Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return review
The revived cult favourite hits the perfect mix of familiarity and innovation to please old fans and win new ones.
My Mystery Science Theater 3000 story is no doubt quite similar to many other devotees of the show. When I was 10 years old, circa 1990, my brother and I were surfing through channels when we came across an anomaly. It appeared to be a cheesy, low-budget Japanese kaiju movie. But at the bottom of the screen were silhouetted a man and what appeared to be two puppets. To our confusion and delight, they hurled a running commentary of hilarious mockery back at the screen while the movie played. We didn't know what we were watching, but we knew we'd found our new favourite show.
From that point on, Mystery Science Theater 3000, or MST3K, became an obsession. We joined the fan club. We woke up early on weekends to catch new episodes. We watched videotaped episodes over and over until we nearly wore them out. To this day, though I live in Australia and he lives in Denver, we often communicate via obscure quotes from our favourite episodes.
I offer that rambling prologue to say this: When series creator Joel Hodgson announced in 2015 that he was funding a revival of the series through Kickstarter, I was torn between feeling like all my Christmases had come at once and nervous that a renewed MST3K wouldn't live up to the show that had essentially shaped my entire sense of humour. After watching Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return, which launched on Netflix last week, it's clear that I needn't have been concerned. The revival is good. It's very, very good.
The formula behind Mystery Science Theater 3000 is a bizarre, yet simple one. A loveable doofus and his robot pals are trapped in space and forced by mad scientists to watch terrible movies in an effort to destroy their sanity. They cope with the endless schlockfest with a string of riffs that run the gamut from goofy puns to incredibly obscure and high-brow pop culture references. The movie riffing is punctuated by brief sketches, some of which form part of an ongoing narrative and some which are pure, non sequitur weirdness.
Little has changed about the formula that made MST3K great. But, while Hodgson masterminded the revival and remains as a producer, writer and director, the cast is all new. Happily, the new MST3K cast doesn’t contain a weak link.
Central to the revival is new host Jonah Ray, who plays hapless captive Jonah Heston. As the lone human riffing the movies and pulling off the sketches flanked by puppets, he has a tough job, not to mention some big shoes to fill in the eyes of MST3K fanatics. He pulls it off flawlessly. He’s affable and identifiable and it’s easy to forget that this is his first season helming the Satellite of Love. Ray seems so comfortable in the role it’s as though he’s been at it for years. Hopefully he will be for many more.
Perhaps even harder to accept for long-time fans would be the new voices for Jonah’s robot companions, Tom Servo, Crow and Gypsy. Again, talented comedians make the roles their own. They quickly put to rest any fears fans of the original series might have had.
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Hampton Yount plays Crow with just the right mix of acerbic nihilism and childlike naivety that was brought to the role by his predecessors Bill Corbett and Trace Beaulieu. Baron Vaughn embraces an entirely new persona for Tom Servo, a swaggering smooth-talker that seems to be a departure from his predecessor Kevin Murphy’s baritone intellectual elitist Servo. Though this can be jarring at first, Vaughn’s incredible vocal talent and tendency to have the lion’s share of hilariously memorable riffs in any given episode will quickly win you over.
Rebecca Hanson’s Gypsy finally moves beyond her previous slow-witted incarnations to deliver precisely two laser-focused riffs per episode.
Rounding out the new cast are Felicia Day as the main antagonist Kinga Forrester (the daughter and granddaughter of the original series’ villains) and Patton Oswalt as second banana, TV’s Son of TV’s Frank. Both Day and Oswalt are incredible talents and their incompetent attempts at supervillainy are always hysterical.
Day’s Kinga Forrester remarks early on in the series that new TV shows don’t start getting good until the fifth episode. Netflix chose to screen the first two episodes of this season’s 14-episode run for critics and the response has been overwhelmingly and deservingly positive. Still, choosing only the first two episodes gives the season short shrift.
Rest assured, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return doesn’t take five episodes to hit its stride. It comes out of the gate funny and familiar, with just a few uneven bits that could easily be put down to beginner’s jitters on the part of the new cast. By the third episode, it’s found the groove we’ve come to expect of classic MST3K. By the fifth, it’s tossing out riffs and sketches that deserve to be mentioned among the series’ all-time best.
As a devoted MSTie, I was optimistic going into the new season that Hodgson’s vision and experience and the energy of a new cast and group of writers would produce a show worthy of the cult phenomenon that came before it. What I didn’t expect, and what I have been joyfully surprised by, was a revival that comes close to being a new high water mark not only for the entire franchise, but for reboots, revivals and sequels in general.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return is available to stream now on Netflix.