Last night, something hideously unnatural and eminently appropriate for the Halloween season took place on Fox: Executives exhumed a 40-year-old cult classic and reanimated it with Frankensteinian mad-scientist abandon. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, still a regular seat-filler at raucous and generously sexual late-night screenings nationwide, got a primetime slot and a new audience, thanks to Fox’s latest attempt to capitalize on the recent televised-musical trend. This time, they’ve ditched the live-performance aspect and pre-taped the special, casting Disney alumni Victoria Justice and Ryan McCartan as imperiled lovers Brad and Janet, and giving Orange Is the New Black‘s Laverne Cox a chance to take the mantle of “sweet transvestite”/insane surgeon Dr. Frank N. Furter from Tim Curry. (Who himself appears as the Narrator, still in fighting shape after his stroke in 2013.)
Put plainly: It was a mess, but at least it was a hot mess, which is the optimal temperature for a mess to be. And now that the smoke has cleared, we can all take a step back and highlight five things we learned about the strangely chipper – and just plain strange – salute to the original midnight movie.
1. Spectatorship and community are key
From the jump, this production had a large hurdle to overcome: The appeal of RHPS stems directly from the rowdy, communal dimension of the theatrical experience – and Twitter be damned, TV tends to happen in the solitary confines of living rooms. Director Kenny Ortega attempts to compensate for this by framing the broadcast as a show-within-a-show, staging the main story of Brad and Janet but periodically cutting back to see a punky crowd in a theater jeering at the screen or hollering out the network-appropriate callback lines. (Of which there are few.)
It doesn’t always work, though Ortega gets points for creativity. Rocky Horror makes little to no sense without the hubbub surrounding it, so the creators took a shot, and as any high-school drama teacher will tell you, “Acting’s all about making big choices! Now stop looking at your feet!”
2. You can take the director out of High School Musical, but …
A graduate of the High School Musical school of filmmaking (literally), Ortega is also the person responsible for many of the glaring problems here. The original Rocky Horror Picture Show derives its charm from the campy comic sensibility, the grubby low-budget production values, the pansexual brio that has made it a sacred text in the queer community. Ortega turns this totem of horny teenage rebellion into a chaste white-bread school play. A seasoned Ortega-head might notice, halfway through “Eddie’s Teddy,” that the number has become practically indistinguishable from High School Musical‘s “Stick to the Status Quo.” The source material was a scuzzy midnight peep show with a boner for the B-movies of yore; this primary-colored sock hop feels more like an afterschool special hours ahead of schedule.
3. Stunt casting cannot possibly be worth the pain
The cast can be broken into two categories: those who get it, and those who do not. Ryan MacCartan, the hunkiest dweeb in show business, gets it. Broadway veteran Annaleigh Ashford, playing deranged maid Columbia, really gets it. (It’s a good rule of thumb that in these stage-comes-to-screen projects, the Broadway-bred performers are always worth their weight in gold.) As the supremely creepy housekeeper Riff Raff, Reeve Carney also really, really gets it.
The throughline connecting the key players who most decidedly do not get it – Christina Milian as Magenta, Adam Lambert as a bafflingly miscast Eddie, and even, at times, Laverne Cox – is their name-brand recognition. They’re hired to bring some bumps in attention to the program, and while they can all get through a tune without collapsing, they move through the scenes as if looking for a lifeline or a way out. The three of them feel out of place, especially when getting out-sung and out-danced at every turn by their co-stars.
4. Take heed of the format
Fox had a real quandary on their hands after they finished the presumable all-night bender that led to greenlighting this project. For one, it feels wrong to see Rocky Horror at 8 p.m. on a Thursday night, like going to a porno theater in the daylight hours. It should only be shown at midnight, to be honest, but that would slash the prospective viewership to a fraction of the size. This speaks to a wider issue: Fox wanted to run a cult object, but could not afford to settle for cult numbers. The core concept of bringing Rocky Horror to television may have had calamity baked into it.
But even beyond that, pettier issues made the broadcast into a less-than-smooth ride. Commercial breaks were placed at seemingly random intervals, breaking up the rhythm. The glossy sheen of the TV cameras works against the overall RHPS vibe, too; perhaps something could have been done to dirty up the look of the photography in some way. TV throws up obstructions that the free-for-all of a midnight-movie experience doesn’t include, and the failure to anticipate them made a big difference in the finished product.
5. There’s a difference between bad and bad
So what if this new reboot has problems, it’s not as if the 1975 original is some masterpiece, right? Being bad is the whole point!
Well, yes and no. The badness of Richard O’Brien and Jim Sharman’s original is a defiant sort of kitsch, one that alienated audiences with its freak-flag-waving and over-the-top theatrics. It scared off plenty of square viewers, but sounded a dogwhistle for fishnet-clad weirdos in search of somewhere to get their jollies on a Saturday night. Conversely, this Fox production has a bloodless quality to it; it’s orderly and calculated to fault. The vast gulf in tone between these two Rocky Horrors underscores the most important lesson of all: Distinctions of “good” and “bad” become meaningless when the only metric worth measuring is fun. Everyone’s working too hard to enjoy themselves, and if we could time warp back to this production’s conception, we’d tell the entire production to loosen up. Also: remember what made the original such a subversive, sexually deviant delight. If you want turn a new generation on to sweet transvestites and science-fiction double features, don’t try to dilute things. Really, it’s easy. Just take a jump to the left, a step to the right – and dammit, Janet, stay out of the middle of the road.