“The Rocky Horror Glee Show”
October 26th, 2010
The test of an episode so heavily based around a specific musical property is how it is integrated into the series as a whole. While Rocky Horror superfans are likely to judge the episode based on its relationship to the musical, I’m more interested in the musical’s relationship to the characters. I watched the movie for the first time over the weekend, and while the music is obviously the main reasons for this crossover it’s also easy to see how various characters could fit into particular roles. Finn and Rachel are a logical Brad and Janet, Sam might as well be Rocky 2.0, and the other roles all have enough meaning and interest that whoever fits into them could gain a new level of interest as a result (especially if the show is interested in the musical’s more subversive qualities).
At a few points, I think “The Rocky Horror Glee Show” succeeds in this area, albeit with some missteps. By admitting that the musical is inappropriate for this setting (small town Ohio), both through the actual storyline and how a variety of characters respond to the material, the show doesn’t pretend that it is entirely natural for these two properties to come together. In those moments, the episode is fairly grounded, problematizing the staging of the musical in ways which have potential to speak to the show’s characters.
The problem is that the central reason this connection is being made is the part of the show that simply doesn’t work, something that was entirely absent two weeks ago where the show was at its best in a long while. By grounding the musical in Will and Emma’s relationship, and in Sue’s efforts to destroy the Glee club, the small character moments are ultimately complicated and often undermined by the sense that tying this into one of the series’ weakest ongoing storylines takes leaps in logic that limits the potential impact of the musical’s presence in the episode.
“When pushing boundaries is their only aim, the result is usually bad art.”
This line, which Sue says in her Sue’s Corner segment at episode’s end, sort of describes Ryan Murphy’s approach to Glee (if you haven’t been following the 3 Glees theory, click here). Or, perhaps, it is how I might personally describe Murphy’s episodes, as “The Rocky Horror Glee Show” features Murphy’s attempt to clarify just what the show (or his version of the show) is about. In Will’s final speech, where he defines what Rocky Horror means to his students (for them, of course), he suggests that it is less for boundary pushers and more for outcasts. On the one hand, the speech has the same problem I have with every one of Murphy’s theme episodes, where we are explicitly told what the subject means (whether it’s Britney Spears, Lady Gaga or Madonna); however, on the other hand, it’s actually a fairly accurate description of the version of Glee I find most interesting. I’m far more engaged with these characters as outcasts than I am in the series being outside of the box, so to hear Murphy make these points is comforting.
Of course, the episode doesn’t necessarily live up to those words. I think the only storyline that actually works comfortably into this theory is Finn’s self-consciousness surrounding being on stage in his skivvies. It’s not a particularly groundbreaking storyline, but it seems very true to the character for him to balk at such a public display (especially if you take his recent struggles relating to coolness). Of course, if we start thinking about what he’s done in the past, the ending of “Theatricality” should have already raised many of these issues, but I’m past the point where I expect Murphy to pay attention to what has happened in the past – in one of his own episodes, no less – outside of Mike Chang referring back to the Duets project or Sam discussing his relationship with Quinn. Within this particular episode, and the Rocky Horror example, this is logical: Finn is playing Brad, Brad ends up stripped to his underwear, Finn needs to be stripped to his underwear and that seems like something Finn would be uncomfortable with.
It’s the only bit of musical/character connection that really connects in the episode. There are other small moments, like Kurt balking at playing Frank-N-Furter and Merecedes stepping into that role, which technically could have been developed into more substantial storylines but were ultimately left as brief moments of interest. The reason they were underdeveloped, of course, is that the musical is mostly about Will’s efforts to impress Emma Pillsbury, a storyline which was blissfully absent last week. While I may not be quite as Anti-Will as some, I think that “The Rocky Horror Glee Show” proves that he doesn’t need to be rapping for him to fairly substantially damage the effect of a particular episode.
For the episode to work, we need to believe that Will would stage an R-Rated musical to impress a guidance counselor, that Sue would happen to be approached by the station managers (played by Meat Loaf and Barry Bostwick) and becomes obsessed with winning a local Emmy, that Sue would somehow sell Eddie on a ridiculous claim about the students’ dental hygiene, and that no one at any point would tell Will that this is all incredibly inappropriate. When I say inappropriate, I don’t mean the content of the musical: yes, realistically this could never actually happen in an Ohio high school, but I think that there’s an interesting statement in the almost fantastical situation it creates. I mean inappropriate in the sense that he uses his students and his position as a teacher to attempt to win the heart of a woman in a fairly healthy relationship, which is far more damaging to the episode.
It’s the worst position for Will to be in: his hyper-sexualization (seen in “Touch Me Touch Me Touch Me,” which was interesting for Emma if the show’s focus wasn’t entirely on Will’s side of the story) is as awkward as it was back in “Funk,” and watching him sitting there squirming while Dr. Carl performs his number just isn’t interesting. The fact is that Will is no longer a character we can relate to: outside of running Glee club and pining after Emma, he doesn’t seem to have a life or any sense of motivation. At least back when he had his relationship with Terri it seemed as if he was running Glee club for a reason, or that he had something to go home to at night. However, as much as I am glad that the fake pregnancy story is gone, it actually made Will a more well-rounded character even if it did make him look like a complete idiot. Now, he seem more generally competent, but he lacks any sort of interest that would allow him to comfortable sit at the center of the show’s narrative. By tying the Rocky Horror storyline to his efforts, Murphy effectively dooms the hour to an awkwardness which is far from the series’ best quality – I’d have been far more interested if it had been Emma who had pushed for the musical to be performed, just because her efforts to break out of her shell are far more compelling than Will’s fairly pathetic existence.
