Remakes, reboots, sequels, prequels, legacy sequels… it seems nothing is sacred in Hollywood as long as there’s a popular IP lying around. While some TV shows fail at this (numerous sitcoms based on popular movies), others have proven to succeed, if not ratings-wise, at least critically (Battlestar Galactica, The Exorcist). This is why it’s a relief and a joy to shout from the rooftops that Paramount+’s prequel series Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies falls into the latter category.
Simply put, this series does everything right. It’s nostalgic without being pandering; it matches the tone of the original film without being a direct copy; it nods to characters we already adore while at the same time giving us a good handful of new characters that we fall in love with.
The production design is beautiful, and every cast member is a star. The songs are catchy, the choreography is stunning, and the direction is outstanding. This is the work of creators who are firing on all cylinders and clearly have a deep love and respect for the material it came from.
As expected, any extension of a franchise created decades after the original will be updated for modern audiences. What series creators Althea Jones and Annabelle Oakes do, though, is keep the feel of the time the story takes place in (the ’50s) and injects a bit of “what if” into the proceedings. This offers storylines to more diverse characters that weren’t given space at the time but definitely should have their stories told.
This is seen in the show’s opening sequence, which utilizes the iconic theme song of the 1978 film, “Grease is the Word.” With music by Justin Tranter (and Zachary Dawes and Nick Sena), the classic tune is given a bigger beat but allows the audience to meet each of our main characters.
We have our cute and nerdy lead, Jane (Marisa Davila), who spent the summer with handsome jock Buddy (Jason Schmidt). The groups the two lovebirds belong to don’t totally co-exist, so the reveal of her wearing his jacket causes a stir at the drive-in. Meanwhile, we meet head greaser Richie (Johnathan Nieves) and his sister Olivia (Cheyenne Isabel Wells), who has suffered the rumor mill about her alleged affair with a teacher. Then there’s Cynthia (Ari Notartomaso), a tomboy who hangs out with the greasers (aka T-Birds) and desperately wants to be one of them. Lastly, there’s Nancy (Tricia Fukuhara), who is not interested in boys – or girls – she just wants to be a fashion designer.
The main focus of the series is clearly Jane, who is the catalyst for Cynthia, Nancy, and Olivia to form their own girl gang when they are sick of being treated poorly by boys, other girls, and school staff. But each girl has their own story, and they all blend nicely together to form an ensemble cast worth rooting for.
So, let’s break it down:
The Script/Tone: The tone Jones has orchestrated here clearly mimics the original film in the way the characters act, the look of the sets, and the sexual politics, which were pretty much the driving force in both “Grease” films. There is a more grounded quality that allows us to gravitate toward the characters and see them as something other than arch-types or one-note musical-theater characters, but the feel of the Travolta/Newton-John film is still there. In fact, it’s more successful at this than Grease 2 was.
As for the scripts by a number of talented writers, the stories are insightful, relevant, and funny. Each character is engaging and has an interesting story to tell. It’s almost impossible not to become invested in all of them because even when the characters aren’t being their best selves, you still root for them.
The Musical Numbers: With about three to four songs per show, Rise of the Pink Ladies doesn’t overdo it with the music, but when it does gift us with a song, it’s always spectacular. From the inventive choreography by Jamal Sims, to the catchy songs by Tranter et al., every musical number is a treat. Jane’s big ballad in Episode 2 is not only a killer power ballad but Jones (who directs the episode) and Sims’ choreography knock this sequence out of the park. (I rewatched this number about twenty times.) I practically gave Marisa Davila a standing ovation in my living room. (Okay, I might have.)
The Cast: What can I say about this phenomenal cast? I didn’t know what to expect coming into this show, but I got a terrific group of actors that I fell in love with. Sometimes when you watch an ensemble show, there are one or two characters that – when they appear on screen – your energy kind of wanes. Not here. The characters are not only compelling, but the actors who bring them to life are all stars. Davila is a find. She can move between a nerdy, nervous schoolgirl to an assured, sexy young woman with ease. She’s adorable but is also the emotional center of the show.
Similarly, her Pink Ladies are all fantastic. From Wells’ sexy, vulnerable Olivia, to Notartomaso’s confident Cynthia, who is finding herself and her sexuality, to Fukuhara’s confident, and Nancy, who is just trying to find her place among people that she has little in common with. All bring something unique and special to their roles.
Jason Schmidt, as Buddy, could have quickly just played his character as the friend-pleasing self-involved jock who wants the best of both worlds, but instead, he gives Buddy a more complex, sympathetic persona. One that struggles to be a part of a “team” while longing for something outside of it.
Nieves’ Richie feels like the Danny Zuko of this show, but maybe he’s more the Nogerelli from Grease 2. He’s a Greaser at heart but burns for something deeper. And I can’t not mention Jackie Hoffman as the assistant principal, who even has a stand-out number in a later episode.
Best of all? Every single one of these actors has pipes!
Sure, the show’s themes reflect back to some of the themes in the original film. A sweet girl falls comes to town and falls for a guy no one expects her to be with (Danny/Sandy). There’s the girl that wants to do the “beauty” thing (Frenchie) and the misunderstood bad girl (Rizzo). But this is done on purpose, and it’s not done to be a direct copy. These are nods to the original play and film that also still reflect issues that teens dealt with then – and now. Even more fun is that some of those popular characters from the movie are back, but in smaller ways (it is a prequel, after all) and will (I assume) have bigger roles as the series progresses.
And I hope it does. I want Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies to be the next big thing. With all of the talent involved, it should be. I hope that fans of the film will embrace the nostalgia and the changes and that new audiences will discover what could be their new favorite show. I know it’s already mine, and I can’t wait to see more.
Grease is the word, indeed!