Dear Ryan Murphy:
By crazy, I mean unhinged, unpredictable and inspired. Think Bob Clampett going full-tilt surreal in Porky in Wackyland. Or Chuck Jones starting out spoofing opera in What’s Opera, Doc?, then building to a climax of thunderous spectacle and heartfelt emotion that wipes the smile off your face (until Bugs Bunny restores it with, “Well, what did you expect in an opera…a happy ending?”) Think Frank Tashlin building a live-action cartoon around his already-cartoony leading man, Jerry Lewis. Or Bob Fosse directing an autobiographical musical fantasia while he was still alive, and structuring the entire thing as a deathbed flashback, and devoting the film’s final third to musical hospital staff and equipment as bits of mise-en-scène. Think Alfred Hitchcock staging entire feature films in single locations (Lifeboat, Rope, Rear Widow), ending The Birds with an eerie, almost European-art-film-like anticlimax, and killing off his leading lady in Psycho 40 minutes into the film and turning his focus to her killer, and making you think he’d killed his leading lady in Vertigo only to have her show up again during the film’s second half, by way of setting up an even darker, sicker, more moving story than the one you were already watching.
What stones. What great filmmakers. They made works that lodge in your brain like shrapnel.
Or, closer to your creative home, television, you could be crazy like Matt Groening’s early-’90s writing staff on The Simpsons, which aired its first-ever Halloween anthology 20 years ago this month—suddenly treating their beloved characters as repertory company actors and having them play monsters and zombies, get mutilated and killed, grow to giant size, re-enact Edgar Allen Poe, acquire a third dimension, feast on human flesh. Be crazy like M*A*S*H*, which, among other inspired gambits, told a whole episode from the point of view of a horribly wounded soldier, and another through the lenses of documentary filmmakers (fresh sets of eyes, both). Be crazy like The Sopranos, which thought nothing of spending an entire episode with a handful of regular characters and leaving the rest off screen that week, or delving into its main character’s dreams for five or 10 or even 20 minutes at a stretch, or ending the finale with a cut to black so abrupt that millions of viewers thought their cable had gone out. Or crazy like Twin Peaks, which hung bizarre, often daringly protracted little character moments along the loosely-strung clothesline of Laura Palmer’s unsolved murder—and which had its hero, Agent Dale Cooper, getting shot by an unknown assailant at the end of season one, then picked up again a few months later with Cooper bleeding on the floor, and then, instead of moving the plot forward, tortured audiences by having Cooper get lost in more Lynchian dream images and engage in an endless, dithering conversation with a senile old man. (So many viewers were absolutely livid at David Lynch for toying with them so flagrantly—but they remember every second of that sequence, and 20 years later, they don’t hate Lynch, they chuckle at his audacity and adore what he represents.)
These shows had imagination. They had originality. They had a sense of play. They had the courage to go wherever they felt like going.
And they went all the way.
They never would have put their names on a travesty like last night’s Rocky Horror Picture Show-themed episode of Glee.
What was wrong with that episode? I could micro-analyze at least two dozen irritations at length, but to conserve my righteous anger, I’ll just focus on a few. For starters, there’s the arms-length treatment of the Frank N. Furter character, the most dynamic and transgressive personality in Rocky Horror; the casting of Frank was fobbed off from scene to scene like a rancid pair of lace panties, passing from Mike Chang to Mercedes—a potentially terrific development short-circuited by giving the truly and explosively musical Amber Riley just one solo number and replacing the word “transsexual” with “sensational” because…well, Jesus, I have no idea; the script used the word “tranny,” so why the squeamishness? By the episode’s final number—very possibly the weakest, most uninspired rendition of “Let’s Do the Time Warp Again” that I’ve ever seen, and God knows I’ve seen more than a few contenders while attending Rocky Horror midnight shows in four U.S. states; Mercedes was reduced to bystander status yet again, and Kurt, who as Riff-Raff was supposed to own this number and hunchback-prance the living hell out of it, was likewise sidelined while most of the song’s lines were subcontracted to other players (mainly Finn).
Then there’s the illogic (and believe me, I rarely invoke that word when the subject is Glee) of Will Schuester risking censure by his school and his community by staging a gender-bending cult musical to impress his would-be sweetheart, the OCD-addled guidance counselor Emma Pillsbury (who, talk about unbelievable, would not be caught dead at a Rocky Horror midnight screening where people throw food and beverages). Yes, I know. Character continuity isn’t high on the show’s list of things to worry about. But that business about Emma being “cured” by her relationship with John Stamos’s hunky dentist Dr. Carl was beyond lame, and clearly just a pretext for the “Touch-a, Touch-a Touch Me” number—so why not stage the exact same number but have it be a fantasy, thereby preserving the dramatic integrity of the character’s debilitating condition? Or something? Anything? Anything but that? Jayma Mays was so charming that she almost, almost saved it—why isn’t she allowed to sing more often?—and the cutaways to Brittany/Santana peeping in like Magenta/Columbia were amusing. But it wasn’t worth the audience-insulting motivational contortions to which you subjected your characters. And let’s not even get into Sue’s plan to win a local Emmy by denouncing the very production that she theoretically okayed, a production put on by the very student organization over which she holds complete dictatorial power.
