ItMTV placed seven young people with artistic aspirations in a Soho loft. They were surrounded by camera crews and manipulated the raw footage. The Real World—a provocative unscripted drama that invented reality television as we know it. Thirty years later, Disney’s YA-oriented cable channel Freeform is essentially repeating that formula with The Rise Up, named for its six stars’ self-identification as emerging icons of downtown culture. The experiment is a disappointing failure because Gen Z has not become reality TV and is not the innovative form that it was once. It is a boring, inert program with very little to no insight into the youth culture of today.
The cast of The Rise UpThe series, which premiered on Sept. 13 and will be streaming live on Hulu at 9 a.m., features a 4-episode block. Sophia Wilson is a sought after photographer, who has to work hard with high-profile assignments while also completing NYU coursework. While still at high school, Taofeek Abijako started Head of State fashion label. Ebon Gore found the people she needed in queer communities, which are dominated by transgender organizers. When we meet model Fernando Casablancas, who happens to be the son of Elite Model Management founder John Casablancas and half-brother of the Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas, he’s recovering from a rough breakup with an even more famous model. And Claude Shwartz, a New York native who introduces herself as “a trans woman who wants to be an actress,” is playing sherpa to Ben Hard, a wannabe comedian fresh off the plane from Texas.
Sophia Wilson (left) with her friend from ‘The Come Up.
Real World New York terms, Ben is the show’s Julie: a wide-eyed Southern ingénue who’s come to the big city to broaden his horizons and discover who he wants to be. Acting classes, open mic nights, and flirtations with guys ensue, in an environment more hospitable to his budding bisexuality than his family’s San Antonio milieu. Mundane as they are, his adventures with Claude—The Rise Up’s real find, a funny and observant commentator despite limited material—and a half-heartedly rebounding Fernando take up the bulk of the four episodes sent for review. If it’s a spoiler to reveal that Ben kisses a boy and he likes it, well, it shouldn’t be.
These tales are as old-as they come, and take screen time away from Sophia and Taofeek. He’s built an aesthetic and a brand around his childhood in Nigeria, she’s focused on reviving analogue photography in a digital era, and we see them bonding over their shared preference for Black models and subjects. Their stories on the show don’t have nearly as much impact as their actual work. It is possible to see a large amount of footage from one Head of State Fashion Show. The Rise Up’s highlight.) Nearly halfway through the season I haven’t gotten a feel for their character. Even less developed is Ebon, who doesn’t get more than a few minutes of attention until episode 3.
Perhaps it was less difficult for the most accomplished cast members to share their stories. Maybe it’s worth noting that Sophia, Taofeek, and Ebon are Black, while Ben, Fernando, and Claude are not. But what’s certain is that the cast doesn’t really function as a cast. Their apartments in Manhattan are separate and they live apart. Young artists who don’t have day jobs likely can not afford Manhattan rents, which makes them unable to enjoy late-night conversations or serendipitous gossip sessions. The producers don’t even manage to get the whole cast in the same room with the kind of contrived social gatherings that fuel Real Housewives plots.
Claude Shwartz, “The Come Up”
Even so, it is doubtful that the show’s format could be changed. The vulnerability producers would have to elicit from their subjects in order to create an honest account of life “on the come up,” in a gentrification-ravaged downtown where rich kids cosplay Warhol superstars while the world burns, just seems impossible for a generation that grew up savvy about the tropes of reality TV. (Even The Real WorldFor at least two-thirds its entire run, the last season of ‘The Simpsons’ was aired on Facebook Watch. Gen Z was brought up in an environment that focused on 24/7 peer surveillance. Reality TV is just one example. The social-media success that’s now crucial to all kinds of public-facing creative careers demands constant workshopping of the self for maximum engagement and approval.
I’m not talking about so-called cancel culture so much as the fact that everyone in the public eye eventually becomes the subject of social media discourse, which tends to slot them into stock roles like hero and villain, try-hard and troublemaker, that can be tough to shake. That isn’t a problem for the Christine Quinns and Spencer Pratts of the world, who are happy to play the heel in return for money and attention. However, for The Rise Up cast members who hope to use Freeform as a springboard to anything besides more reality TV fame, it’s imperative to make viewers like, or at least not dislike, them. They have something to sell.
It seems they are smart enough to understand that. Asked the open-ended question “What is downtown?,” Claude contextualizes the scene within a history of bohemian cool defined by It girls from Grace Jones to Chloë Sevigny, then backpedals a bit. “I don’t know if we can call it this bohemian paradise when creative endeavors are being funded through venture capitalism,” she points out, with a rueful smirk that suggests she understands that the same critique applies to Disney-backed reality shows. Such flashes of self-awareness doesn’t stop a series premised on authenticity from ending up as a glossy infomercial for the cluster of pandemic-defying, possibly-already-passé downtown scenes currently accruing buzz under the media moniker Dimes Square. They do, however, work wonders for the cast members’ personal brands.
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