'The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let's Do the Time Warp Again': TV Review

Steve Wilkie/FOX

Laverne Cox makes an acceptable Frank-n-Furter, but Kenny Ortega's new 'Rocky Horror Picture Show' for Fox lacks any cult appeal.

When Fox's Grease Live! premiered back in January, appreciative critics, myself included, weren't so much impressed with the originality of the production — many or most of its best moments were straight out of the beloved movie — as they were with how much inspiration director Thomas Kail and his creative team were able to wring within the restrictions of a live TV broadcast.

That's a grading curve that benefited Grease Live! and one that's slightly unfair to Fox's The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let's Do the Time Warp Again. But it's hard not to be struck by how comparatively little inspiration helmer Kenny Ortega was able to get from this canned and slightly mummified remake of the cult musical and film. Not airing live and never intended to air live, Let's Do the Time Warp Again suffers from suffocating staging and an utter lack of reflection on the source material — but also from the source material itself, as what little energy it possesses is gone by a second half that turns into a real slog.

Working off the original script by Richard O'Brien and Jim Sharman, Fox's Rocky Horror take begins with an usherette (Ivy Levan) singing "Science Fiction Double Feature" and introducing a framing device in which an audience is watching and very rarely reacting to the movie we're seeing. It's a conceit that adds nothing, but at least acknowledges the importance of audience participation to the Rocky Horror phenomenon. (More on this later.)

I must have seen Rocky Horror Picture Show at least five times with crowds before I even began to understand or care about the plot, and that narrative superfluousness is only reinforced in this context. Newly engaged squares Brad (Ryan McCartan) and Janet (Victoria Justice) are seeking refuge from a storm when they duck into a castle to use the phone. Brad and Janet are lucky enough to show up for the Annual Transylvanian Convention, a gathering either attended or serviced by an assortment of outlandish personalities including Igor-esque Riff Raff (Reeve Carney), shrieky Magenta (Christina Milian) and lollipop-loving Columbia (Annaleigh Ashford) and briefly crashed by motorcycle-riding Eddie (Adam Lambert). The true belle of the ball, though, is Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Laverne Cox), who has successfully made an idealized man, Rocky (Staz Nair). Murder, deflowering scientific investigation and gender and sexual fluidity ensue.

An opinion on Rocky Horror (the show, regardless of its specific adaptation) that should let you know if you want to believe anything I say anyway: The musical is front-loaded to an untenable degree. The first half of the show has "Science Fiction Double Feature," "Dammit Janet," "The Time Warp," "Sweet Transvestite," "I Can Make You a Man" and "Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch Me." The second half of the musical contains a lot of expositional songs that I'm always convinced I'm hearing for the first time. What that means is that either a production establishes sufficient momentum in its first hour to coast for the last hour, or it's doomed.

Mostly, Ortega's production is doomed, as one number after another fails to capture any of the spirit of abandon that's demanded to move the story along. "Dammit Janet" finds Janet and Brad rushing through a graveyard in the throes of love, but the camera barely moves with them, or it even impedes their progress. Is it dull staging or meant to reflect how lifeless their romance is? I suspect the former, but feel free to believe the latter. "The Time Warp" is also an unexpected drag, edited to capture neither the singing, nor the rhythms of the choreography. Too often in these scenes, which have to sell the anarchic nonsense of the entire endeavor, the camera seems glued in position and the editors seem to be working from a paucity of options that favor neither production scale nor performance intimacy.

And it's the treatment of what's happening within the frame that's flat, not what's actually there, because my sense is that the choreography itself is far more ambitious than what's in the original movie. And I'm sure that the costumes, especially Frank-N-Furter's attire, are a leap forward. Nothing is being showcased in a way that captures the joy.

Sadly, that applies to so many of the performances. Once the show was always going to be filmed and not live, I get why the singing wasn't performed live, but the soundtrack album that the actors are lip-synching to has been overproduced to the point that almost all vocal distinctiveness is gone and then those vocals get pushed down in the mix. It's one thing when Disney-ified singers like Justice and McCartan are produced to sound smoothed out and undistractingly bland, but Lambert and Carney both have recognizable voices and ample rock-musical chops, which you'd never know from "Time Warp" and "Hot Patootie." Since Justice and McCartan are playing characters meant to be wooden, at least initially, their performances aren't hurt, and Justice in particular leverages her tween-friendly image for some playful sexiness. But Lambert and Carney, and so many of the flashier characters in the show, are hampered by a production that has given absolutely no apparent consideration to how what was daring and countercultural and outré in 1975 might not read the same way in 2016. If you do a show like this without any interpretation or reimagining, you miss what attracted audiences to the show in the first place and you just end up further sanitizing material that was edgy 40 years ago but can be done by high school drama departments today without a blush.

Having a hero self-described as a "sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania" was once shocking, but now we only blink to emphasize that "transvestite" isn't on anybody's list of preferred terminology and we can have a trans actress playing Dr. Frank-n-Furter and that's great and it's progress. But might it be smart and creative to look at what it means when one of the most unorthodox characters in the history of musicals has become oddly conventional and accepted by the orthodoxy? You don't have to change a word of the show to come to it with a vision for how to make what was once weird and wonderful feel renewed and what was once significant and boundary-pushing maintain some of that significance. That hasn't been done here.

Part of why I ended up coming around on Cox's performance is that her voice isn't that great, so when she sings it ceases to be a matter of the big notes she's hitting, but rather the performance and intonation. Her limitations force her to act, and in acting, her versions of the songs and the character can't be rendered forgettable. Cox's arrival isn't the force-of-nature jolt of adrenaline that Tim Curry (a welcome presence here as the Narrator) is in the original movie, and her failure to hijack the show weakens the second half even further, but it's one of the few performances here that you can say really stands out as distinctive. The only actual adrenaline jolt comes from the appearance of Tony winner Ashford (You Can't Take It With You), whose personality and talent pop onscreen so vividly that I spent much of the show wishing Columbia had more of a part.

Most of the rest of my attention, which wasn't being held very well, was going to pondering how Fox and Ortega might have better integrated the audience component. I accept that you can't pretend the midnight shows aren't the reason we still talk about Rocky Horror today, but this acknowledgement of audience participation might be worse than ignoring. As anybody who has been to the midnight shows knows, they're lewd, uncouth, sloppy and often hijack the scripted movie. The audience participation is simultaneously embracing and subverting. You can go to a midnight show in London or Boston or Los Angeles and expect some overlap, but you'll also hear responses you've never heard before. It's organized, but with room for anarchy, an uncontrolled response to a movie that attempts to control an uncontrolled stage show.

But here, the audience is reduced to fewer than a dozen G-rated reactions, all predictable and all delivered in unison. It's a blunted assimilation of a populist reaction to a text, an absorption and commodification of something that was once pure and organic. It's like when Hillary Clinton's Twitter feed tries to adopt a popular meme and your reaction is, "Awww ... it's cute that her social media interns tried, but that will never be cool again." And just as I became disengaged in the last hour, the audience stopped playing any role, practically confirming its purpose as pandering and not contributing to the production at all.

Streaming lags make such things difficult, but a better handling of the audience problem might have been to film two different complete audiences doing their thing while watching the entirety of The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let's Do the Time Warp Again, one family-friendly and one NSFW. Then Fox could have streamed those full reaction tracks as a second screen experience.

I guess doing that would have been impractical, since you'd have had audiences checking out early and falling into silence. You can't force a cult following and the limply conceived The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let's Do the Time Warp Again probably isn't going to get that kind of following (or any kind of following) on its own. 

Airdate: Thursday, 8 p.m. ET/PT (Fox)

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