Doomed man in space, a mad scientist tormentor, sarcastic robot friends, and cheesy movies. I am living the revival life with Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return (Netflix).
I know, I know. Uncool, right?
If you’ve followed my writing these past few years, you know I’m not really into this recent trend of zombie shows – reboots, relaunches and retreads because 15 people on the Internet said it’s a good idea.
Let’s be clear: I don’t say this to be an old fogey and purist on what stuff is. It’s just that I already lived through the ’90s, so why would I want to go through them again? Ain’t no nostalgia deep enough for that, even for many shows and movies I love. Either I’m good with the new stuff I get from creators of my pop culture faves, or I’m not. I don’t need no Fuller House, or a return to Roseanne or Will & Grace. Don’t want them, don’t need them.
But, whatever. The wheel turns. Tons of kids will line the block to see Spider-Man: Homecoming, and rightfully so. Spider-Man is a money machine, and every few years there’s a new crop of 7-year-olds to sell the web-slinger to. Shoehorn a ton of Robert Downey Jr., tingle adults’ member berries with Michael Keaton, and brace for the tidal wave of cash. Who cares if Spidey looks like he’s in athleisure? Get him a hoodie and a backpack! The money awaits! I say, go get it if you’re not swindling folks.
Batman never goes out of style, either; even if nobody really wants to make The Batman, Warner Bros. will force it through because it will sell sell sell. And while Hugh Jackman hung up the adamantium claws for good after Logan, I’m sure we’ll get a new Wolverine soon enough in the new post-Apocalypse line of X-Men films.
I didn’t even want MST3K to come back. In a world where alumni kicked out RiffTrax and Cinematic Titanic for years and years, why would I need more MST3K? It’s already here.
Besides, the post-Nerdist geek industrial complex would sap all the life out of doing this show now, wouldn’t it? Jonah Ray, Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt are all involved on a project funded by Kickstarter, and I’m sick of all four of those things.
Oh, and we’ll throw in comedy podcasterati Baron Vaughn and Hampton Yount as Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot? Eesh. Get out now before an NPR game show breaks out!
So I tuned in with healthy skepticism. And, bit by bit, they won over this O.G. MSTie.
The new show looks and feels like the MST3K that I know, but refitted for 2017. It turned out that MST3K is the kind of project that can be redone again and again, if the people are right and the jokes are good. Besides, we’ll never run out of cheesy, bad movies, even if today’s fare is made to look better than ever, as long as they are done earnestly. I appreciated when Jonah stands up to our Sharknado world by declaring, “It’s not OK to combine an animal with a disaster and release it as a bad-on-purpose movie.”
With creator Joel Hodgson at the helm, MST3K: The Return shows a lot of care and detail in its handcrafted production. In an age of 3D printers, the spacecraft stand up to HD cameras. On the tracking shot through the series of vault doors, I pick out more items in each compartment with each pass.
Because of the increased production values, at times the show veers into when Wayne and Garth get the studio set of the basement for Noah’s Arcade Presents Wayne’s World.
The Skeleton Crew live band on Dr. Forrester’s secret moon base, headlined by indiecore figure Har Mar Superstar as the bandleader, is too much for me.
The analog touches of turning down the lights, and the self-imposed breaks for commercials that don’t exist may be ersatz. But I do appreciate a break in the action for a two-hour program, because bingewatching is tough for this one. (And halfway-analog me still doesn’t bingewatch much.)
MST3K: The Return wisely wades into the idea that the new show has to live up to the old. Dr. Kinga Clayton Forrester, the third generation in the family business of mad science, is written as sometimes unsure and eager to impress.
Also, it’s funny that her plan is not simply to drive a man insane with awful films, but to sell it to nostalgia-thirsty dupes who remember her father’s old work, but no one’s buying. This only adds to her concerns of being seen as a poser, and Felicia Day plays it well.
At least Kinga’s chief henchman, Max, is all about being a poser, wanting to be known as TV’s Son of TV’s Frank. Patton Oswalt got on my nerves until his interlude during the long-distance love song between Forrester and her boyfriend that became a reunion of nerdcore darling Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.
But even if all of the “show” was crap, the main event is all that has to be good. It’s jarring at times to hear modern pop culture references, because once you’re in the theater with the silhouettes, it feels like it’s 1992 again. Until Gypsy comes down from the ceiling, Crow uses props, and Tom Servo starts flying – all of them opening up new ideas for jokes.
Under 2017’s comedic sensibilities, however, it’s nice for them to avoid frito bandito Mexican accents under 1950s Western/monster movie The Beast of Hollow Mountain. Jonah and the bots riff on Rock Hudson’s forceful manhandling of Mia Farrow in Avalanche, but not as pretext for jokes about Hudson being a closeted gay man – something that might have happened in the old show. Different times.
Six episodes in, watching the interminable Starcrash, we get an old-school “hi-keeba” during a fight scene. Then, in the joke-banquet that is The Land That Time Forgot, the new crew is dusting off multi-layered castings such as “Matthew Lillard IS Donald Sutherland IN The Andy Capp Story.”
These dudes are doing just fine.
Dagnabbit! I wasn’t supposed to like this!