And Jesus H. Christ in a rowboat, how can you cast Meatloaf in a cameo and not let him sing? You and I both know that it should have been him crashing through that wall on a chopper, not John mufuggin’ Stamos.
[Rolls eyes. Sighs dramatically. Resumes typing.]
But none of that really matters. It’s all just details. Nitpicks.
The real problem, Mr. Murphy, is that you picked the wrong pop culture property against which to measure your own creation’s fitful genius.
Rocky Horror, both the stage and film versions, were created by outsiders with nothing to lose, and at every stage of the game, they held their heads up high and tottered out into the spotlight on nosebleed heels and sounded their barbaric yawps across the roofs of the world.
Rocky Horror was crazy in the sense that I meant in my opening sentence—artist crazy, showman crazy. It was unhinged. It was inspired. And it understood the first rule of show business: act like you own the goddamn stage, and you’ll own the stage. Period! Carry yourself with confidence, with fierce disdain for what anyone out there in the dark thinks, and the audience will give you the benefit of the doubt, maybe warm up to you, perhaps even fall hopelessly in love with you and be willing to follow you anywhere. Granted, the crowd may not like where you take them. But they will absolutely follow you. And they’ll respect you for having the stones to grab them by the lapels and toss them headfirst through the double-doors leading to The Great Unknown.
This episode showed no such confidence. It hedged its bets in every possible way. It played like the anticlimactic end product of one of those ubiquitous and seemingly never-ending advance PR campaigns for a blockbuster summer movie—you know, the kind that kicks off interest with a Super Bowl ad buy, then rolls out spectacular teasers and trailers in the late winter and video games and posters and soundtrack CDs in the spring, then finally unveils the film itself, which pretty much sucks. That was your Rocky Horror episode, from the initial announcement through the “leaking” of photos and clips to the mysterious arrival of Rocky Horror tie-in songs on iTunes and on retail store shelves. It was outsider art reconfigured as corporate product—so much so that halfway through the hour I regretted ever sensing an affinity between Rocky Horror and Glee in the first place, notwithstanding its militantly cuddly enthusiasm for gay boys, bisexuals, plus-sized African-American girls, nerdy hip-hop crooners in wheelchairs, OCD-afflicted guidance counselors, people with Down’s Syndrome and other representatives of groups that Will linked—cornily but correctly—with the more baroque and abrasive outsiders depicted in the film.
This episode was to Rocky Horror as Brad and Janet are to Frank N. Furter. And that’s just sad.
You remember what it felt like seeing Rocky Horror at midnight the first time, Mr. Murphy. From the instant those ruby-red lips materialized in black space lip-synching “Science Fiction Double Feature,” you knew you weren’t in Kansas anymore. And from then on, it didn’t matter that the film cost about 10 bucks, and that most of the actors couldn’t dance and a few of them couldn’t even sing. They carried themselves as if they were the Tony-winning cast of a Guys and Dolls revival heading into their 100th performance en route to a victory lap on The Charlie Rose Show. And the film carried itself with even more swagger. It marched onto the screen with the ludicrously unselfconscious abandon of Tim Curry’s Dr. Frank N. Furter making his grand entrance, stepping off that elevator, sauntering through the set like the sci-fi offspring of Holly Woodlawn and Mick Jagger, and crowing, “I’m a sweet transvestite/From Traaaaaan-sexual /Transyl-vayyy-heen-YUUHHHHHHH!”
It brought the crazy.
And I’m sorry to have to say this, Mr. Murphy, but this tribute episode did not bring the crazy.
Not at all.
As problems go, that’s huge. In fact, it’s the umbrella under which all the episode’s other flaws can be grouped.
The real source of the trouble wasn’t that you decided to yoke your show to one of the most beloved and iconic cult films—a film without which (as I pointed out in a Salon article that seems way too optimistic in retrospect) Glee might never have existed. The problem wasn’t even that you dared invited comparisons between Rocky Horror and Glee, knowing there was a good chance the comparison wouldn’t tip in your show’s favor. No, the problem was more basic than that: Rocky Horror had imagination, originality, a sense of play, and most of all the courage to go wherever it felt like going. But your tribute to Rocky Horror had none of those qualities. There were clever moments, but nothing one could call inspired.
And that’s a shame.
