Recently, you may have felt a great disturbance in the Force. Like the opposite of Alderaan blowing up, a silence was suddenly filled with millions of voices crying out in joy. On Netflix, Mystery Science Theater 3000 made its triumphant return, and nerds everywhere lost their minds.
The evolution of MST3K is astounding. It started as a low rent public access show in the snowy midwest. Its audience grew as their fans swapped VHS tapes in a sort of benevolent pirating ring. No surprise it slowly morphed into one of the early internet era’s biggest cult shows. The franchise made stops at two different basic cable stations, surviving the kind of shifts that normally prove a death knell for other programs.
Knowing that backstory, it shouldn’t be surprising that MST3K like a comedy cicada would suddenly make a reappearance after 17 years of hibernation. Part of that staying power lies in the fact that the premise is paramount, while the personnel is secondary, but still significant. Throughout the show’s run, the cast has always been fluid, with several members leaving and being replaced. Most notably, original host and creator Joel Hodgson’s departure and subsequent replacement by Mike Nelson. Netflix carried on this tradition, producing this latest iteration with all new leads, Jonah Ray, Felicia Day, and Patton Oswalt.
Ray is pitch perfect as beleaguered hero. A normal guy tossed into an insane situation. His character responds to his own kidnapping like someone who just found out Subway forgot the black olives, disappointed but relatively unaffected. Day takes a delightful, but evil turn as Kinga, Ray’s kidnapper. Kinga is like a twisted mirror image of Day’s compassionate heroine in “Dr. Horrible.” Gleefully rubbing her hands at the idea of torturing someone. As the low IQ henchman Max, Oswalt does a good job of masking his acerbic on stage intelligence. Although jarring at first, the new voices for the robots, Baron Vaughn and Hampton Yount, nail the characters’ overall tone.
This new iteration demonstrates the truth that it’s the general premise of the show that really works. MST3K may not work with Jim Belushi as the lead, but you could replace Ray with a few other comedians and it’d still be hilarious. Maybe in a few years, Ray’s former comedy partner Kumail Nanjiani could take over.
It isn’t an accident that I used a “Star Wars” reference at the top. The return of MST3K most closely resembles the release of Lucas’s nightmarishly disappointing prequels. Both involve a passionate fan base eagerly awaiting the return of their franchise after an extended absence. MST3K succeeds where it’s more illustrious competitor fails. Despite featuring a new cast, it respects its history, and doesn’t try to recreate itself as a slick new property. Even with piles of Netflix cash to play with, the visual effects for MST3K are only marginally better than an early 90’s student film. Maybe the producers listened to Oswalt’s diatribe against the sequels and knew which pitfalls to avoid.
I can’t recommend this new series enough. The first episode alone delivers one of the catchiest songs in existence. Who knew singing about giant monsters could be so fulfilling? It’s also an easy watch with your kids, especially if they’re dorks like mine. My 4 and 6 year olds may not get 99% of the jokes, but they still absolutely lose it. So, consider it an educational program that helps explain 80’s and 90’s pop culture. Maybe it’ll save you an hour or two of watching “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.”