Mystery Science Theater 3000 is Coming Back! But Is It Better than Ever?

Is it… bold? Could it possibly even be… extry bold?

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend an early screening of the new MST3K episode in New York. At first I was so nervous and excited that it took a few minutes for me to, um, really just relax. What if it sucked? What if Jonah Ray didn’t work as a host? Or if the Bots had come back…wrong? Or if I hated Tom Servo’s new voice? Worst of all: what if it just wasn’t funny?

Well, I’m ecstatic to say, fellow MSTies, that in this reviewer’s exceedingly unhumble, nigh Servo-esque opinion, the new episode is great! I will tell you why, and I will do it without spoiling anything, because I want all of my fellow MSTies to enjoy the show this weekend.

First, the basics: After a ludicrously successful Kickstarter campaign, Joel Hodgson was able to bring MST3K back. He hired The Daily Show’s Elliot Kalan to be Head Writer and Jonah Ray to be the new host, Jonah Heston. Ray recommended two of his comedy-trench-buddies, Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn, to be the new voices of Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo, respectively, and Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt came on to be the new Mad Scientists, along with some assorted henchpeople:

They’ve mostly left the premise alone—Jonah is forced to watch cheesy movies while the Mads mock him—but the opening scenes provide just enough information that someone who has never seen the show before will understand what’s going on. It’s also a bit more kid-friendly than it was by the end of its original run. By the time I came to MST3K, I was a grizzled veteran of many, many R-rated films (possibly even a few NC-17s, ooooh) so I was fine with the slightly older-skewing humor of the Syfy years, but I know that under Joel’s reign, MST3K often felt like a Saturday morning children’s variety show, and it seems that he’s brought that tone back, at least in the opening episode. If that continues for the rest of the season, this should be an ideal way to create a new generation of MSTies.

Jonah Ray has talked (and talked and talked) about his love for MST3K. That was one of the most hope-inducing elements for me during the Kickstarter campaign—it was cool to see a true fan get a chance to be host. And he really does step into the role perfectly. He’s warm and funny during host segments—edging more toward a fatherly Joel vibe than a Mike’s snarkier big brother—but much more acerbic as a riffer. This is my personal sweet spot, because I liked Joel’s paternal relationship with the Bots, but I honestly like Mike’s sharper jokes during the films—I think his performance during “A Date with Your Parents” is the best 20 minutes of MST3K.

Both Bots were great during the film, although I don’t know if their different viewpoints and styles are quite as obvious as they have been in previous incarnations. But again, this is all based on the first episode, so I’m hopeful that those elements will become stronger as the show goes along and gets a few more host segments under its jumpsuit belt. The one other update is that rather than being a purely Mad Scientist, Kinga Forrester wants to be a media mogul, which I thought was a great addition—while the original Dr. Forrester was occasionally concerned about ratings, our current society encourages everyone to be worried, constantly, about how they appear on social media, so it makes sense that the next generation of Mads would be more focused on ruling someone’s feed than on being considered truly eee-villl.

One of the best things about the previous iterations of MST3K is their even-handedness. While there was some political humor, both sides of the aisle were teased pretty equally. Religion, Midwestern culture, and good families were treated with respect, but basic humanistic principles of equality and open-mindedness were also celebrated. Generally speaking, when the MSTies took on a film that touted authoritarian values, or was sexist or racist (and that happened a lot) they took the side of the underdog. I know some fans were worried that having Elliot Kalan as head writer would take the show in a more topical or even explicitly political direction. I’m happy to report that the new show stays true to the old spirit. Since the first episode takes on an older film, viewers are able to luxuriate in two whole hours that are unconnected to our current world, and the humor once again bounces all over the place without ever attacking any viewpoint unfairly. Plus, we should also remember that Kalan is responsible for a pitch for a Ziggy movie that actually makes it sound like a stellar idea, and, maybe best of all? In Spider-Man and the X-Men: Volume 1, #2, he wrote what may be the single greatest comics panel in history:

So I think we can all agree he’s a welcome addition to the MST3K crew.

I’m going to carefully clear my throat and say that, to me at least, this feels like MST3K. Like, if the show had been picked up by, I don’t know, The Food Network a month after Syfy cancelled it, and they had premiered with this episode? I think people would have jumped right in, re-igniting into their usual blood feuds bickering about which host was best, which Crow was best, and which Mad was best, and then just rolled along watching the show. The new iteration feels like it picked up right where the Syfy finale left off. The riffs range from incredibly obscure to obvious pop culture references, the host segments are fun (with the first skit being an instant classic),YES there are jokes about Minnesota, and YES, there is a Prince reference. Plus the effects still seem homemade! I mean, look:

That’s adorable, and seeing that Gizmonics Institute G shining out through the void of space almost me tear up, because MST3K is the one thing on Earth that is capable of turning me into a sap.

And that is the next thing we must discuss. There is moment—and I am twisting myself into knots trying not to spoil anything—but there is a moment when Jonah references Experiment 504, Secret Agent Super Dragon. As I was watching the screening, tentatively allowing myself to enjoy the show, this was the moment I really just relaxed. (I know, I know…) The way the new show took a somewhat obscure riff from a classic episode and layered it in to make an even more obscure joke felt like a wink from one lifelong MSTie to another, and it created exactly the spark I used to get back in high school when I understood one of the references. That’s what been so difficult to write about: MST3K is more about a particular feeling than a set of jokes. Where most comedy shows can be judged by wit, cleverness, and topicality, MST3K lives and dies by a nebulous sense of belonging. It’s like hanging out with the wittiest people you know, who are also genuinely caring friends. The thing I most feared with this new series was that it wouldn’t feel right, that it would be empty nostalgia-for-nostalgia’s-sake, or strained jokes…or that it would be mean. I’m ecstatic to say that, at least in the first episode, the show scoffed at those fears and gave me a mental comedy hug. And I laughed a lot.

So all of this is to say: I loved the new episode! In a sea of nostalgic rehashings and reboots, MST3K is the one that’s gotten it right.

And just one more thing: I know that for the last 20 years the mantra has been “Keep Circulating the Tapes!”, but Hodgson and the rest of the producers are asking that we not pirate the episodes as they become available to Kickstarter backers—basically, if we like the show and want to see a Season 2, we need to watch the heck out of it on Netflix. So once the episodes drop this Friday, AD, please do that, and then come back and tell me what you think!

Leah Schnelbach just doesn’t have enough flails. They should have sent a Muppet. They should have sent a Muppet. Come talk to her on Twitter!

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