How Jason Katims took ‘Rise’ from Levittown to NBC by way of ‘Friday Night Lights’
More than two decades after writing his first TV episodes for My So-Called Life, and seven years after his Emmy-winning finale for Friday Night Lights, Parenthood creator Jason Katims is back in the often-challenging world of high school and family drama with the premiere Tuesday of NBC’s Rise.
And though Rise was inspired by Drama High, former Inquirer and Daily News reporter Michael Sokolove’s book about drama teacher Lou Volpe and the award-winning theater program at Levittown’s Harry S. Truman High School, the first thing to know about the show is this is Katims’ story, not Sokolove’s.
Volpe and lead character Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor, How I Met Your Mother) share a first name and a passion for high school theater, but like everyone in Rise, Mazzuchelli is fictional.
And unlike Volpe, he doesn’t happen to be gay. (At least two other characters in the show are, and the cast includes a nonbinary actor, Ellie Desautels, playing a student transitioning to male.)
“One of the things I learned is that when you’re dealing with shows that are from source material is … to let yourself sort of be inspired by that source material, but then also find ways to make it your own,” Katims said in an interview in January during the Television Critics Association’s winter meetings in Pasadena, Calif.
“When I was going to take on Parenthood, I had a meeting with Ron Howard [who directed the 1989 movie] and Brian Grazer and I was sort of pitching them my take on the show, what the show would be, and at the end of the meeting, Ron said to me, ‘I really like this, and I have to say, the stuff that I loved most in your pitch was the stuff that was not related to the movie, that was new.’”
On Friday Night Lights — a series inspired by the best-selling book from another former Inquirer journalist, H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger — “it was obviously just like in Drama High — there’s this wonderful book that is part of the source material. But it was really important in Friday Night Lightsto make Dillon [Texas], its own town, its own place,” Katims said.
“It wasn’t Odessa [where Bissinger’s nonfiction book about a Texas high school football team was set]. So it gave us the freedom to be inspired by that source material but also to be able to create our own characters and our own stories.”
Katims placed Rise in a fictional Pennsylvania town called Stanton that’s closer to Pittsburgh than Philadelphia. But that doesn’t mean Levittown didn’t inspire him.
Beyond “the story of this person who dedicated his life to this program,” Katims said, what he loved about Drama High was “that it was in Levittown and that it was a public high school and that this wasn’t a story about a high school of the performing arts.
“These weren’t people who were going on to become like movie stars or Broadway stars. This was something that was going to influence and affect these people’s lives and give them … a different sense of what their lives could be,” he said. “That was a story I wanted to tell.”
Friday Night Lights became “a template for doing sort of a large ensemble cast where we got to go to a lot of different places,” he said. “It’s the teenage girl [Lilette Suarez, played by Moana star Auli’i Cravalho] who works as a waitress, her mom [Shirley Rumierk] is a single mom and they live hand to mouth, and the transgender character, and all of these characters that make up the show [that give it] its sense of life and energy.”
And then there’s football, which enters the picture when Lou casts Stanton’s quarterback, Robbie Thorne (Damon J. Gillespie), as one of the leads in Spring Awakening, which proves as controversial as the show itself, a rock musical that deals with adolescent sexuality in 1890s Germany. (In 2011, Volpe’s program at Truman was the testing ground for a version of the musical for high schools. It probably doesn’t hurt Rise’s presentation that one of the show’s executive producers is Jeffrey Seller, lead producer of Hamilton.)
“I didn’t want the show to feel small: ‘Oh, it’s just about this theater troupe.’ I wanted it to feel like it was big,” said Katims, who had joked to reporters that Gillespie “is a wonderful dancer and singer and actor, but I cast him for his football skills.”
“When we talk about a football team, we’re not just going to talk about it, we’re going to see it. … I didn’t want to make it a thing where, you know, ‘Theater’s good and football’s bad.’ “
Before he started writing, Katims spent time with Volpe and went to Truman to meet and observe the work of Tracey Gatte, a former student of Volpe’s and the assistant director who replaced him as head of the school’s drama program after he retired in 2013. (Rosie Perez’s fictional Rise character, by contrast, is Tracey Wolfe, an experienced assistant director, who, in possibly the show’s most depressingly believable story line, loses the job she expected to get to a man who literally doesn’t know his stage left from his stage right.)
“One of the things that Lou said about his early career was that when he took on the program, he immediately did this kind of radical production of Antigone, which was, as he puts it himself, just terrible, awful. But the thing that was interesting was he was fearless,” Katims said.
“While he had never directed anything, he just knew [what to do], and he had that vision for it. And so I thought that … fearlessness, and that willingness to take something on without necessarily having gone to school for it or studied it, it was an interesting characteristic of Lou that [became] part of the character on the show as well.”
Volpe’s confidence also struck Radnor, whose character is a veteran teacher but a fledgling director.
“His taste in theater is really excellent,” said the actor, who also visited Truman, along with Perez and Katims, and who spent time with Volpe. “He’s kind of a prodigy in the way that he’s not formally trained. He just understands how to direct things, how to move actors around a stage, how to elicit truthful performances out of people. He’s a very impressive guy. He’s a lovely guy to have gotten to know.”
In the 10-episode first season of Rise, Lou Mazzuchelli’s fearlessness can play like arrogance, both at work, where he repeatedly undervalues Perez’s character, and at home, where he expects his wife, Gail (Marley Shelton), and their children to sacrifice for his dream.
At the same time, there’s an impulsive generosity to Lou’s dealings with his students and their complicated lives that’s reminiscent of This Is Us, whose time slot Rise moves into on March 20, after the hit family drama’s season finale on Tuesday.
After meeting the real Lou, Radnor said, he “took away how much he loved those students, and how much he cared, and how moved he was by the sacrifices they made to do his shows. A lot of them were working jobs, after school and other jobs, to help support the family. And he asked a lot of them. And he was still incredibly moved by how much they sacrificed to be a part of his plays.”
Katims’ story acknowledges his main character’s limitations.
“At certain points in the season, you see he could be more successful with people like Robbie and Lilette and Simon,” a student played by Ted Sutherland whose parents oppose his participation in the production, in which he plays a gay character, “than he can with his own son,” Katims said.
The writer gave Lou’s son, Gordy [Casey W. Johnson], a drinking problem, because “I felt like it was important for me to do a family story that would make the family feel like not this perfect family,” he said.
“It’s a very aspirational show, because it’s all about people coming together and doing something that’s important and that has meaning for them, and he’s obviously this great mentor to all of these kids. But I also felt like in order for something to feel that, you had to feel the painful part of their lives, too.”
Rise. 10 p.m. Tuesday, NBC. Moving to 9 p.m. on March 20.
Credit: The Philadelphia Inquirer