Television Review: “Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies” — Flaunting Their Own Jackets and Attitudes
By Sarah Osman
It’s refreshing to watch a teen series where the characters are not trying to solve a murder, venture into a parallel universe, or become possessed by an evil force.
There’s something inherently funny about the time-scrambling genre. Take The Brady Bunch Movie. The film transposes the ’70s characters of the original sitcom into ’90s Los Angeles. The original comedy is invigorated by a new level of meta, a clash of eras. 1970s characters with ’70s sitcom values have to deal with ’90s grunge-era characters and values. The result can be a hilarious time warp.
The original film adaptation of Grease, which takes place in a high school in the late ’50s, was released in the late ’70s. Thus Grease was the ’50s as interpreted by ’70s-era filmmakers. Hence the disco-esque songs and inexplicable ending, which, like many movies from the time, feels like the wind-up of a drug trip. So now we have another spin on the material: the series Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies (Paramount+) is Grease for Gen Z, complete with Billy Ellish-inspired music videos and Olivia Rodrigo attitude.
Set in 1954, four years before Danny and Sandy sang about their “Summer Nights,” Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies charts the rise of the eponymous girl gang. The series begins at the end of summer vacation: brainy good girl Jane Facciano is head over heels for her All-American beau, Buddy (Jason Schmidt). They have plans to rule the school — that is, run for student council. As Jane belts “Grease Is the Word” at the drive-thru, Olivia Valdovina (Cheyenne Isabel Wells) sits by her brother and the leader of the T-Birds, Richie (Johnathan Nieves). Poor Olivia’s been labeled a slut by the student body after a supposed affair with her English teacher. At this point she is just trying to survive high school. Cynthia Zdunowski (Ari Notartomaso) is also on hand; she wants nothing more than to fit in, specifically with the T-Birds. We’re also introduced to Nancy Nakagawa (Tricia Fukuhara), who fantasizes about going to fashion school in New York while her friends make out with their boyfriends.
Jane’s dreamworld quickly turns into a nightmare when she’s spotted necking with Buddy in the backseat of his car. That turns Buddy into “man” and makes Jane a “hoochi.” (The double standard has yet to show signs of wearing out its welcome.) Jane is not going to take this lying down. She delivers a passionate speech to other misfits and outcasts at Rydell High and still runs for student council president, in the process forming a deep bond with Cynthia, Nancy, and Olivia, who become — you guessed it — The Pink Ladies.
This version of Rydell High is far more diverse than its predecessor, which makes perfect sense for a high school in ’50s Los Angeles (L.A. was diverse then, too). The racial tensions of the time period are addressed, sort of, but not as strongly as they should be. The series is far more successful when it delves into the yawning gender divides of the period. There is a lot of boys-versus-girls talk (the girls even sing a song imagining how nice it would be to live in a world without boys). The film version of Grease attempted this kind of critique too, albeit on a more problematic level. Rise of the Pink Ladies tries to correct this wrong, driving the point home about homegrown misogyny.
As a fun young adult comedy, Rise of the Pink Ladies works well enough. Each of the performers — mostly newcomers — is game, and the gang members have developed natural chemistry with one another. It’s refreshing to watch a teen series where the kids are not trying to solve a murder, venture into a parallel universe, or become possessed by an evil force (all of which — and more — has happened on Riverdale). Unfortunately, the show falls flat as a musical. Episodes clock in at nearly an hour apiece, with much too much time spent on long musical numbers, none of which are particularly memorable or entertaining. Weirdly, none of the songs parody — or even pay homage — to the numbers in Grease. They don’t even play with ’50s doo-wop. This is where creator Annabel Oakes (Minx, Awkward) should have taken serious note of a more successful tune-filled romp: Schmigadoon (Arts Fuse review), which gleefully acknowledges its original inspiration, Broadway musicals. In addition, the numbers in Rise of the Pink Ladies are heavily autotuned to the point of distraction. And none of these actors could win a lip sync battle if their life depended on it.
Of course, that means the series doesn’t try to reel in viewers via nostalgia or lazily relies on “big” musical numbers. Grease is referenced, but these Pink Ladies have their own jackets and attitudes to flaunt. Seeing the ’50s from a 2023 perspective is oddly fascinating. (Though how well will the series hold up over time?) Still, younger viewers are being introduced to the halls of Rydell High in an amusingly responsible way: through voices that may have not attended — or were pushed aside at — the school’s pep rallies.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer residing in Wilmington, NC. In addition to writing for the Arts Fuse, she has written for Watercooler HQ, Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, Young Hollywood, and Matador Network, among other sites. Her work was included in the anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences in the Trump Era. She is currently a first year fiction MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. When she’s not writing, she’s dancing, watching movies, traveling, or eating. She has a deep appreciation for sloths and tacos. You can keep up with her on Twitter and Instagram: @SarahMinaOsman