2017 has been the year of the pop culture revival.
We’re not even a third of the way through the year and theaters have already seen nostalgia-driven reboots of Power Rangers, King Kong, and even CHiPs, with Baywatch, the Mummy, and a Blade Runner sequel set to release later in the year.
On TV, the Lethal Weapon series wrapped up its first season, Samurai Jack fans finally get a conclusion after 13 years of waiting, and Bates Motel finishes up its five-season run with a retelling of Psycho.
Netflix, perhaps the originator of this current trend of resurrecting dead properties, has kept the pace, first rebooting A Series of Unfortunate Events in January and now the much-anticipated return of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
The original series ran from 1988 until 1999, snappily riffing on the worst films ever made while gaining a cult following among movie buffs with its offbeat sense of humor and charming DIY production values.
In many ways MST3K was the progenitor of YouTube movie riffers such as the Nostalgia Critic, CinemaSins, and Honest Trailers, as well as influencing video game let’s play commentaries like the Game Grumps and Rooster Teeth.
Even after a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign in 2015,there were still questions if Mystery Science Theater has a place in the post-YouTube landscape.
18 years since the last episode aired on the then Sci-Fi Channel, Mystery Science Theater 3000 has been reborn on Netflix in a series dubbed “The Return”, maintaining much of the original’s charm and wit, while being the most newbie-friendly season to date.
The premise of the show has changed very little as explained in the title song: a blue collar schlub named Jonah Heston (played by Jonah Ray) is baited and captured by a couple of mad scientists (also known as “the Mads”) to be used in a diabolical experiment to test the outer limits of human sanity.
Force him to watch the worst of the worst, the schlockiest of schlock exploitation and b-movies until his mind melts into madness.
Luckily for him he has two robot companions, Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo to riff on the movies with him and ward off insanity.
I love the conception of the Mads’ moon base as an evil TV station that literally broadcasts in liquid television and even has its own house band that plays during “commercial” bumps.
Even then there are constant references to Netflix and the other shows on the streaming service.
If the 90s series broke the fourth wall, The Return has a complete disregard for it
One of the biggest concerns from MST3K fans (or MSTies) during the new show’s production was the casting of already established comedians and actors from the LA comedy/podcast circuit to replace the original roles.
Part of the charm of the original run was that the writing staff and cast were exclusively made up of local talent, virtually unknown outside of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.
The result was a production that had a sense of authenticity as the unknown cast, cheap sets, and kitschy writing resembled the very movies they were riffing.
Felcia Day and Patton Oswalt are the most recognizable faces of the cast and have fantastic chemistry as Kinga Forrester and TV’s Son of TV’s Frank, the children of the original Mads.
Day brings a bit of a meta element to her character, less interested in the actual scientific progress of the experiment itself and more in the personal financial benefit it could bring (she wants to sell the rights to Disney).
Her lackey Patton would like nothing more to continue the spirit of his namesake by trying desperately to win the affections of his boss, mostly through lame villainous one-liners.
Ray is best known as a co-host for the Nerdist Podcast strikes a nice balance between the soft friendliness of series creator Joel Hodgson and the snark of Mike Nelson in the host role.
Initially it’s a little jarring to hear Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn as the new voices of Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo, but they easily slide into their roles once the riffing finds its groove.
They have a nice chemistry with Ray, who handpicked them for the show from their time on the Nerdist.
It’s a very talented cast and they each get their time to shine, but the goofy Midwest charm of the original MST3K is missing with such an L.A.-Centric cast.
Ultimately the casting is a very minor point compared to the meat and potatoes of MST3K: the riffs, which might be even better here than they were in the 90s series.
While most of the riffs in the original series still hold up very well, oftentimes the host and the bots would reference contemporary or obscure pop culture that either sounds dated or just flies right over the head of anyone under the age of 30.
The Return gives MST3K a refresh on the pop culture clock, updating it with riffs that are more contemporary to the streaming generation: the Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and the new Star Wars trilogy.
When I get the question of where someone should start if they want to get into Mystery Science Theater, I finally have an answer.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return is the best entry point into the world of the bots and Mads of Gizmonic institute for any age.
Though with 14 episodes, clocking in at 90 minutes each, be sure to pace yourself.