At the end of April, Paramount+ launched their much-anticipated musical prequel series Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies. The ten-episode first season revolves around a group of gals at Rydell High (pre-Danny and Sandy) who band together and form the school’s first all-girl gang: The Pink Ladies.
While there will always be the fanbase of the original film that cries foul that any sort of prequel/sequel will diminish the sparkle of the Olivia Newton-John/John Travolta classic, not only does Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies add to the joy of the original, but it readily surpasses the misbegotten (but weirdly loved) sequel.
Now that all episodes are available, it’s the perfect time to binge. I, myself, received the first five episodes prior to its premiere and spent an entire Friday night watching one after the other, completely entranced by what the cast and crew had created. There was even one song I replayed at least fifteen times in a row.
So why watch this prequel series? What does it add to the legacy of Grease, and why should you give it your time?
Whelp, like a “ramalamadingdong,” here are the Top Eight Reasons why you should binge this fantastic new series.
1. THE CONCEPT
I wasn’t sure how series creator Annabel Oaks would handle this show and where it would be in the timeline of Danny and Sandy, but what she cooked up is handled beautifully. Set four years before those events, we meet a cast of characters who feel like they’d fit right into the 1978 movie musical. We can see this in small details like some of the “big” acting by background performers and the even bigger emotions the story deals with. But the show knows when to tone it down so that we can really get to know our characters and begin our journey with them.
That said, she skillfully mixes characters and places into the concept to feed our nostalgia.
2. THE NOSTALGIA
From Frosty’s Palace, where Frenchy famously worked with her mom, to the Winter Carnival, complete with Shake Shack, the creative team doesn’t rewrite history here. It adds to what we know and love, and gives us a ton of Easter Eggs to look out for. From lines of dialogue to a few scenes that have similar framing to the original film, this series was created by people who love the source material and are here to honor it.
Not to mention, middle-school-age versions of Frenchy (Madison Lagares) and Rizzo (Emma Shannon) show up here and there for fun. There are even nods to musical numbers like a gender-switched update of “Greased Lightning” sung by a T-Bird wannabe name Cynthia (Ari Notartomaso) called “New Cool.”
Even more fun? Each of the episode titles are quotes from the original film. “Too Pure To Be Pink” and “You Can’t Just Walk Out of a Drive-In!” to name a few.
3. THE WRITING
With any TV series based on a film, the writing is going to go a bit deeper than the movie did, and that’s the series’ strength. Not only can characters be fleshed out and explored in all of their complexities, but situations and issues that were often not explored when the original film was made, can now be focal points. The writers brilliantly explore topics that parallel issues our society still struggles with today.
But the stories aren’t all heavy. This is a musical dramedy, after all, and there’s a ton of humor, clever nods to the original film and the 50s itself. A class assembly about the nuclear bomb strikes fear in the hearts of our leads. But the bomb becomes about something else – all hell breaking loose among the school’s cliques, friend groups, couples, and social groups. A driver’s ed lesson becomes a humorous battle between two rival classmates (complete with song and production number), and when the girls get fed up with the boys of the school at a slumber party, they imagine what it would be like without them at all.
While high school struggles are nothing new, and the basic dramas of teenagers are still the same, the writers give us characters that aren’t one-note. They aren’t just arch cliches, and their problems don’t resolve easily. They are rich, reflective, and resilient. And that’s really cool.
4. THE CAST
What can I say about this cast, except that everyone in this series is phenomenal? And I don’t say that lightly. Each actor is working at the top of their game: committed, passionate, and all of them triple-threats. There hasn’t been this much talent on TV screens since Glee, and I have to say I think this crew tops them in spades.
Marisa Davila as Jane is the show’s lead protagonist, a nerdy new kid in school who spent the summer getting to know the hot jock in school, Buddy (Jason Schmidt). Because of a rumor that starts the series off, Jane is made to feel like an outcast even more. Through a series of events, she falls in with three other outcasts who eventually form “The Pink Ladies.”
Davila not only quickly gets the audience to root for her, but she also sings her face off week after week. And if you need any proof of her talent, wait for Episode 2 when her hallway ballad “I Want More” will literally blow you away. (Link below.)
Similarly, Ari Notartomaso as Cynthia not only has a pitch-perfect voice, but they dive into their character in a way that immediately draws empathy from the audience. They struggle with wanting to be comfortable in their skin. And their journey, while it might seem modern, is something that absolutely happened in the 50s. We just never got to see it play out on screen. And that’s a gift.
Cheyenne Isabel Wells as perceived bad-girl Olivia, is the sexy siren of the group, and boy can that girl sing! But like the others, she allows us into her character’s struggles in a way that makes us fall in love with and root for her. Even when she makes some questionable choices.
Tricia Fukuhara as fashionista Nancy might seem like the quartet’s comic relief, but as the series progresses, we see there is a lot more to her than we thought – and a lot more for her character to learn.
