Trying to avoid the third presidential debate, I decided to watch a press screener of Fox TV’s version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show last night, thinking camp would be the perfect antidote to Trump. After all, the material has comforted and celebrated marginalized people in their struggle against implicit Republicans for more than 40 years. (The stage version premiered in London in 1973.) That it never made much sense seemed immaterial; its songs and story were always secondary to its electric, transgressive spirit, and that of its audience. Unfortunately, in this embalmed remake, neither was much in evidence: There was no live audience, of course, and no electricity, either.
You can’t blame the adaptation; the producers used the original version verbatim. It is still the story of the newly affianced young Brad and Janet seeking shelter during a thunderstorm in the castle of one Frank N. Furter, a “sweet transvestite from Transexual, Transylvania.” I won’t bother to revisit the throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks specifics, but the gist of the story is that the square couple gets sexually radicalized by exposure to their host’s sci-fi punk ménage, including Rocky Horror himself, a buff monster created with half a brain leftover from a previous experiment that failed. The Nike-ad-ready theme is “Don’t dream it, be it” — a gassy nostrum under the best of circumstances and dead flat in these.
Those circumstances include a mystifyingly slow pace, filled with weird longueurs and anticlimaxes. (You would think that The Rocky Horror Picture Show, of all musicals, would be pro-climax.) The director, Kenny Ortega, known for the High School Musical trilogy, seems to think that by mixing overbusy sequences with others that have almost no content or momentum he can achieve a nice average. That didn’t work; I found myself alternately falling asleep and squinting at the visual mess. (If you ever wondered whether you could get too much of the theatrical costuming genius William Ivey Long, the answer is yes.) And though Laverne Cox, as Frank N. Furter, brought some amusing intonations and an undeniable queer spark to the proceedings — she is transgender — most of the cast, drawn from film and television, could not sell the material, especially the songs, no matter how much electronic help was provided. Only Annaleigh Ashford, a stage creature, managed to sound, as the groupie Columbia, the least bit alive.
The production’s intentions were good enough, I suppose. Hiring Tim Curry — the original Frank N. Furter in London, on Broadway, and in the 1975 movie — to play the narrator was a fitting touch, though the effects of his 2012 stroke are still obvious. A hat tip to the tradition of audience participation that turned the movie into a midnight-show cult was another good idea, if carried out poorly. But mostly this was a brainless, or half-brainless, addition to the roster of recent television musical remakes, worse in some ways than the others because the material itself is so thin. It would have needed an exceptionally professional production to work. Though camp at its best flirts with amateurism, and even failure, this production does more than flirt; it pretty much goes all the way to disaster. I might as well have watched the debate.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again is on Fox TV tonight at 8 p.m.