“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” This famous quote attributed to Dr. Seuss applies to many things in life, but NBC’s high school drama Rise is not one of them. If anything, we should cry because it happened, and smile now that it is finally over. Unlike the show’s title Rise, every episode in this debut season continued to sink to new lows, so we can also smile over the news that the curtain has been lowered for good on the series.
The show takes place at Stanton High School, where theater teacher Mr. Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor), or Mr. Mazzu as he is called by his students, decides to have his troupe perform the controversial play “Spring Awakening,” which contains themes of masturbation, incest, abortion, homosexuality, teen suicide, rape and other mature subject matter.
In Tuesday’s finale episode “Opening Night,” Mr. Mazzu decides to defy Stanton’s principal after previously promising to modify the play to appease the many parents who signed a PTA Petition against it. An hour before the curtain is set to rise, Mr. Mazzu gives his students a rousing speech about how he’s changed his mind and wants them to perform the play as they originally rehearsed it, without any changes.
“I can't bear the thought that the very last thing I taught you all was to cave,” he tells them. “To play it safe. To compromise. Principal Ward, the PTA, they mean well, they do. But they--they're wrong. They're--They're dead wrong. I mean, sometimes you-- you just got to say screw it, right?”
When he realizes the play is being performed unchanged, Principal Ward (Stanley Mathis) is livid and tries to stop it, but Mr. Mazzu refuses. Ward then goes to the lighting booth to attempt to have the lights turned off, and finds the lighting director, Maashous (Rarmian Newton) smiling coyly at theater assistant Tracey Wolfe (Rosie Perez) as she is singing and gesturing along to a song about masturbation. Tracey then tells Principal Ward that he’s wrong to try to stop the play.
All: ♪ Just try it ♪ Now, that's it ♪ Now, there that's it ♪ God, oh, that's Heaven ♪ Oh, God, that's Heaven ♪ Touch, I'll love you right ♪ Oh, I'll love you right ♪
Principal Ward: Turn them off.
Ward: The lights. Turn them off. We're shutting this down.
Maashous: Sorry, I can't do that.
Ward: I wasn't asking you. I was telling you.
Tracey: Whoa, whoa, whoa, Evan. Evan, y-you-- We're not-- We can't shut this down. We just can't. –
Ward: Tracey, I know you weren't involved with this. I know it was Lou.
Tracey: Evan-- Evan. Take a look at these kids.
All: ♪ Touch me ♪
Tracey: Do they look like they're doing anything wrong? You know what I see? I see incredible kids who--who I love acting their hearts out. I see... I see the best show I've ever been involved with. You just can't do this, Evan. You can't.
Wow. "Do they look like they’re doing anything wrong?" While she gestures and sings along with them while insinuating about masturbation? The entire play looks and sounds wrong, which is why there is so much controversy surrounding it and why the PTA, and every parent who signed the PTA petition, is against it.
Even Mr. Mazzu and his wife covered their young daughter’s eyes during a sadomasochism scene. I’m not sure how they shielded her from the troupe shouting, “Totally f*cked” at the end of one song, though.
Of course, the school’s superintendent ends up being on Mr. Mazzu’s side and tells him how impressed he was by the play and what Mr. Mazzu “has done.” But against his own personal judgment, he must appease the PTA and the many conservative voices at Stanton, so he has no choice but to shut down the school’s drama department from there on out, once again painting conservatives as the intolerant boogeymen that these poor, artistic children fall prey to (when they should really be concerned by Mr. Mazzu’s extreme eagerness to sexualize his underage students.).
Principal Ward: Lou. Superintendent Lewis would like a moment.
Superintendent Lewis: Mr. Mazzuchelli. I truly enjoyed what you did tonight.
Mr. Mazzu: But I'm fired.
Lewis: No. But as good as you are and as good as this is, you have created a massive PR issue for me. The PTA, my board, the conservative voices in Stanton, which as you know are many, I have to answer to them. So, I'm shutting down Stanton Drama. Tonight will be its final performance.
Mr. Mazzu: No, no, no. Hold on. Fire me. Fire me. You--you can't do that. These kids-- I-I can't live with that.
Lewis: We've got more budget cuts on the horizon. I need to cut programs anyway. This will appease the people I'm hired to appease. I truly am sorry. I really do admire what you did.
Although the show revisited its teen pregnancy storyline, we’ll never find out whether Sasha (Erin Kommor) ends up choosing life for her child as she has wanted to since seeing her baby on a sonogram, or if she caves in to pressure from her best friend Michael (Ellie Desautels) (who is newly transitioning and used to be named Margaret) to have an abortion.
Michael: Have you decided what you’re going to do?
Sasha: About what?
Michael: You know.
Sasha: It's opening night, Michael. Can you give me a day off?
Michael: I just don't want you to hold off on making a decision until it's too late.
Sasha: Too late for what?
Michael: You know.
Sasha: For an abortion. Because in your mind, that's what you think I should do.
Michael: I never said that—
Sasha: Why don't you just stop being so politically correct and say what you think.
Michael: Fine. I think you should have an abortion. It's your decision, but that's what I think. You're too young to have a kid. You--you don't have a support system. Your dad's not going to be able to help you. That's how people drop out. And I don't want that for you.
Sasha: Well, good. You finally said it.
Michael: Sasha. Sasha!
Sadly, nowhere is adoption mentioned, which would solve all of Michael’s concerns without having to end the life of Sasha’s child. So much for “pro-choice.”
Given the way Sasha suddenly falls in love with Michael while watching "him" perform in the play (Michael’s character in the play commits suicide, by the way. Quite romantic, huh?), and given the show’s history, had Rise been granted a second season, it’s probable that Sasha would have sadly taken Michael’s advice and aborted her child.
But we did witness what may have been network television’s first underage transgender kiss between Sasha and Michael:
Sasha: Michael. You were amazing tonight. I felt like for the first time I saw Michael. Really saw him.
Sasha: And I liked it. Him.
The episode ends in what is supposed to be a heartwarming, dream-like view of the play finishing out as the viewer hears a touching melody set to the various scenes, while the audience smiles and cries at the same time, everyone in awe of Mr. Mazzu’s magical moment.
But, “Sometimes you just got to say, ‘Screw it,’” right, Mr. Mazzu? Which is exactly what the powers-that-be in real life did when they canceled this show, and there’s no amount of magic Mr. Mazzu can work to override that decision, thankfully. I, for one, have a big smile on my face knowing this liberal garbage is over for good, never to “rise” again.