With Mystery Science Theater 3000 The Return, Netflix has once again relegated itself to playing the part of necromancer, resurrecting a long-dead series and proving that nostalgia is not only one of the most potent marketing devices around, it’s also the current reigning champion when it comes to getting a new project green lit. Not that it takes much to get a new series paid for by the streaming giant, but considering the long, winding road MST3k took from the end of its first series to now there is something to be said for the show’s ability to remain a part of the pop cultural consciousness. For whatever reason, after more than a decade off the air, the show’s rebirth speaks less to a lack of creativity on the part of those writing the checks and more to the indelible cultural footprint left by the original series. As a result, tacking “The Return” on the end of the series’ title jokingly suggests the kinds of hacky movies the series so gleefully and expertly heckles, while also conjuring those oh-so-pleasant feelings of TV nostalgia.
Despite an updated look and cast overhaul that includes the likes of Jonah Ray, Felicia Day, and Patton Oswalt, the revival of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is a loving recreation of the original series, right down to the lo-tech production values of its cable-access days. Though now, with the power of Netflix and a successful Kickstarter campaign behind it, those production values are mostly a veneer meant to conjure up wistful memories of the show’s past glory and, more likely, it’s cult status. The same goes for sidekicks Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo, who have been accurately recreated and brought back to life to add necessary spice to the color commentary of B movies. But MST3K‘s popularity had less to do with its quirky DIY values than with its anarchic spirit and ability to hilariously and affectionately skewer “bad” films without tipping over into outright malice.
Mockery is a tricky thing to balance. Go too hard and you risk scorching the earth; but go too soft and the jokes fall flat. During its initial run, MST3K turned mockery into an art form, setting its withering gaze to stun rather than vaporize. The result made the cinematic subjects of its playful ridicule more relevant than they’d ever have been without it. If there’s anything the revival absolutely needs to retain, it is the light, mischievous tone that kept the show away from venturing into outright scorn. As it turns out, the new series – and especially Jonah Ray, Baron Vaughn (Tom Servo), and Hampton Yount (Crow T. Robot) – understands this completely, making this one of the most successful resurrections of a piece of pop culture in a long time.
The first episode, ‘Reptilicus’, delivers the sort of set up you would expect, getting viewers both new and old reacquainted with the concept of the show and exactly what’s changed and what hasn’t. The new series makes good use of Ray’s sarcastic sense of humor and his everyman presence that evokes creator Joel Hodgson’s Joel Robinson with MST3K alter ego Jonah Heston and his aforementioned bot friends. It also gets plenty of mileage out of Oswalt and Day, who bring further changes to the series from a character standpoint – though the characters they play have close ties to the original show. Day, for instance, plays Kinga Forrester, the daughter of mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester (who launched Robinson into space and forced him to watch B movies until the perfect one could be found and weaponized), and Oswalt plays Max, or TV’s Son of TV’s Frank. Both actors enjoy a certain amount of geek cred – both for the roles they’ve played on shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Supernatural (and more), and their own open appreciation of films and TV popular in geek culture, making them ideally suited for a show that is, to a not insignificant degree, making use of its own cult status to fuel its resurrection.
As important a part as Day and Oswalt play, the series hinges almost entirely on Ray and his chemistry with his robot buddies. Vaughn and Yount are both very funny as Crow and Tom, playing off Ray’s surprisingly subdued tone during the sketches or interstitials that help break up each episode. ‘Reptilicus’ contains a bit early on where the three rap/sing about the monsters and legends created by different cultures that demonstrates the unique chemistry required to allow a man and three puppets to create a successful sketch that’s both charming and a welcome distraction from the characters riffing on the movie in question. Ray even fumbles with a series of props and looks directly in the camera at times, recalling the original show’s lo-fi, DIY origins, despite its resurrection on a platform like Netflix.
Those flashes of imperfection and endearing clumsiness make MST3K: The Return a far more authentic recreation of the cult classic than was expected. Aside from a welcome return to the humor and joyous silliness of its conceit, the revival feels surprisingly authentic in a way that both gives fans the kind of show that they want without making it feel as though Hodgson and Netflix are simply cashing in on nostalgia and opens the door for the series to continue anew. In the end Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return is a successful rebirth of the original series and a welcome start of something new.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return is available in its entirety on Netflix.