MST3K superfan Richard weighs in on the Netflix revival. Was it worth the reprise?
Not too long ago, I wrote a gushing love letter to a twenty-year-old TV show badly disguised as a review. While said paper may have been littered with obscure references and attempted justifications, the sincere feelings it held for the show were hardly hidden. Mystery Science Theater left a clear and distinct mark on my younger self, and it is he who must now decide the fate of the show’s return.
Brought into life by Joel Hodgson and the concerted efforts of the show’s dedicated fanbase (with some help from Netflix), the show had already brought itself a measure of goodwill. This began as a sincere and heartfelt tribute and not some unoriginal cashgrab designed to exploit nostalgia. But even good intentions can be led astray down dark and well-trodden paths to those harrowing bone fields. There can be found the undying monsters that were once Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Robocops, their corpses now stuffed with hundred dollar bills wondering in aimless pursuit of foreign market appeal and PG-13 ratings.
While certainly an “update” on the show’s original concept, MST3K: The Return does the rarest of things in our modern media landscape. It wears its heart on its sleeve and asks simply for the chance to once more fill that little moon-shaped void that its predecessor left behind. It doesn’t look down on its heritage nor does it endlessly wallow in it; rather it acknowledges it and, from there, proceeds to carve out its own little legacy by giving us new films and new jokes a little more fitting for the current age. There are references to Twitter and Facebook. Servo’s silhouette can now fly for some physical comedy. And the new Mads are just a hoot.
Yet, a few episodes in, I was still a little unsure. The jokes were funny and the films were awful. In that regard, all was well on-course. I found the new robot voices appropriate and Jonah Ray to be a wonderful bearer of the torch left by Mike Nelson and Hodgson. What I was missing were the little moments that set the original show apart in its nuttiness. The willingness to do something regardless of pretence and dignity; that joke which was just there because, damn it, it was just too funny. And then The Loves of Hercules happened. A film whose jokes reached a next level – a level of self-assurance that the original didn’t quite find till season 8. Now I won’t spoil the ending, it’s too good a surprise to ruin, but I cried in laughter till past the credits.
This is perhaps the show’s strongest feature and yet to some it is the greatest handicap. While certainly bearing distinct features from its predecessor, MST3K: The Return is not here to reinvent the wheel. Any and all changes can easily be seen as alterations the original programme would have made had they had access to the same technologies and resources. It’s a Netflix show which still has clear “commercial breaks”, in and of itself an oddity included for no other purpose than nostalgia. Ray and the new gang are here to serve a specific audience: the original series’ fans. Though I certainly expect them to pick up some new converts along the way, no-one here is trying to push a bigger and better way of doing things. Instead, they take their level of homage to extraordinary lengths. Some might see this as playing it safe. I would say, however, that there is no reason to fix something that, even twenty years later, simply isn’t broken. But I would argue that Hodgson and co. aren’t making something for people who watched the original at broadcast. Rather, the show feels aimed at those who discovered clips late at night on YouTube; the same people who make online shows like CinemaSins and ThatGuyWithTheGlasses so popular, or those who enjoy films like Sharknado or Snakes on a Plane.
While fans of the original may see the thirteen-episode run as something of a mixed bag, I’d say the ratio of good-to-bad runs in favour of the good, with several seasons of the original show containing some real duds (I’m looking at you, season 6). I’m aware that this review is somewhat dependent on a familiarity with a series which, for the most part, has faded into minor fandom obscurity. For any who don’t know about this little piece of cultural madness, I have no problem suggesting a sampling of what Netflix is now offering you. As fun and dear to my heart as the original may be, its references and cultural perspective require a certain degree of knowledge and context which only comes from true immersion in that era. The Return lets you get away without the homework and offers jokes and comments which are nerdier, broader and certainly more relevant to audiences in 2017.
Overall, this doesn’t feel like reviewing a new programme so much as revisiting an old place from my childhood. The paint may have changed and the furniture is mostly new, but that favourite chair is still in the corner and those marks on the doorframe are still there if you look for them. I’m not sure if MST3K ever truly died, but The Return doesn’t feel like an imposter or a reanimated corpse. It is different but the same, comforting in its familiarity and confident in its execution. Mystery Science Theater came home, and I for one am happy to see it again. Also, I think Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II caused me to break several ribs from laughter, and I can think of no more appropriate seal of approval.