When Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return was announced, it made a lot of nerds very nervous. There are few shows so ardently (yet combatively) loved by its fans. “Joel vs. Mike” was one of the biggest arguments in the early days of the internet. Adding a “vs. Jonah” to the equation could potentially have relit a very stupid powder keg. But the new MST3K blends some of the best elements of both eras. MST3K: The Return has all the art and heart of the old show, with some newfangled effects and some welcome social consciousness. The soul of Minneapolis is alive and well at Netflix.
Just like the old MST3K, The Return outlines the show’s premise with its theme song, this time sung by Har Mar Superstar. Jonah Ray plays Jonah Heston, a “mug in a yellow jumpsuit” who works for the Gizmonic Institute. When he responds to a fake distress call, he is trapped on the dark side of the moon by Kinga Forrester (Felicia Day) and TV’s Son of TV’s Frank (Patton Oswalt). Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn play Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo. Kinga is trying to make Jonah’s plight a reality show, as well as a proof of concept for her “liquid television” streaming technology. Rather than succumb to the awful movies they’re forced to watch, Jonah and the bots joke through their torture. The Return keeps most of the architecture of the old show, including breaking the film into segments, broken up by skits and spots where commercials could presumably be inserted.
But MST3K is returning to a very different comedy scene than the one it left in 1999. It’s a landscape at least partially designed by the show. One can draw a direct line between the current galaxy of podcasts and YouTube series and MST3K – its DIY aesthetic and easy rapport between its stars. Appreciation of shitty movies has never been higher, with podcasts like How Did This Get Made? and The Flophouse as well as notoriously bad movies like Troll 2 and The Room gaining second lives on the revival circuit. And every local comedy scene has at least one movie riffing night. How much would the show have to change to make sense today? The answer is “a little.”
MST3K started as a public access show on Minneapolis’ KTMA. The show was picked up by Comedy Central (called The Comedy Channel at the time) and became the network’s flagship show. Then South Park came along and there wasn’t room for a silly, family-friendly show about robots anymore. The Sci-Fi Channel then picked MST3K for a few seasons more. Each network imprinted a little of its own brand on the show. Comedy Central demanded a more professional look (and quicker pace) than the KTMA days. The Sci-Fi Channel notoriously demanded a serialized storyline, and that all the movies mocked be sci-fi. What’s striking about the Netflix version is how un-Netflix it is. There are commercial breaks. Run time is set at 90 minutes. Nudity is censored. It really feels like a continuation of the same TV show, which is what Hodgson said he wanted.
There are new flourishes, however. LA comedy scene jokes have replaced midwest jokes for the most part. One episode has Jonah and the bots reference Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, then chant “Blaine Capatch” over and over again for some reason. Tom Servo can use his hoverskirt to fly around the theater. Gypsy is voiced by an actual woman, and gets two jokes in per episode. And the show’s politics have advanced. MST3K could be pretty ‘90s in its attitude to LGBTQ issues. Tucked penis jokes abound in The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, for example. I was bracing myself for gay jokes when I saw one movie featured would star Rock Hudson as a romantic lead. But instead, jokes focused on how his character was a jerk and chauvinist. Change can be a good thing.
New innovations also include minions for Kinga, called her “Skeleton Crew.” They shuffle around the background of many shots on Moon 13, performing menial tasks and sporting kicky bone-motif helmets. The aesthetic of Gizmonic Institute/Moon 13 is even more cartoonish than the Deep 13 of yore, which is one reason I was excited to see the invention exchange make a return.
According to MSTie lore, the invention exchange is a formal greeting in the corporate culture of the Gizmonic Institute. Behind the scenes, it was an excuse for Hodgson to show off the prop comedy that had started his career. Joel was a standup in the ‘80s, even making it to Carson. His act was prop- and magic-heavy, a form that has fallen out of favor. But MST3K shows that it can be done well. The visual world of Gizmonic Institute was always one of the show’s strongest points. The conceptually audacious, dubiously executed sets and props of MST3K paralleled the movies they were mocking. It heightened the camp.
The Mike Era abandoned the invention exchange in favor of more complicated opening sketches. That was always the crux of Joel vs. Mike arguments: innovation or professionalism. The Mike Era ran more smoothly, partially because the show had been running for longer, but also because Mike is just a smoother guy. Joel stumbled on jokes. His eyes never met the camera comfortably. But he brought a visual inventiveness that can’t be replaced. The only other live-action comedy show I can think of with such a strongly built world is The Mighty Boosh. Jonah’s tenure on the SoL brings the best of both approaches. The jokes are delivered professionally by Industry Professionals, but watching The Return brings a sense of playfulness – and, goddammit, prop comedy – to TV that we are sorely lacking.
Of course I have quibbles. The hosts’ silhouettes take up too little space in the frame. I miss the obvious spray-painted bowling pins and screwdrivers that once decorated the Satellite of Love. And everyone still needs some time to settle into their roles. Felicia Day struggles a little to play against type as resident Mad Kinga Forrester. You don’t get the same sense of contempt for her captives that Mary Jo Pehl performed so acidly in the Sci-Fi Channel era. Baron Vaughn’s Tom Servo voice is a little too affected, and he slips in and out of it. It makes it difficult during the theater segments to tell who is talking. Kevin Murphy’s Servo also started as more of a Cool Cat Radio DJ voice. But after a decade in the character, Servo’s voice settled into one more closely resembling Murphy’s own. Presumably Vaughn will do the same. But these aren’t problems, so much as room for improvement. Any deficits in the show are more than compensated for with Patton Oswalt’s glorious wig. Hodgson, Ray, et al. set out to create more of what we loved, and they succeeded.