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Movies/TV

NBC moves Western Pa.-set 'Rise' into 'This Is Us' timeslot for summer

| Tuesday, March 13, 2018, 12:42 p.m.
Rosie Perez as Tracey Wolfe, left, and Josh Radnor as Lou Mazzuchelli in a scene from 'Rise,' debuting at 10 p.m. March 13.
Rosie Perez as Tracey Wolfe, left, and Josh Radnor as Lou Mazzuchelli in a scene from 'Rise,' debuting at 10 p.m. March 13.

NBC is replacing a Pittsburgh-set show — "This Is Us" — with another drama set in Western Pennsylvania.

"Rise," set in the fictional town of Stanton, will debut at 10 p.m. after the season finale of "This Is Us" tonight and then move into the 9 p.m. Tuesday timeslot of the hit family drama. Neither show is shot in the area.

"Rise" — from "Friday Night Lights" producer Jason Katims, who created "Parenthood" — stars Josh Radnor ("How I Met Your Mother") and Rosie Perez ("Fearless") and a strong cast of young performers, including Auli'i Cravalho of "Moana." The drama revolves around a small-town high school and its theater program.

As character-driven, non-genre shows, "This Is Us" and "Rise" share a similar DNA, and Katims hopes that and the uplifting tone of "Rise" bode well for its future.

For Katims, the chance to take a different approach to themes he explored as executive producer of "Friday Night Lights" drew him to "Rise." He was captivated by the "idea of being able to observe the people of this community and do it through this beautiful storytelling device of musical theater," said Katims, who's collaborating with "Hamilton" producer Jeffrey Seller.

The series is based loosely on the life's work of Levitttown, Pa., teacher Lou Volpe, which was detailed in Michael Sokolove's 2013 book "Drama High." But it doesn't pick up where "Glee" left off.

"If I felt like that was the show it was going to be I wouldn't have done it, because 'Glee' did that so beautifully," Katims said. "We spend as much time, more time in fact, in (the students') homes and with their families and relationships. ... and the theater becomes their home base in a way that's driving the story."

The youngsters face challenges that are both timeless and contemporary, including teen pregnancy and gender identity. Shades of "Friday Night Lights," there's even a football thread, with one student (Damon J. Gillespie) caught between his talents as an athlete and a performer. The adults face their own problems.

Radnor plays Lou Mazzuchelli, a fictional version of Volpe who finds himself in a rut teaching English and trying to cope with family tensions. Lou grabs a chance to take over his school's theater program despite scant experience in the field and the fact he's leap-fogged a more experienced colleague, Perez's Tracey Wolfe.

But Lou's passion is real — for theater, for the students he wants to inspire and for his Pennsylvania town, which is struggling with hardship after a steel mill's closure. He challenges the status quo and students by choosing to stage a provocative musical, "Spring Awakening," instead of a more predictable, safe high school choice like "Grease."

"The core of the story is this beautiful idea that Lou's vision enables these students to see their lives in a different way and imagine ... a different future for themselves than they might have had," Katims said.

"Rise," he said, is a project that "represents everything I believe in, which is family, which is community, and which is art, and that's why I'm here today."

The show was already in the works when the 2016 presidential election highlighted national divisions, Katims said, but its small-town, blue-collar focus makes the drama pertinent without being overtly political.

"We never have to say 'Republican' or 'Democrat' or 'Trump,' " he said. "Just putting the show out there in the world and observing this type of town that doesn't get observed enough, without judging anybody, just letting their voice be heard, that is a political statement.

"The beauty of the story is that it is aspirational, it is hopeful," he said.

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