When it comes to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, "safe" is worse than "bad."
Airing Thursday night, FOX’s “The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do The Time Warp Again” does a serviceable job of showcasing what “Rocky Horror” fans have spent forty years enjoying.
It does not, however, illustrate why the show has become so iconic. It technically has all of the components – the famous lines, the memorable songs, the recognizable scenes – but it has none of the original film’s unique spirit. Nothing captures the endearingly bizarre tone of the original. Nothing comes across as remotely memorable.
It may technically be a TV movie, but it is no better than a Wikipedia article in terms of illustrating the power of the “Rocky Horror” phenomenon. The flat, uninspired effort does nothing to immerse viewers in the show’s universe.
Much like the “Rocky Horror”-themed edition of “Glee,” it is probably most appropriately positioned as an “introduction” to the music and characters. For those unfamiliar with the show, it represents an easy, scheduled way to become familiar.
That does not mean it is the best way to become familiar.
It would be one thing if “Rocky Horror” were a conventional musical. Indeed, NBC’s and FOX’s live broadcasts of shows like “The Sound Of Music” and “Grease” have been reasonably effective despite not ambitiously or creatively re-interpreting the source material. In those cases, if you have solid actors and solidly executed musical numbers, you probably have a solid show.
“Rocky Horror” is a different animal. The draw is not what happens in the show but the odd, delightfully campy environment in which it is happening and the odd, delightfully campy way the characters behave in that environment. “Rocky Horror” hinges on the immersiveness of the experience, and one cannot properly introduce “Rocky Horror” to a new audience without recreating that vibe.
FOX’s movie makes no effort to recreate that vibe. It instead function as an exercise in seeing rather than understanding. It is more about education than it is alluring entertainment.
Need an example? FOX’s movie actually positions “Rocky Horror” — the story about Brad, Janet and the sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania — as a movie-within-a-movie. This allows the broadcast to occasionally cut to a theater in which audience members are appropriately reacting to the movie (yelling the key callouts, putting on the newspaper hat, throwing toilet paper, etc). The goal is to introduce viewers to the midnight shows, one facet of the “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” phenomenon.
The problem is that it simply shows how audiences have been watching — and reacting — to the movie over the past few decades. It does not make it clear why audiences are so obsessed with the original movie.
The goal should not have been to tell us about the resonance of the original. If viewers want to get acquainted with the concept of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” they can read about it online. Better yet, they can actually watch the original.
The real goal should have been to create a fresh, legitimately engaging “Rocky Horror” experience. The creative team should have put its own, meaningful stamp on the source material. The actors should have tried to make the characters their own.
None of that happens.
On the surface, one can understand why the FOX team shied away from the ambitious approach. The “Rocky Horror” fanbase is incredibly passionate and protective of the movie. It would have no trouble voicing its displeasure in the event that the remake got it wrong.
But I argue that developing a restrained, competent, “diet” rendition is truly getting it wrong. “Rocky Horror” is not about fear of public scrutiny. It is not about the path of least resistance. It is about being bold, daring and different.
In the case of this franchise, “safe” is far worse than “bad.”
FOX’s movie tries so hard not to be offensive — both to censors and fans of the original. The result is something far more offensive: a “Rocky Horror” without any soul or attitude.
Everything about this project feels like a table read; it is a walk-through devoid of the kind of passion and quirky energy required of this kind of show. At best, it is a local theater version of “The Rocky Horror Show.” It is not an unforgettable experience befitting the franchise.
Laverne Cox dresses extravagantly and speaks quirkily as Frank, but there is nothing especially memorable or charismatic about the performance. She is getting the job done; she is not offering a unique, modernized twist on Tim Curry’s iconic character.
Many have criticized the casting decision. It is not that a show like “Rocky Horror” needs to follow any sort of convention when casting, but it is impossible to deny that casting a trans woman (and putting her in cleavage-friendly outfits that emphasize her femininity) markedly changes the dynamic between Frank and the other characters.
The real issue, however, is not who is playing Frank but how that person is playing Frank. There is simply nothing exciting or noteworthy about this performance – it’s simply serviceable. And serviceable should not fly in a primetime rendition of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
She sings decently and looks stunning in Janet’s wardrobe, but Victoria Justice does nothing to capture the character’s sexual awakening. There is nothing sexy about “Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch-a Touch Me” — it’s basically a pillow fight. It neither proves that she has tasted blood nor that she wants more.
In a true testament to the flat, listless nature of the show, even Adam Lambert’s (Eddie) “Hot Patootie” performance feels somewhat light in the energy department. Lambert is usually the epitome of a captivating performer, but there is nothing especially engaging about his number in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” It arguably ranks one of this movie‘s highlights, but it is not a magical moment of entertainment.
Ryan McCartan shows some promise as Brad; his early line-readings and gestures possess an understanding of the show’s campy, exaggerated nature. His performance plateaus too early, however.
Ben Vereen (Dr. Scott) and Annaleigh Ashford (Columbia) are the standouts from a tone perspective. Unfortunately, neither character is central enough to elevate the overall show. Viewers will appreciate the individual performances, but those individual performances will not notably increase appreciation for the overall film.
Tim Curry’s appearance as the Criminologist is noteworthy because it’s Tim Curry in a remake of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Ivy Levan credibly sings “Science Fiction Double Feature” as the Usherette.
The other performers (including Reeve Carney as Riff-Raff, Staz Nair as Rocky, and Christina Milian as Magenta) are all competent, but none does anything about which to write home.
With the unremarkable performances and a line-for-line script that is far too faithful to the original script, FOX’s “Rocky Horror” is itself nothing about which to write home.
It is an inoffensive, competent introduction to the concept of “Rocky Horror.” It does not, in any way, capture the original show’s boldness, weirdness or energy. As a result, it does not cast the same spell over audience members.
Is it the worst thing you can watch Thursday night? Absolutely not.
Is it even close to what it could or should have been? Absolutely not.
FOX’s “The Rocky Hororr Picture Show: Let’s Do The Time Warp Again” airs at 8PM ET/PT on Thursday, October 20.