And I’m sure that most would argue that the episode fails to capture the best qualities of Rocky Horror, in that there is very little subversive about the musical within the series. Subversion is Finn in his underwear, and the very notion of a transvestite, instead of any of the actual content of the movie. I don’t think I’m suited for making this argument, still too new to the musical, but I thought it was interesting how Will’s final speech redefines the musical in terms of outcasts rather than truly pushing boundaries. Transylvania is sensational instead of transsexual (which you’ll note that they attribute to Mercedes’ modernization in order to shift authorship from the writers’ censorship to the character’s action), and outside of Mike offering “tranny” the subversion of Frank-N-Furter seems to be grounded in his wardrobe instead of the gender politics the character represents. It’s purposeful, I think, that Kurt is kept away from the role – when I think about it, I think some version of Kurt would jump at the chance to challenge people’s expectations, but that would have played into the gender roles too significantly for the series to handle.
The show’s relationship with the musical is far more grounded in reference and fan behaviour. You see staging similarities (like the end of “Touch Me Touch Me Touch Me”), you see the references to and reenactment of the wild screening environment, and you have Meat Loaf and Bostwick there to offer a bit of nostalgia. I understand why this is: for those who haven’t seen the musical, the episode would be incomprehensible (and, for the show’s family audience, problematic) if it was fully embracing the musical’s true spirit instead of its place within pop culture history. It’s really no more similar to what the show did with Madonna, Britney Spears and Gaga, but since Rocky Horror is both a more beloved property and a more subversive property the Glee treatment becomes more offensive to viewers’ sensibilities.
I think I’d consider the episode a quasi-admirable failure were it not for a few other elements that seemed particularly offensive. I’m thinking specifically of Sam’s behaviour in the episode, as it seems Murphy’s version of the character is a complete douchebag. There were parts of that personality in “Duets,” don’t get me wrong, but the character wasn’t using words like “Abulous” and “Nuttage” or constantly talking about his own figure – reconciling this character with what we saw two weeks ago is almost impossible, just as it’s difficult to reconcile Murphy’s interest in “pushing the envelope” in his episodes – the Britney Spears sex riot comes to mind – with Will’s final speech which indicates that the musical (and, implicitly, the series) are about purely outcasts.
I’d love if Murphy truly put this into action, but his episodes aren’t interested in the notion of the outcast: if it was, this episode would have been centered on the students’ struggling with the content of the musical instead of Will using the musical to manipulate Emma. If Murphy’s interest was in outcasts, it would have been the episode’s main theme instead of the lesson Will learns at episode’s end. That tendency to revert to an after-school special message is Murphy’s greatest failure: it isn’t just that the episode is a theme episode, it’s that the theme ends up being boiled down into a final statement of meaning which glosses over some of the complexities of the hour. Some of those complexities are characters actions, as in “Theatricality,” and others are ridiculous plot contrivances (as we saw both here and in “Britney/Brittany”), but at the end of the day Murphy’s message doesn’t always match up with the content he delivers.
I’m not a Rocky Horror superfan, so I’m less outraged by this hour than I am sort of frustrated. I do not necessarily think this is an inherently bad idea, but by using Will as the primary frame of reference Murphy misses the most interesting potential connections between these two properties, delivering instead a contrived hour of television that does little justice to anything but the purely tonal qualities of its source material.
- I think she was in costume as Sue at the time, which explains it, but Becky threatening to cut Will for content is all sorts of bizarre. That said, I’m glad to see that Becky continues to recur.
- Not shocked to see them open with “Science Fiction Double Feature” (with Santana in the lead), but it was still a nice bit of reference to the musical, and I was sort of surprised to see that they didn’t rewrite the song to update the pop culture references (which would have been a strategy to connect the property to people like Finn who have never seen the musical).
- For those who don’t enjoy Rocky Horror, I presume that Sue’s series of complaints during the “Brad! Janet! Etc.” scene were likely an outlet for that frustration.
- I very much enjoyed some of the bit moments within the musical numbers, in particular Santana’s inability to hide her attraction to Dr. Carl and Lea Michele’s cross-eyed fainting spell during “Sweet Transvestite.”
- Sam was particularly bad, but was all of the locker room conversation from the guys particularly bizarre for everyone else? I’m no prude, but Artie talking about internet porn (and apparently making a highly sexual joke about Santana’s breasts) seems totally out of character for me – if this is what football is doing to him, I need to see a bit more evidence of that. It’s one thing for him to be a not-so-great boyfriend to Tina, but this seems to be a real character shift that needs more justification.
- Hiccup in the 3 Glees theory tonight – for the first time, Murphy shares a story credit with Tim Wollaston, who was a writer on Murphy’s Popular. Ultimately, Murphy still wrote the teleplay so the theory remains intact, but I wonder if he was brought in for his knowledge of Rocky Horror or for some other reason.
- Adam Shankman didn’t do anything spectacular with the direction, but his skill in directing musicals did help in the musical numbers (which I thought were well done, outside of character-driven awkwardness).
- I don’t do Halloween, but going as a peanut allergy would be fun.