TV Review: Fox’s ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again’

Sonia Saraiya

It’s not fair, of course, to hope that “The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again” would be like the original film. The 1975 classic that inspired Fox’s TV musical re-imagining is not just a cult favorite but a phenomenon, a hypnotically entertaining artifact of camp that just happens to be the longest-running theatrical release in film history. The midnight-movie staple provided a frisson of poorly produced forbidden fruit through low-budget smuttiness and campy rock ‘n’ roll musical numbers. Fox’s re-imagining is a wholesome broadcast television movie musical, premiering at the kid-friendly hour of 8 p.m., and courts mainstream, millennial viewers through casting former Nickelodeon star Victoria Justice and “American Idol” star Adam Lambert.

But it is fair to hope that the pre-taped revival would have some verve to it, some eroticism, some freak-flag-waving joy. Unfortunately, Fox’s production of “Rocky Horror,” despite a few solid performances, appears to entirely misapprehend the appeal of the original film. Where the original is smutty, the re-imagining is slick; where the community around the original had created snappy, smart commentary to get through the story’s slow scenes, the community in the Fox production is piped-in, packaged, and penned into a corner of the viewing experience. The 1975 film is not a great movie, but it is a film — with camerawork, lived-in sets, and a vision of awakening eroticism (tinged as it is by a plot that makes absolutely no sense). Fox’s production is a collection of stage numbers in a very unspooky soundstage, where the campy grit of the original is replaced with shiny costumes, and in the final scene, even CGI. 

But this new production is part of that pernicious impulse in Hollywood to commodify that which was once considered fringe. “Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again” is showcasing a commercialized and easily consumed “queerness” — dyed hair! mohawks! fishnets! as if all of those things have not walked down the runways of Paris fashion week, a hundred times over — while sanitizing and sanding down the parts of the original it can’t make safe. This was Fox’s strategy with “Grease: Live,” too. But while “Grease!,” the popular movie version, could lean on high school drama, “Rocky Horror” is a horror-comedy where a transgender and/or crossdressing villain is not just a lust-crazed mad scientist, but also literally an alien. How do you update that for a mainstream audience?

The answer, as it happens, is not well. “Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again” demonstrates an astonishing lack of vision. The camerawork is lax; the choreography is clunky. It’s not freaky, or scary, or erotic, or even particularly weird. It’s just a kind of boring musical with a particularly nonsensical plot.

The highlight is Laverne Cox, who plays Frank-N-Furter, the role made deliciously creepy by Tim Curry. Cox is the strongest performer in the production, and she has much of the necessary screen presence and vocal timbre to stand out in the middle of the mediocre spectacle — the primary requirement of any Frank-N-Furter.

Yet there are practical and symbolic concerns at play. Cox is a trans woman, not a bass-voiced “transvestite.” Despite some range, her voice cannot attain the gravelly drawl that Curry deployed. And while Curry got the chance to switch between the flounces of an aggrieved diva and the deadly intent of an unstable madman — such as, for example, in the delightfully bonkers dinner scene — Cox’s Frank-N-Furter has to be necessarily more restrained, in order to protect the actress’ dignity. She looks and sounds great, but the implications the musical is making about trans identities are more than a little awkward.

Still, Cox is the only performer that seems comfortable in her role; as a result she feels slightly disengaged from the rest of the characters occupying the mansion, most of whom resemble carefully made up extras from Halloween Horror Nights. Annaleigh Ashford and Christina Milian can be excellent additions to a cast, but Milian in particular is swallowed up by the production’s disinterest in her role. (Laudably, the re-imagining cast for racial diversity — notably going where the original film did not. That seems to be as far as the vision extended.)

Justice is carefully just erotic enough as Janet Weiss; “Touch Me” has her in the identical bra and slip that Susan Sarandon wore in the original film, but the number is devoid of the sexual awakening that Janet is said to be feeling. Justice can sing “I wanna be dirty,” but when she embraces Rocky (Staz Nair) on the bed, her legs are demurely clamped together, in full view of the audience. Nothing to see here, kids. (Later in the number, Janet and Rocky hold hands and jump on the bed in G-rated ecstasy.)

Of course, quality is not all that matters to an audience. The 1975 “Rocky Horror,” after all, was not well-received when it first debuted. But it was the fan community that nurtured it; the audiences of like-minded misfits that built the participation and culture around it.

Which is why the most perplexing choice in this start-to-finish baffling production is that the audience participation is performed by a set of punkily dressed actors who are depicted as watching “Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again” in an old-timey theater. Instead of the probably too-hot-for-broadcast red lips, “Science Fiction Double Feature” is sung by an usherette (Ivy Levan) as the audience takes their seats. The “viewers” take part in some of the more well-known traditional props and callbacks — toilet paper at the screen, “say it! say it!” — but abandon most of the rest of the participation.

This version of “Rocky Horror” is flat and Disney-fied. Perhaps this is just another stop on the lifecycle of alternative culture, as it makes its way to the mainstream, commodified and cut to pieces along the way. This film feels deracinated, transplanted from the community that cultivated it out of a sense of shared understanding and survival into a sterile, empty soundstage. Without those roots, this new “Rocky Horror” is like every other 8 p.m. film — just another movie to wait out before the midnight show can start.

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