“Mystery Science Theater 3000,” the Minnesota public access television show turned ’90s cult phenomenon, perfectly predicted the current generation’s obsession with snark. Before the comments section of every article or video became the cesspool of snide remarks we know today, a janitor and his robot friends pointing out the glaring ineptitude of forgotten B movies was the inroad to participation through derision (though MST3K usually aimed to be more lighthearted with its mockery than the average anonymous Internet commenter).
After 10 seasons, a feature film and numerous hops between stations, the original series was canceled in 1999, but a successful Kickstarter campaign launched in 2015 by the show’s creator Joel Hodgson sought a revival. The fruits of that labor were finally revealed last week as “Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return” was released on Netflix with 14 new 90-minute episodes of bad movie terror/gold. I poked around the first few episodes over the weekend.
The general premise of the show is efficiently summarized during the opening song: A mad scientist (Felicia Day) and her henchman (Patton Oswalt) have captured hapless space conglomerate worker (Jonah Ray) on the dark side of the moon, forcing him to watch cheesy movies while monitoring his brain. This torture will in some unspecified way eventually lead to world domination, but that’s never fully explored nor is it all that important to enjoying what’s going on. There are some new faces aboard the Satellite of Love, but the true star will always be whatever crapfest is being riffed on, and in that way, “The Return” is essentially a clone of its pedigree.
Fans of the original will notice a much faster pace of jokes in the new series — it’s a rarity for 15 seconds to pass without hearing a wisecrack from robot friends Tom Servo or Crow. It can come off as overpacked at times, particularly when a joke is long and crowbarred into the exact boundaries of on-screen dead air. It’s a buckshot approach to comedy, with more gags that land and more that fall flat, but enough of the gags are blindsidingly funny enough to keep the audience engaged.
Pop culture references are a common draw for the commentary, but they’re reined in enough to not have too many name drops in lieu of a joke. The writers are also pretty clued in to the culture of the moment; Crow interjecting during one movie’s scene of man-woman small talk with “Ha! You’ve been negged!” gave me one of those unexpected bark-like laughs that left me covering my mouth in shame.
As much as the comedy meshes with the current generation of audience input and cynical wit, the viewing style is a little more retro. The new MST3K is not an easily bingeable show, and the setup of episodes with fake commercial breaks and goofy few-minute skits encourages consumption in small doses. After all, there’s no way to avoid watching a bad movie alongside catching the snide remarks. But the old charm is there, men in rubber suits and all.
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