October 28th, 2010


Glee - Rocky Horror

Note: This entry is about my thoughts regarding Glee's episode incorporating The Rocky Horror Show and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Several years ago I did a more in-depth reading of the movie which can be found here: This Movie Lacks Plot, Depth, Character Development... That essay was written because I was unable to find an essay I'd previously read by Scott Miller; several days later I was able to e-mail Mr. Miller who e-mailed me a chapter from his upcoming book, "Inside the Rocky Horror Show." I would strongly encourage everyone with any interest in the show or film to read Mr. Miller's fantastic essay.

Reactions to "The Rocky Horror Glee Show" have been mixed (review, review, review, crushing review). In many ways, this episode encompasses every single problem from Glee (strange character shifts, awkward plotting, shoe-horned gimicks) with every single problem from Rocky Horror (implausibility, horrible pacing, a culture that overshadows the source material). Perhaps that's not surprising. Neither then is the fact that this episode is one of the most entertaining for the reasons both Glee and Rocky Horror are so successful: incredible musical numbers, wonderful visuals, and an open culture of acceptance. I had fun watching this episode. I rated it 5 stars on Hulu.

That said, I wanted more.

My biggest problem is that Glee never interacts meaningfully with Rocky Horror. Now this didn't seem such a problem on the surface and the show is very upfront about this: Will is doing the for all the wrong reasons and so absolutely everyone is questioning why he's bothering. But while there's an attempted bit of lip service paid to the benefits of the Rocky culture at the end of the episode, no one else seems to connect to it.

This is a problem that Rocky has always had. Most people are familiar with the show only through the film, which they then associate with callbacks, props, dressing up in costumes, and having a grand old ball of faux-debauchery. This is fun, but it completely obfuscates what the film is about. In Miller's great essay (link again) the St. Louis director explores the era that gave birth to the show and, in doing so, reveals what I believe to be the show's purpose. While it is caged in terms of sexuality, Rocky is really about different reactions to a changing world and perceptions of change as threat. The most obvious interpretations are Brad (fear and rejection) and Janet (embrace), but no less significant are Eddie (attempt to return to the past), Columbia (denial), Riff Raff (co-opt), Magenta (peripheral outsider), or Dr. Scott (analysis). The conclusion is that nearly every method of dealing with change is doomed to failure, often destructive failure; only those who allow themselves to be part of the cultural change without attempting to dominate it or allow it to dominate them, prosper or even survive unscathed.

Now while that's the message of Rocky Horror, there are other themes including that of the outsider, transitions from childhood to adulthood, self-realization, and of course sexuality. Most of these themes intersect frequently (i.e. Janet's self-realization comes through sex), so it is understandable that audiences and critics have blurred them together to the point the show seems to be only about sex.

Glee is very upfront with the show's sexuality. As a long-time devotee of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (I'll be attending my 52nd performance tomorrow evening) I've become almost inured to the frank sexuality (ha ha) portrayed - there are only so many times you can call Janet a slut before the word loses all significance. Glee breaks that shell by ramping things up. Naya Rivera's opening solo as The Usherette's lips borders on the graphic. The vivid filming means that you can't not be aware of the fact that a woman's lips are serenading you*, and one would be hard-pressed not to think of oral sex, or at least kissing. It is, in many ways, an uncomfortable moment. The first of many, especially if we're to be asking ourselves what is the role and duty of art when it comes to shaking the status quo?

Another such moment occurs during "Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch Me." The film version is coy, more cute than sexy despite the raunchy lyrics, and while shouting callbacks it's easy to lose sight of just how raunchy they are. Jayma Mays's rendition is incredibly in-your-face with her sexuality, something we've only seen once before and in a very different context. While the Madonna video fantasized sex as intimacy (except for Finn, for whom things are starkly real and sexual, as indicated by the illumination reminiscent of a red-light district) now we see Emma as a seductress. This scene is not about intimacy, it is about "scratching an itch." And we hate Will for tricking her into it. Will is clearly getting off in the moment.

Will was right in not allowing one of the students to perform that number, though he did it for the wrong reasons, but he doesn't fix the problem. It's wrong to put a teenager in that number because of the power differential in the relationship, but Will dominates Emma to get her to do the number with him, knowing that she won't stand up for herself. It is a disgusting sight, made all the more so by his denial later and half-assed apology during which he admits his deceitful motivations but doesn't actually copy to what he did that was wrong - this is not an apology! Somehow, Will has become the villain!

This is one of the more interesting directions this show went in. When Todd VanDerWerff writes, "Sometimes, I miss the Will Schuester of the Glee pilot," he has a valid point, but this show isn't trying to be that consistent. The point of a show like Glee. is that the characters roles and relationships change episode by episode. There are numerous examples of Will's smarminess throughout the first half of the episode, but the pivotal moment is when we see Will sitting out, alone and refusing to be involved, during John Stamos's, "Hot Patootie," just like Frank did in the film. This episode takes a gamble setting up Will as the villain and Sue as the voice of reason, and I applaud them for that even if it didn't quite work out.

The key to understanding Frank-n-Furter in the show, however, is to recognize that he is both villain and victim. Frank is as caught up in his movement as every other character, and when that movement leads to his death he is powerless to stop it.** Frank unquestionably hurts other people - he ruins Brad and Janet's relationship, abandons Columbia, abuses the servants, and kills Eddie - but we love him and are sympathetic because he seems to be trying for something larger than himself, even if that is nothing more than shared hedonism. We are uncomfortable with Will as a Frank-type villain because he is not trying to give to others but rather to take Emma for himself.

There are several ways the show could have been much improved. The opening of "Over at the Frankenstein Place" is brilliantly executed and I wish I could have seen the full number. Placing the trannies around the stage, in hiding with their heads only occasionally visible was a fantastic decision that gives the same sense as seeing the characters walk through a fairy (ha ha) inhabited wood. I'd have liked to see similar juxtaposition used frame the episode to suggest a clear transition from the high school, where order and chastity are the rule, to the glee club/auditorium where everyone is trapped in Will's perverse play and playground.

Moreover, I'd have liked to see inclusion of some of the music that was in the stage show but was cut from the film. Not only would this have allowed directer Adam Shankman and writer Ryan Murphy to build a stronger connection to the play than to the film (something that would be very appropriate for a glee club), but the removed songs emphasize coming together, and in particular outsiders coming together. Were it up to me, the show would have ended not with the time warp (which I loved as a number), but with Will publicly serenading Emma to apologize.

Ladies and gentlemen: here is Barry Bostwick and "Once in Awhile."

* The film depicts Patricia Quinn's lips, Richard O'brien's voice was dubbed over. While the gender-bending approach is nice, it diminishes the femininity and, in many ways, the sexuality, of the opening.

** Miller suggests that this was O'brien's hypothesis that the sexual revolution, left unchecked, would eventually lead to inevitable disaster. Miller goes on to suggest that we consider this foreshadowing of the AIDS crisis, although O'brien could not have known about the rise of AIDS when he wrote The Rocky Horror Show, as that inevitable disaster.