gay, Mazzu casts him as Hanschen — yes, the show is Spring Awakening — setting Simon up for a conflict with his parents over a same-sex kissing scene. Later, faced with a failing English student who just happens to be the school’s star quarterback, Mazzu capitalizes, forcing the student to audition; you see, the quarterback’s superior height will guarantee that all-important sexual tension. (Mazzu’s focus on sexual tension is an uncomfortable complement to his handsy style of “relating” to students.)

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Rise ends the casting subplot by positioning the casting of Michael, a trans man with a beautiful voice, as an example of Mazzu transforming student lives. As usual, the show subordinates student stories to Mazzu’s heroism, using Michael’s story to showcase Mazzu’s superior sensitivity and deploying the hackneyed trope of the magical queer or trans kid whose joy and/or suffering advances adult agendas. I can’t help imagining the ways Rise might choose to put characters like Simon and Michael in danger so Mazzu can save the day.

That’s the thing about Rise. Behind its tired clichés and over-the-top plot twists lurks an insidious combination of jealousy and condescension. After dismantling any idea of either pedagogical or theatrical expertise as necessary to staging polished Broadway musicals with young performers, Rise inserts Mazzu where he apparently always wanted to be: at the center of the stories of women, people of color, queer kids and outsiders. In an inversion of the real phenomenon of students and teachers carving out spaces, together, for inclusive community in the theater, Rise has these folks all withering away before Mazzu engineers his sudden shakeup.

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The show twists itself in knots to try to position Mazzu as a hero, hamstrung by the fact that this guy is a giant ass. This impossible task comes through most clearly in Mrs. Wolfe, who demonstrates real expertise but must be made to look pitiful, cynical or shrewish to facilitate the hero’s journey. In the show’s second episode, she draws on her superior knowledge to secure funding for the theater program, leaving our hero to stare into the middle distance, his rightful thunder stolen. What a pain in the ass Feminazi, amirite?

What would make Rise worth watching? My proposal: tell the incredible story of Mrs. Wolfe, a highly skilled woman who somehow manages to eschew violence, stay professional and make things work for her students despite the machinations of an infuriating, egotistical and unqualified colleague. For that, I’d tune in.