Cult TV Fans Will Find 'Rocky Horror' And 'Black Mirror' Smart And Provocative | KUOW News and Information

Cult TV Fans Will Find 'Rocky Horror' And 'Black Mirror' Smart And Provocative

Oct 20, 2016

The Rocky Horror Show began as a stage musical in London in the early 1970s, starring Tim Curry as the outrageously dressed outer-space alien Frank N. Furter, self-described as a "sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania." Richard O'Brien, the composer of the play and its music, played Frank's hunchbacked assistant, Riff Raff — and the two of them repeated their roles in a 1975 movie, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The film flopped, originally, but got new life in midnight shows across the country. Before long, fans were attending in costume, bringing props, shouting interactive lines at the screen, and generally embracing the film's central, sexually and socially adventurous theme of "Don't dream it, be it."

For such an irreverent musical, this new TV remake on the Fox network is surprisingly faithful to its source material. It finds a way, at various spots, to incorporate the audience-participation elements, by occasionally showing a theater "audience" seeing the same movie we're seeing. And it salutes Curry, the show's original star, by having him play the narrator of the remake, joining in, dryly, on the show's most famous song, "Time Warp."

To fans of the original film, the songs and scenes in The Rocky Horror Picture Show are almost as familiar as those in The Wizard of Oz. Why bother, or dare, to mount a remake, when the original version is so iconic?

According to Lou Adler, producer of both the old and new Rocky versions, there are two main reasons. One is to introduce the musical to a new generation and audience. The other is to hand the role to a dynamic new star that can redefine it for our times.

I'm not sure the first reason will pan out. Today's young viewers seem to have an appetite for Disney-type High School Musical presentations, but may not flock to this new TV remake.

Fans of the original are more likely to show up, out of curiosity, and I suspect they'll be quite pleased and impressed. But as for the second reason, the new casting of the lead role, this Rocky Horror Picture Show hits a home run.

The new star is Laverne Cox, the transgender star of Netflix's Orange Is the New Black, and she's fabulous. She looks great, she sounds great, and she salutes Curry's performance while adding her own touches, vocally and otherwise.

The other cult hit showing up this week, also originating from England, is season three of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror, the Twilight Zone-style anthology show with an ultra-modern sensibility and a very smart focus on technology.

The six new shows premiere Friday on Netflix, and I think they're more entertaining, and more provocative, than any new series from the current fall TV season. Each one, somehow, finds a way to take a seemingly benign technological tool and burrow down to the nightmare within.

It uses the anthology format in the best possible way, introducing characters who may not survive to the end, and concepts and settings that take a while to understand. A typical example this new season is "Nosedive," starring Bryce Dallas Howard as a social climber who visits an expert in hopes of upping her social status. Right now, her friends and acquaintances have rated her a 4.2 — and she needs to be a 4.5 to qualify for occupancy in a luxury apartment.

I've seen all the new, and old, episodes of Black Mirror, and I'm impressed by each and every one of them. It may be the best binge-watching TV show around — I'll bet you can't watch just one. It stands up to the Twilight Zone comparison — and, as with the new Rocky Horror Picture Show on Fox, it's a cult TV offering that you may approach skeptically, but you'll leave having been fully entertained.

Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. "Black Mirror" is one of two cult TV shows arriving this week. The other is tonight's new Fox TV Network remake of the classic 1970s counterculture sci-fi movie musical "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Our TV critic David Bianculli likes them both.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: "The Rocky Horror Show" began as a stage musical in London in the early 1970s, starring Tim Curry as the outrageously dressed outer space alien Frank-N-Furter, self-described as a sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania. Richard O'Brien, the composer of the play and its music, played Frank's hunchbacked assistant Riff Raff. And the two of them repeated their roles in a 1975 movie "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."

It flopped originally but got new life in midnight shows across the country. Before long, fans were attending in costume, bringing props, shouting interactive lines at the screen and generally embracing the film's central sexually and socially adventurous theme of don't dream it, be it.

For such an irreverent musical, this new TV remake on the Fox network is surprisingly faithful to its source material. It finds a way at various spots to incorporate the audience participation elements by occasionally showing a theater audience seeing the same movie we're seeing. And it salutes the show's original star, Tim Curry, by having him play the narrator of the remake, joining in dryly on the show's most famous song.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW: LET'S DO THE TIME WARP AGAIN")

TIM CURRY: (As narrator) It's just a jump to the left.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) And then a step to the right.

CURRY: (As narrator) With your hands on your hips.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) You bring your knees in tight. But it's the pelvic thrust that really drives you insane. Let's do the time warp again. Let's do the...

