Noise An Arts Blog

The new "Mystery Science Theater 3000" is a bad show about bad movies

City Paper

Thanks to the "Pet Semetary"-like rejuvenating powers of Netflix, television shows such as "Arrested Development," "Gilmore Girls," and something called "Longmire" have all gotten new leases on life. The content provider's crusade to replicate and eventually replace cable by bringing back our faves is a double-edged sword: As great as it is to see our long-lost favorite characters back on screen, lightning doesn't necessarily strike twice. All of this is to say that "Mystery Science Theater 3000" lives again on the streaming giant with new host Jonah Ray, new mad scientists Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt and even new voices for returning robots Tom Servo, Crow, and Gypsy.

And guess what? It's awful.

To get to the root of why the new MST3K is such a disappointment, you have to consider the specific context in which the original show existed over its original 10-year run. Under host Joel Hodgson and, at its later creative peak, under Mike Nelson, the show had an irreplicable Midwestern charm. It was a no-budget puppet show tackling equally cheap bad movies, with the draw always being the crew's particularly esoteric sense of humor.

If you're understandably unfamiliar with the 10-season wonder, the show's mad scientist villains forced Hodgson or Nelson and a couple of kitbashed robots to sit through a different bad movie each episode, constructing a kind of shadow joke narrative to the movie's actual garbage plot. The movie was broken up with skits that served as a kinda faux-overture and intermission, which ranged from tolerably cute 'n corny to outright hilarious. At the show's best, you'd get jokes on everything from the Green Bay Packers to actor Clu Gulager as a reflection of the middle-aged cast's specific cultural touchstones. When Mike, Servo, and Crow list off dozens of insulting nicknames for Reb Brown's meathead hero in "Space Mutiny"—Blast Hardcheese, Bolt VanderHuge, Big McLargeHuge—it was hilarious because it's a couple of out-of-shape comedians ragging mercilessly on a big dumb dude. Beneath the homemade puppets and community college-level production values was a deceptive amount of personality and wit that remains memorable even a decade later.

Nu-MST3K, under Jonah Ray and company, is a kind of a wrongheaded labor of love. The first episode even, inexplicably, makes us sit through a totally unnecessary five-minute origin story that suggests an attempt to make the new show in continuity with the old one we all love. Nobody needed to see how, precisely, Ray's Jonah Heston got kidnapped while driving a space freighter and trapped on the show's new Satellite of Love.

The gratuitous cameos by nerd albatross Wil Wheaton and "Buck Rogers" star Erin Gray are distracting and pointless, to say nothing of the fact that the whole sequence is jokeless and excruciating to watch. Why shoehorn in a boring backstory to explain how Ray became stranded in bad movie hell when the original series philosophically dunked on wondering how the characters "eat and breathe, and other science facts" in its theme song? And on top of that, why make Felicia Day's Kinga Forrester and Patton Oswalt's TV's Son of TV's Frank the progeny of older existing bad guys? It's like reading someone's obsessive middle school-era MST3K fanfic they wrote in math class.

All of this is made worse by the fact that Ray's Jonah Heston is a personality-less nice guy who seems fine with his confinement, a stark departure from Joel and Mike's charmingly pathetic temp worker slackers. MST3K never pretended to be a drama, but there was certainly something affecting about the fact that our heroes were small-time losers turned science experiments who weren't missed back on Earth. When Mike Nelson sings 'I'll Be Home For Christmas' by himself while cleaning up in the episode "Santa Claus" before it starts inexplicably snowing in space, there's some surprising emotional heft to it.

Ray, along with new bot voices Baron Vaughn and Hampton Yount, do their best, but the lack of polish on their exhausting joke deliveries makes you appreciate the gifted comedic timing of their predecessors. Old school MST3K may have had homemade puppets and community theater sets, but many of the actors, in particular robot puppeteers Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy, were gifted comedians and stage performers who seemed at ease with the show's unique blend of skits and heckling. The cast of the original show truly felt like a functioning ensemble in the way the new one just doesn't, at least at this point.

Netflix's adaptation never feels like it has time to breathe or let the movie unspool before we get another yelled, flat gag about something on screen. It's even more egregious since their choice of cinematic turkeys is just as good as it ever was, with targets like the dumb kids Bigfoot movie "Cry Wilderness" or David Hasselhoff-featured "Star Wars" knockoff "Starcrash," among the weirdest discoveries in the show's history. There's a jarring discrepancy between the amount of money that was clearly invested in the show's production values—with design work from names like "Adventure Time" creator Pendleton Ward and veteran comics artist Guy Davis—and the actual quality of the jokes on screen. Gags like Ray, a white guy, rapping about folklore monsters make the whole thing feel like you're sitting through a bad episode of "Prairie Home Companion" on codeine and kind of demonstrate what a feat it was for the original show to make dumb gags like this palatable. One of the new show's few good jokes is, appropriately enough, original series villain Pearl's pronounced disinterest in her own granddaughter.

If the unintended legacy of the old show was encouraging your jackass friends to make obnoxious lame jokes over a movie at your house, imagine 90 agonizing minutes of that on Netflix with "yeah sure why not" cameos by Mark Hamill and Jerry Seinfeld.

"Mystery Science Theater 3000" has always weathered claims that it's gotten crummy. The show's change in hosts and the show's later move to the Sci-Fi Channel led to many longtime fans peacing out. And given that MST3K started life as a late night UHF channel show made to fill airtime, it certainly had a learning curve to overcome. But as much as the original show underwent changes, it always felt true to itself even in less remarkable episodes.

You can blame that on the passage of time and rose-colored glasses, but none of it clicks in this version, mainly because it often feels like the new cast and crew have set out to re-enact the Mystery Science Theater they remember instead of trying to make something that feels new or different.

This less-than-stellar new season doesn't retroactively wipe MST3K's many good episodes out of existence, but it's case in point for the diminishing returns of bringing back any remotely popular intellectual property just because it's there and available. To paraphrase the show, this stinks.

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