Jason Schmidt’s Buddy is a true revelation. While we could easily write his character off as the superficial jock, he gradually becomes a deeper and more complex version of the stereotype. By Schmidt’s big number in Episode 7, his character has transformed, and Schmidt’s undeniable talent is revealed. He’s the three-dimensional hunk girls (and guys) are looking for, and it was nice to see him evolve. And that voice!
Shanel Bailey is also a wonderful surprise as the shy, introverted, nerdy Hazel, one of the few black girls at school. The racism of the time is weaved compassionately yet pointedly throughout her character’s journey, and she quickly became one of my favorite characters.
Johnathan Nieves as head bad boy T-Bird Richie seems like he will be a Danny Zuko rip-off, but he earns his place in the Grease lexicon by also defying expectations. Sure, he’s a bad boy, and he certainly shows his true colors. But when he vies for Jane, his softer side comes out, as does his struggle to be something better than he’s been.
I could go on and on about the rest of the cast, from Lagares, who does a spot-on Frenchy impersonation, to all of the T-Birds and to Josette Halpert as perky Dot. And we can’t forget Jackie Hoffman as the Assistant Principal, who is a total delight!
5. THE MUSIC
There are 30 original songs in the series, with about three per episode. All are written/co-written by queer pop star/songwriter Justin Tranter who has written for icons like Britney Spears, Justin Bieber, and Selena Gomez. Their songs for Rise of the Pink Ladies sound like they could have come from the 50s but with a modern sensibility. (Their team also includes Zachary Dawes and Nick Sena.)
If I had to prod you to look out for a few songs that will get stuck in your head, it would definitely be the aforementioned “I Want More,” Hazel’s ballad “Same Sky,” Buddy’s lament “Pulling Strings,” “The Boom” (one of my personal obsessions from Episode 5), Cynthia’s duet with a love interest “Merely Players,” and a rocking group number called “Pointing Fingers” that takes place during a pep rally.
And while the songs are terrific on their own, they are only made even better by the….
6. THE CHOREOGRAPHY
… choreography by Jamal Sims. Sims has worked with superstars like Madonna, Jennifer Lopez, and the Spice Girls. He has choreographed a handful of the Step-Up films, the live-action Aladdin, and even Encanto. Clearly, his talent is unmatched, and it shows in every episode of ROTPL. This is one of those projects where every time a dance sequence starts, you get giddy inside and want to get up and join the cast in whatever routine they are giving their all to. (Sims also directed Episode 6 of this season.) His team includes Jeffrey Mortensen and Louise Hradsky, who do a stand-out number for the character of Buddy that is jaw-droppingly stunning.
7. THE DIRECTION
I’ve often said that this show’s creative team is firing on all cylinders, and this is no less evident than in the direction of the show. The creativity the directors give this show is a joy to watch. From the backward dancing number in Episode 2 to how they give sequences the feel of an old-fashioned 50’s movie musical, right down to the sentimental scenes between the characters we’ve grown to love, there isn’t a false note here. You can feel the care, love, and respect they all take to craft each episode. It’s truly one of the best-directed series on television.
8. THE DIVERSITY
I’m not going to lie; I’ve seen the conservative crowd make their “delightful” comments about how “woke” this prequel series is. From the interracial love story to a girl who falls in love with another girl, to feminist takes on, well, everything, extreme conservatives weren’t having it. But I always confront them by making them look at the storylines from a different perspective. Interracial love stories existed. Racism existed. Gay people existed. Feminists existed (just maybe not defined as “feminist.”) But in the 50s? These topics weren’t explored on screen. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies isn’t trying to be (as defined by those that don’t really understand the word) “woke” or unabashedly liberal. They are just telling the stories that couldn’t be told then. And in the process, sadly showing how not much has changed.
For those of us who love to see diversity, I’m digging Cynthia’s discovery of who she wants to love, and, I assume, her gender identity. There’s even a T-Bird who seems to be showing signs of coming out.
It’s great to see women sticking up for themselves and for each other, and it’s also cool to see the “tough guy” T-Birds have a softer side. I love the casting of POC in lead roles and for it not to always be a plot point. I even love that the show ridicules a private social club with a song about how they admittedly weren’t going to let in gays, the middle class, or people of color. It’s true. It happened. They’re just pointing it out. (And it’s directed and choreographed brilliantly!)
But for all its subtle politics, Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies is quite simply just a blast. It’s colorful, tuneful, and full of characters to fall in love with. It was clearly created by people that love and respect the original. This is a show not only for the younger generation to enjoy, but for those of us that grew up with the original musical to fondly remember how much we loved it and to revel in the nostalgia it engenders.
Do yourself a big favor and binge this show today. Then head on over to your favorite music streaming service and download the soundtrack. You’ll be bopping around in your car and belting out the songs all summer! I know I have. My apologies to anyone within earshot.