Even in the streaming wars era, with programmers gambling on new concepts in order to gain and retain subscribers, schedules aren’t brimming with musicals. That’s because TV musicals are hard. And as a general rule, they rarely stick — even when well executed.
Sure, for every “Galavant” and “Eli Stone” there’s a “Glee,” a “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist,” or a “Smash,” which was a delightful disaster for two seasons. But even “Glee” had its own set of pacing and storyline problems after the surprising first season. “Smash” failed to catch fire in the ratings despite its cult following, and “Zoey” barely held on during its two-season (and a movie) run. As for Apple TV+’s “Schmigadoon!,” the proof will be in the (corn) pudding as to whether it can sustain its momentum when Season 2 debuts this month.
Part of the problem is that TV musicals are divisive. You don’t have to be a musical theater fan to love when a character breaks scene in order to sing about their inner conflicts. But it isn’t for everyone, either. Then there’s the pacing of it all — both in terms of balancing story and the musical numbers themselves. When you’re pumping out two or three musical numbers per hour-long episode, not all of the songs will be hits. Yet the last thing you want is for viewers to fast-forward parts of your show.
This is all to say that when it came to adapting a “Grease” TV show, the odds were stacked against showrunner Annabel Oakes and her Paramount+ prequel series, “Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies.” Not only did the crew face the typical problems that plague all TV musicals, but they also had the pressure of reviving a beloved property that people happen to feel strongly about.
“Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies” takes place four years before Danny and Sandy find their happily ever after. Oakes’ entry point to the show was her curiosity about the real-life high school girl gang of misfits that inspired “Grease” creator Jim Jacobs.
Here, they’re headed up by Jane (Marisa Davila), a newer student who becomes an outcast when her quarterback boyfriend, Buddy (Jason Schmidt), lies about how far they went in the backseat at the drive-in. When Jane announces she’s running for class president against Buddy, she inspires a slew of other Rydell students.
They include fashion-forward Nancy (Tricia Fukuhara), whose besties have just broken up with her for their boyfriends; scene-stealer Cynthia (Ari Notartomaso), whose biggest ambition is to be inducted into the T-Birds; and Olivia (Cheyenne Isabel Wells), a Latina girl who was ostracized last year because of her relationship with the school’s English teacher.
Together, the fab foursome work to reclaim the halls of Rydell by making it “fun for everyone,” despite setbacks from the cheerleaders, jocks and the assistant principal McGee (Jackie Hoffman).
There’s a lot that “Rise of the Pink Ladies” is trying to accomplish, at least in the first five episodes made available to press. In addition to the lavish musical numbers (there are several in each instalment), the show tackles racism, gender division, stereotypes, sexuality and female friendships. While these are all important themes to consider and storylines to explore, they also feel packed in when considering the overall story of the election (which doesn’t actually take place until Episode 5), and those aforementioned musical productions.
As a result, this is a show that feels fast and slow at once. Despite the gorgeous scenery and costumes, these characters also feel out of place. It’s important to remember that the original “Grease” was a high school-set musical made in the 1970s that critiqued an era from the 1950s. Yanking those themes into the present-day and making them relevant for a younger and savvier audience, all while keeping the spirit of the original intact, is a lot.
In trying to accomplish so much, the show doesn’t necessarily excel at any one thing. That’s disappointing in terms of how much potential there actually is here. Take, for example, the Hazel (Shanel Bailey) character introduced in Episode 3. She’s another standout character who represents a marginalized and underserved side of Rydell, yet after a brief introduction, she appears to fade into the background with no real purpose.
Where the show is at its strongest is when it homes in on the four female leads (five, if you include Hazel) and the way they learn to take up space, even when the world seems to be against them. Unlike the original “Grease,” these Pink Ladies aren’t about changing themselves for a guy. In that way, it’s more like “Grease 2,” the 1982 Michelle Pfeiffer-led sequel of the original that flopped, but has arguably aged better than “Grease.” But in “Rise of the Pink Ladies,” the characters are also figuring out where they fit into the world, and what path they should take to get there.
Meanwhile, for as many musical numbers as there are (and true to the TV musical format, not all of the estimated 30 numbers are hits), many of them are magical and purposeful. Songwriter Justin Tranter and his team ensured that each song pushed either the narrative or the characters, which helps to keep viewers engaged even when a number feels like it’s gone on a little too long.
The musical scenes in the diner and in Jane’s bedroom are particularly effective at building those aforementioned friendships, while paying homage to the original’s iconic numbers. (Oakes herself has said she wants to live in that sleepover at Frenchy’s house.) Those nods, and others that are peppered throughout (including a couple of middle school “Grease” cameos that shouldn’t be spoiled), are understated and natural, and, thankfully, never feel forced.
Will “Rise of the Pink Ladies” rise above the TV musical curse? While it has the canon going for it, it’s also a little too chaotic and uneven to particularly stand out. But there are still plenty of colorful scenes and engaging performances to enjoy, not to mention overall potential if this story can just pull back a little and focus.
“Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies” debuts with two episodes on April 6 on Paramount+, with subsequent episodes dropping weekly.
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