I’ve been a vocal defender of Glee throughout its run, even when—especially when—it seemed to lose interest in melodramatic plot mechanics about halfway through season one and increasingly veered off into some freakishly demented fairy-tale head space. I loved the Madonna episode, particularly the “Like a Virgin” number cross-cutting between three anxious, horny couples. I enjoyed “Britney/Brittany,” which got off to a slow start but stuck with its stubbornly video-centric structure and slowly rallied throughout its remaining two-thirds, eventually becoming—to quote my friend Ian Grey—“pop Dada-rific.” And I thought “Grilled Cheesus” was close to brilliant. Some criticized it as being too, well, preachy, indulging your “Afterschool Special” tendencies to the nth degree. But I adored it for precisely that reason; it was like a parody of such a program, one that went from earnest to giddily, even cruelly parodic, and back around the bend again, becoming, during that final Mercedes-powered gospel rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” transcendently powerful, and articulating, with piercing clarity, the episode’s true message—that God is love and love is God, and that once you get that, the differences between Christians and Jews and Muslims, believers and agnostics and atheists just don’t matter.
And Kurt’s performance of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” at his comatose father’s bedside? Exquisite. Stunning. No network series in history has ever gotten as close to primordial feelings as Glee does at moments like that. “I don’t believe in God, Dad. But I believe in you.”
Mr. Murphy, it’s precisely that quality—the unabashed, unironic, undiluted feeling expressed in Kurt’s performance of the Beatles classic—that you should have tapped throughout the Rocky Horror episode, because if you think about it, the movie’s secret ace card is the same as that of Glee: Sincerity. It’s the great leveler, the great transmogrifier, the fuel source that makes all artistic ambitions come true. Say what you mean and mean what you say and anything becomes possible.
Don’t dream it. Be it.
You already know that, Mr. Murphy, not just from running Glee, but from having seen Rocky Horror. Think of Frank N. Furter, the trampy despot, being usurped by his much-abused henchman Riff-Raff at the end of Rocky Horror, then seizing the opportunity to perform one more smashing musical number, “I’m Going Home,” and pulling off the same kind of parody-into-naïvete-into-tragedy alchemy that Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd managed in the final minutes of What’s Opera, Doc? It doesn’t matter that the character is a preening buffoon, a lascivious rake, and a blood-spattered pickaxe-murderer. For a few startling minutes, you get inside his heart. You want what he wants, feel what he feels.
You don’t need soap-opera plotting, or even sitcom plotting, to achieve such dazzling feats. You just need nerve and imagination.
Narrative and character can be conveyed solely through acting, music, choreography and feeling. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg proved this. So did Once and Hairspray, Tommy and Rent, Jesus Christ Superstar and Pink Floyd’s The Wall. And so, in its overstuffed, Attention Deficit Disordered way, did Moulin Rouge, a fragmented mess that works in spite of itself because the emotions are simple and epic—and the filmmakers and the performers take them seriously, even when they’re making awful puns and mincing around like brain-damaged vaudeville wannabes.
You could make episodes of Glee in the spirit of any of the aforementioned musicals, Mr. Murphy. Or you could do an entire episode that was mostly one big dream sequence—the Glee equivalent of the “Test Dream” episode of The Sopranos. Or you could do a whole episode that had no music, only expressive (and charmingly awkward) dancing, and perhaps no words at all. You could do a whole episode with no songs, just rapid-fire dialogue that achieved its own sideways sort of musicality. You could do five little short films, one about a different character, and link them by a common event, a la Jim Jarmusch’s great anthology film Mystery Train. You could have a character die slowly and send them off over a full hour with your own salute to All That Jazz (although hopefully you will have learned your lesson from Rocky Horror and used Fosse’s masterwork as rough inspiration rather than as something to piggyback on).
And if you carried yourself with the swanky, imperious confidence of Dr. Frank N. Furter, the audience would follow. Yes, they would.
What, you think they’re suddenly going to stop watching Glee because you started throwing curveball after curveball? Hell, no. They’d be on the edges of their seats every single week. They’d approach each new episode with a sense of nervous delight, wondering, “What the hell is Glee going to try to get away with this week?”
That’s how the truly great shows do it, Mr. Murphy. They don’t half-ass it like Glee, trying to please (or coddle) everybody, and often ending up pleasing no one.
Glee could be Dennis Potter plus Twin Peaks plus American Idol plus Hairspray plus about 10 other things that haven’t been invented yet. Right now what you’ve got is a compulsively watchable show that’s stunning about twenty percent of the time and disappointing otherwise, not because the remainder is completely worthless—far from it—but because that 20 percent set the bar so high.
So be crazy. Show us what you’ve got—everything you’ve got. Don’t hold back. Don’t play it safe. You’ve got the clout. You’ve got the riches. You’ve got the following.
But based on what I’ve seen over the last two seasons, you don’t have the nerve.
And that baffles me.
It’s as if you’ve built yourself a jetpack but you’re afraid of flying. You totter around squeezing off little bursts of flame here and there, just enough to raise people’s hopes of seeing you blast off into the stratosphere. And then you don’t.
Fly, Ryan Murphy! Be free!