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Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies Fights the Patriarchy With Pop Songs

The prequel series is a charming revision to the sexism of an earlier Grease era.
  • Tricia Fukuhara, Marisa Davila, Cheyenne Wells, and Ari Notartomaso in Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies (Photo: Eduardo Araquel/Paramount+)
    Tricia Fukuhara, Marisa Davila, Cheyenne Wells, and Ari Notartomaso in Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies (Photo: Eduardo Araquel/Paramount+)

    To put it mildly, certain elements of Grease — both the 1971 stage musical and the 1978 film — have not aged well. The problems are epitomized by a line in the classic number “Summer Nights”: “Did she put up a fight?” In the 1950s America that Grease imagines, sexual politics mainly focus on how “far” the members of the guy gang the T-Birds can go with their dates, while their female counterparts the Pink Ladies mostly exist to accompany them to the drive-in.

    It’s an affront that Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies tries to rectify. Set four years before its source material (1954 versus 1958), the Paramount+ musical prequel series follows the eventual founders of the Pink Ladies, all wrestling with their adolescent hormones and the rigid, unforgiving social structures of high school. Jane (Marisa Davila) is a bespectacled good girl who’s on the outs with her peers because her quarterback boyfriend Buddy (Jason Schmidt) falsely told his “Soc” friends that they went “all the way.” Olivia (Cheyenne Isabel Wells) also carries a figurative Scarlet A, as it’s rumored that she had an affair with Rydell’s handsome young English teacher.

    Cynthia (Ari Nortartomaso) is what used to be called a “tomboy”; she wants to be a T-Bird, even though the gang only accepts guys. And fashion-focused Nancy (Tricia Fukuhara) has been dumped by her other friends, since they’ve all moved on to boys. In the third episode, the series also introduces Hazel (Shanel Bailey), a shy, science-minded student who struggles as the new Black student in school. The girls’ male counterparts take a backseat, although Olivia’s brother Richie (Johnathan Nieves) shows glimpses of that Danny Zuko charm as the head of the T-Birds, and Buddy eventually offers more depth than his initially despicable self would suggest.

    All the female leads have the vocal chops to carry the show’s considerable musical demands. Each episode features numerous plot-pushing tunes from executive music producer Justin Tranter, who has written songs for pop stars like Lady Gaga and contributed to soundtracks like The Lego Batman Movie. His work will inevitably draw comparisons to the original, though it’s worth remembering that most of the songs in Grease had years to be perfected as part of a stage show. And even then, there was only enough material to fill four sides of 1978 vinyl. By contrast, Tranter contributed 30 songs to Rise of the Pink Ladies. Unsurprisingly, the quality varies.

    However, Tranter’s best tunes are incendiary, like a boppy ode to the “new cool,” energetically led by Cynthia, in which shop class becomes as glam as the auto garage in the film’s “Greased Lightning” number. Tranter and series creator Annabel Oakes (Minx, Atypical) also embrace Grease’s tendency to throw dramatic fantasy into musical interludes, like Frankie Avalon singing to Frenchy in “Beauty School Dropout” or Danny and Sandy sailing off into the sky in a flying car at the end of the movie.

    Sometimes the fantasy elements work, like when a horrific spin-the-bottle party is rewound and transformed into a much more fun, all-girl number called “A World Without Boys.” But other moments are odd enough to take you right out of the series, including a scene in which Hazel is raised into the air among the very constellations she holds so dear. Thanks to this extreme whimsy, audiences may relish lower-key moments, like a fierce face-off at the Frosty Palace between Jane and Buddy where their feet stay firmly on the ground, backed by all their enthusiastic supporters.

    Soundtrack quality aside, the show offers plenty of rewards for Grease enthusiasts: peeks at some future Pink Ladies, familiar backgrounds like aforementioned after-school hangout the Frosty Palace, a character that directly references Pamela Adlon’s role in Grease 2, and regular appearances from yet-to-be-promoted vice-principal Mrs. McGee (Jackie Hoffman). There are even nods to pop-culture elements from the decade this brand reveres so strongly, like a Bye Bye Birdie-inspired phone scene.

    But as it honors its source material, the series also identifies its more problematic elements. One song does so in an extremely on-the-nose manner, pointing out how easy it is to get everything handed to you if you’re “rich, white, and straight,” defining 1950s prejudice with 2023 language. Still, this type of thinking is a welcome addition to the Grease universe, as is the incredibly diverse casting. And if it can be difficult to follow the show’s many storylines — all four leads have a complicated arc, complete with romantic interests and social drama — the show is always filled with infectious energy. The bright sets and pastel costumes, as well as spirited group dance numbers from choreographer Jamal Sims, conjure the effervescence that has helped make Grease popular for decades.

    Most importantly, in this series, the Pink Ladies are formed in spite of the boys, not because of them. The original girls were a matched set to the T-Birds, paired up like a Rydell Noah’s Ark. Now, the young women find strength and support in their own numbers. Some of the changes are subtle, but powerful. A girl makes the first move on a boy, instead of the other way around. T-Bird Richie is never ostracized for liking a smart, slightly nerdy girl like Jane, and no one would dare suggest she take off her glasses. And no matter what, the girls tell each other that they’re enough, just as they are. That kind of girl power may not have been widely available to actual teens of the ‘50s, but Rise of the Pink Ladies harnesses the energy of pop culture’s past to deliver that message today.

    Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies premieres April 6 on Paramout+. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Gwen Ihnat is a culture writer based in Chicago. An alum of The A.V. Club and The Takeout, she's currently living Newsradio in real life, plus freelancing for Entertainment Weekly and The Wrap, among others.

    TOPICS: Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies, Paramount+, Ari Notartomaso, Cheyenne Isabel Wells, Marisa Davila, Shanel Bailey, Tricia Fukuhara