In the era of live-TV spectaculars from Grease to The Wiz, the phenomenon of networks searching for available intellectual property to turn into a ratings-boosting smash has become old-hat. But The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again, a remake of the 1975 cult classic film airing on Fox Thursday night, is different. For one thing, it’s pre-taped. While live musical broadcasts rely on the frisson of (if you’re nice) someone potentially blowing the roof off with a soaring song or (if you’re one of us) someone potentially falling down, the Rocky Horror broadcast instead is hoping fans will glom onto the familiar beats where audience participation comes in.
Indeed, the broadcast has been jerry-rigged to ensure that fans of the original movie feel as though they’re a part of one of the movie’s long legacy of midnight screenings, even if they’re watching alone at home. Several times throughout the broadcast, the camera switches out to an audience “watching” this Rocky Horror in a theater, shouting or throwing things in exactly the manner they would were they not on a soundstage.
But what’s all the shouting for? For this viewer, who’s never seen the original movie, there seemed little worth celebrating. As far as I can tell, people who respond to Rocky Horror appreciate its Ed Wood-ish badness, the way that it pushes past not just norms of propriety but norms of moviemaking. The problem is that Fox’s Rocky Horror looks great—it was directed by consummate pro Kenny Ortega, of the High School Musical franchise and Michael Jackson’s This Is It—and is acted beautifully, with Laverne Cox selling every one of her songs as Dr. Frank N. Furter. (The character was originally played by Tim Curry, who makes a cameo here as the “criminologist” narrator.)
Nothing about Rocky Horror has aged terribly well, but if Cox, a transgender woman taking over a role from a cisgender man, is comfortable singing a song in which she identifies herself as a “sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania,” far be it from me to say no. What’s more jarring is the sheer lack of plotting from moment to moment, the way things just seem to… happen, with little in the way of motivation or sense. A sci-fi-inflected romp is one thing, but my attention flagged from scene to utterly disconnected scene—and that’s what fans love. For my part, though, never, not even watching Olympics dressage coverage, have I felt quite so strongly that I didn’t know the rules of a TV broadcast.
I can only speak for the non-Rocky Horror fans, but I imagine that my perspective is one shared by much of the audience Fox hopes to reach: Nostalgic subtitle aside, the network wouldn’t be giving over a full night of their prime-time schedule hoping just to attract die-hards. Dueling impulses—wanting this to be as bad as the script, but also wanting everyone to do a good job—make for a bifurcated experience. The spirit is there among performers, but they’re almost too good, calling attention to the fact that the fun of Rocky Horror seems to be the camaraderie among fellow fans, not the doggerel that’s up on the screen.
There’s nothing less charming than that which sets out to be campy. Camp, a certain aesthetic prized by many Rocky Horror fans and defined by John Waters in a Simpsons guest role is “the tragically ludicrous, the ludicrously tragic,” should be accidental. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the movie that’s set to be the basis for the next Ryan Murphy miniseries, was a major Oscar player in the 1960s—and that’s camp. The people who put Bette Davis in baby-doll makeup wanted their movie to be good. The makers of the new Rocky Horror invested untold energy into production, costumes, and casting (with theater luminaries from Ben Vereen to Annaleigh Ashford filling out the cast), in order to make something they knew so strongly would be bad that they include audience members mocking it as part of the story. It seems they knew the script was crummy but loved it for its flaws—but asking new initiates to love it too, after they’ve stripped away skuzzy atmosphere in favor of professionalism, feels like a big request.
If I were giving Fox advice, I’d have told them that they might have guaranteed they’d land at the camp value they so badly wanted if they’d actually done it live. Make Frank N. Furter’s mansion on a rotating stage, and if the rotation stutters, so much the better; make us wait for Cox’s high note with the knowledge she won’t get another take. If the urgency people have long felt towards Rocky Horror is the collective experience of watching it, give us the real thing—rather than a perfectly functioning theme-park ride that borrows the name.