BIANCULLI: To fans of the original film, the songs and scenes in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" are almost as familiar as those in "The Wizard Of Oz." Why bother - or dare - to mount a remake when the original version is so iconic? According to Lou Adler, producer of both the old and new "Rocky" versions, there are two main reasons. One is the introduce the musical to a new generation and audience. The other is to hand the role to a dynamic new star that can redefine it for our times.

I'm not sure the first reason will pan out. Today's young viewers seem to have an appetite for Disney-type "High School Musical" presentations but may not flock to this new TV remake. Fans of the original are more likely to show up out of curiosity, and I suspect they'll be quite pleased and impressed.

But as for the second reason, the new casting of the lead role, this "Rocky Horror Picture Show" hits a home run. The new star is Laverne Cox, the transgender star of Netflix's "Orange Is The New Black," and she's fabulous. She looks great. She sounds great. And she salutes Tim Curry's performance while adding her own touches, vocally and otherwise.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW: LET'S DO THE TIME WARP AGAIN")

LAVERNE COX: (As Dr. Frank-N-Furter, singing) Here I come with a flat. Well, how about that? Now, babies, don't you panic. By the light of the night it'll all seem all right. I'll get you a satanic mechanic. I'm just a sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania. Won't you stay for the night...

BIANCULLI: The other cult hit showing up this week, also originating from England, is Season 3 of Charlie Brooker's "Black Mirror," the "Twilight Zone"-style anthology show with an ultra-modern sensibility and a very smart focus on technology. The six new shows premiere Friday on Netflix, and I think they're more entertaining and more provocative than any new series from the current fall TV season.

Each one somehow finds a way to take a seemingly benign technological tool and burrow down to the nightmare within. It uses the anthology format in the best possible way, introducing characters who may not survive to the end and concepts and settings that take a while to understand. A typical example this new season is "Nosedive," starring Bryce Dallas Howard as a social climber who visits an expert in hopes of upping her social status. Right now, her friends and acquaintances have rated her a 4.2, and she needs to be a 4.5 to qualify for occupancy in a luxury apartment.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BLACK MIRRORS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) If we drill down into the numbers, you have got a solid popularity arc here, strong overall trajectory. Let's just look at the last 24 hours. You see, even - what's that? - 8:40 a.m., you're working hard on your socials - great little uptick there. A couple of minor dings there. You cut someone off in traffic.

BRYCE DALLAS HOWARD: (As Lacie) Oh, just a workplace thing (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, laughter) OK. Let's check on your sphere of influence. Let me zoom out here. Great peripherals. Strangers like you, that's a plus, healthy inner circle. It's good.

HOWARD: (As Lacie) Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) There's a ways to go, but 4.5 certainly achievable.

BIANCULLI: I've seen all the new and old episodes of "Black Mirror," and I'm impressed by each and every one of them. It may be the best binge-watching TV show around. I'll bet you can't watch just one. It stands up to the "Twilight Zone" comparison. And as with the new "Rocky Horror Picture Show" on Fox, it's a cult TV offering that you may approach skeptically but you'll leave having been fully entertained.

GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interviews with actress Gaby Hoffmann, writer Jonathan Safran Foer and Tim Wu, who coined the term internet neutrality and talked with me about how invasive internet advertising has become. Check out our podcast. You'll find those and other interviews.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

We'll close with one of the groundbreaking records released on the blues, rhythm and blues and jazz label Chess Records. The label was co-founded by two brothers, Leonard and Phil Chess. Phil, who outlived his brother, died Tuesday at the age of 95.

Chess recorded Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Etta James and many others. Chess launched Chuck Berry's recording career with this record, "Maybelline," which is now considered one of the first rock 'n' roll records. This week, Chuck Berry turned 90 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAYBELLENE")

CHUCK BERRY: (Singing) Maybellene, why can't you be true? Oh, Maybellene, why can't you be true? You just started doing the things you used to do. As I was motivating over the hill, I saw Maybellene in a coup de ville. A Cadillac a-rollin' on the open road, nothing will outrun my V8 Ford. The Cadillac doing about 95. She's bumper to bumper rolling side to side. Maybellene, why can't you be true? Oh, Maybellene, why can't you be true? You've done started back doing the things you used to do. A Cadillac pulled up ahead of the Ford. The Ford got hot and wouldn't do no more. It then got cloudy and started to rain. I tooted my horn for the passing lane. The rainwater blowing all under my hood, I knew that I was doing my motor good. Maybellene, why can't you be true? Oh, Maybellene, why can't you be true? You've done started back doing the things you used to do. Oh, Maybellene, why can't you be true? Oh, Maybellene, why can't you be true? You've done started back doing the things you used to do. The motor cool down, the heat down, and that's when I heard the highway sound. Cadillac sitting like a ton of lead, 110 a half a mile ahead. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.