The minds behind NBC’s new drama Rise are responding to accusations that they “straight-washed” their main character after comments made by the showrunner were misconstrued.
The series, which follows a teacher who takes over his local struggling high school drama department, is very loosely inspired by Michael Sokolove’s book Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater. The book explores the true story of then-closeted high school teacher Lou Volpe. But in Rise, which debuts in March, the teacher is a straight man named Lou Mazzuchelli, played by Josh Radnor.
During the show’s presentation at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour on Tuesday, showrunner Jason Katims was pressed on why he decided to write the character as straight instead of gay. His answer (read it in full below) was taken out of context by many outlets that were not in attendance — prompting criticism online and even a petition calling for the network to change the character’s orientation. Katims said he was inspired by the character, but felt that he needed to make Rise his “own story.” Some outlets then inferred that meant Katims wanted his version of Lou to be straight because he could not relate to a gay character, when what he was actually saying was that the story of Rise is wholly original, not a direct adaptation of the book.
Katims, along with executive producers Jeffrey Seller (Hamilton) and Flody Suarez, have released a statement to EW regarding the controversy: “The misinterpretation by some of what we’ve done with this show goes against what we fundamentally believe and who we are as individuals. We are firmly committed to LGBTQ inclusion, and most of all, are excited for the community to see Rise, which we believe portrays positive depictions of LGBTQ characters and stories on broadcast television with honesty and sensitivity. To that end, we worked with GLAAD on the show’s LGBTQ storylines to ensure they are told with respect and authenticity.”
The show is indeed an entirely new creation from Katims. In fact, EW has learned that the WGA, which is rigorous in its vetting process, is giving Katims a “created by” credit on Rise rather than a “developed by” credit because the series is vastly different from the book.
The town in which the show is set is fictional, and none of the characters — played by the likes of Auli’i Cravalho, Damon J. Gillespie, and Shannon Purser, among others — hail from the book. Sources say Lou shares his first name with the real Lou Volpe purely as a nod to the book, which initially inspired Katims to delve into the world of high school theater. Starting from scratch with this character also allowed the writers to take other liberties with members of Lou’s family without insinuating that those things actually happened in real life. (See Katims’ statement below for more on that.)
While the character of Lou is not gay, Katims is not shying away from LGBT storylines. Two other characters will have powerful coming-out storylines, including a transgender student and another who is exploring his sexuality for the first time after being cast as a gay character in the school play, Spring Awakening. Lou’s sister-in-law is also in a same-sex relationship, happily married with kids — and that character, like all others, is also fictionalized.
Behind the scenes, Rise has been in touch with GLAAD, using the LGBT organization as a resource throughout the creative process. Volpe is also a consultant on the project. And there are many prominent LGBTQ voices who have contributed to and weighed in on decisions regarding the show, including Seller and Suarez, as well as openly gay NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt.
Here’s Katims’ quote from TCA in full:
“Well, I think that the source material that you’re talking about, Drama High and that teacher, Lou Volpe, was such an inspiration to me and to everybody doing the show. To see somebody who, as you said, spent 44 years dedicated to this program was amazing. And I really hope that — and believe that — we carry a lot of his spirit into the show. But in terms of the adaptation itself and why we made that decision, it’s like as you said, it’s very much we took that as an inspiration, and then I really felt like I needed to make it, you know, kind of my own story. And I definitely didn’t want to shy away from issues of sexuality and gender, but was inspired to tell the story of Michael, this transgender character, and Simon, who’s dealing with his emerging sexuality and growing up in a very sort of conservative religious family. And those stories felt like they were sort of resonant — resonated with me kind of as a storyteller, and I wanted to kind of lean into that. And then really with Lou’s family life and Lou’s family itself, there’s a lot of reimagination, not only in terms of whether he was gay or straight, but in terms of that family structure. Like, for example, you see in the pilot there’s a storyline with his son, Gordy, who we suggest has a drinking problem. As you go on and you watch the next several episodes, even in episode 2, that turns into a very a major story line and becomes, I think, a very powerful part of our storytelling. So, you know, I really wanted — I felt like it was important to me to honor what the source material was, but then to also kind of make it my own so that we would all be able to sort of lean in and do the work that we need to do as actors and writers.”
Rise will begin with a special preview episode following the season finale of This is Us on Tuesday, March 13 at 10 p.m. It will move to its regular 9 p.m. time slot the following week, March 20.