First Impressions: Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies doesn’t quite ascend in the manner akin to the original musical

There’s something kind of ironic in Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies aiming to ramp up the female empowerment.  As seems to be the norm now for familiar property, the creators of this prequel series have essentially refashioned it for modern audiences and, in the process, made it feel like a separate entity entirely to its original influence.

1978’s Grease would like you to believe it bathes itself in feminist power, and in some ways it does with the character of Rizzo (Stockard Channing), with her signature “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” serving as a type of reclaiming of her free spirited sexual energy.  The idea that Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) was a strong character is a little more muddied when you break it down, as she essentially rehauled her image to suit Danny’s aesthetic; and, of course, let’s not forget that so many of the Pink Ladies of the original film obsessed over boys too.

1982’s Grease 2 – less well received in its heyday, but now more appreciated upon retrospect (and rightfully so) – still leans into the boy-crazy mentality of its predecessor, but actually presents a far stronger collective of the Pink Ladies.  For starters, its leader, Stephanie Zinone (Michelle Pfeiffer), was more rebellious and didn’t need the approval of those around her.  Yes, she ultimately succumbed to her desire of Maxwell Caulfield’s Michael Carrington – and his secretive motorcyclist alter-ego – but she merely knew what she wanted in a partner worthy of her gumption; there was even a whole song about it (“Cool Rider”), one so catchy and informative it changed the way Michael presented himself.  Talk about female power!

In many ways Rise of the Pink Ladies feels closer in spirit to that of Grease 2, but with its 1954 setting, it’s playing out 5 years prior to the original film, laying groundwork that feels disconnected from Grease, with a musicality and characterisations that feel far too modern; the overt auto-tune present on many of the songs a far cry from the more raw, pure vocals we had the pleasure of hearing throughout the original films.

Whilst the Pink Ladies of the films are all established friends, this 10-part series sets up the eventual group as a quartet of misfits who are all struggling in their own way through their new high-school year.  Jane (Marisa Davilla), having survived her first year as “the new girl”, has seemingly found her niche in planning pep rallies and necking with quarterback Buddy (Jason Schmidt); him embodying the nice-guy temperament that seeks to offset his jock inclinations.  Of course, being a nice guy doesn’t mean he’s above macho-infused locker room talk, so when he exaggerates the bases of which he and Jane have gone to, she’s cast aside and finds herself in similar kinship with Olivia (Cheyenne Isabel Wells, a standout), a Mexican student on the outs having been caught out for an affair with a teacher the year prior (undoubtedly the show’s most interesting storyline, given she’s branded a slut and he gets to keep his job), Nancy (Tricia Fukuhara), an aspiring fashion designer who has no time for boys, and Cynthia (Ari Notartomaso), a more androgynous-looking student who looks to break the stereotype of the male-dominated T-Birds, but “being too girl to be a boy and too boy to be a girl” sees them in a lane undefined.

Realising that school isn’t as swell as it should be for anyone else that isn’t deemed “popular” enough to earn common respect, the foursome unite for their own brand of belonging; The Pink Ladies are born.  Given its connection to its musical origins, Rise of the Pink Ladies understandably moves its narrative forward with a series of numbers throughout each episode, and though they are all competently choreographed and enthusiastically performed, there’s very little about them that remains memorable (even the opening revamp of the classic “Grease” by Frankie Valli is too interrupted and “pop radio” to earn any prominence).

The show does improve on the film in its commentary on race and sexism of the time period, and even though after the five episodes previewed there’s still more to be desired in terms of the show’s movement, it is suggesting interesting arcs for several of its characters, with Buddy surprisingly earning an endearing arc surrounding his eyes being opened further to his own privilege against his peers who practically feel designed to uplift him further.  But ultimately you have to ask why it was Grease that was deemed the necessary inspiration for the show.  Rizzo (Emma Shannon), here referred to as Betty, is briefly included in a manner that leans into her “bad girl” persona; she pierces the ears of young Fran (Madison Elizabeth Lagares), Jane’s little sister – a call-back to Sandy’s incident in Grease – whilst also dubbing her Frenchy, setting the chatty character up in the process; and the overall aesthetic of the show is colourful and vibrant enough to sit aside both films (even if this, at times, looks as if it’s more a stage show than an organic setting), but with a clear emphasis on characters of different races (important but, let’s be honest, the films weren’t known for their diverse casts) and modern language terms used throughout, it never feels like it belongs in the same universe as Sandy and Danny.

As someone who grew up watching both films, I can’t help but feel disconnected to Rise of the Pink Ladies, as much as I wish I wasn’t.  It’s so wonderfully performed and clearly made with heart, but this feels far too designed for the streaming generation, those who don’t know the joy of VHS rentals and television rewatches.  The sense of ownership that some adaptations have is crucial to their success, but Rise of the Pink Ladies originated in a different time, and lacing such a property with a High School Musical sheen doesn’t justify its being.  Grease is still the word for many of us, but Rise of the Pink Ladies fails to entirely measure up on the spelling bee, despite its best efforts.


Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies is now streaming on Paramount+.  The first two episodes airing from April 6th, 2023 in the United States and April 7th, 2023 in Australia.  It will continue to release each subsequent episode weekly.

Peter Gray

Seasoned film critic. Gives a great interview. Penchant for horror. Unashamed fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jason Momoa.