First things first. The new Mystery Science Theater 3000, that basic-cable and UHF puppet show that was above all else a treatise about what it was like to grow up on basic cable and UHF, is a cheery, companionable continuation, an almost business-as-usual new season Kickstarted and Netflixed that Febreezes away the stink of the last Gen-X TV nostalgia-revival, The X-Files. Despite tech upgrades and a new veneer of comedy professionalism, MST3K remains at heart just what it always was: a simulation of watching last century’s creature-feature leftovers with your funniest friends (who mostly come from the Midwest).
Not much that matters has changed. Now made in Los Angeles rather than the Twin Cities, the series again finds an agreeable white dude (Jonah Ray, of the Nerdist podcast) cracking on forgotten cheapies with a pair of robots that seem assembled from scraps the show’s creators might have scored at a St. Paul garage sale — the same junk heap that has always served as those chatty ’bots’ frame of reference. Each episode is still 90 minutes of ambient Dada, perfect for kids or stoners or cultural-studies majors or anyone with attention span and time to kill. It still asks for and rewards your patience, interrupting the movie, as tradition demands, for hit-or-miss sketch comedy. The wisecracks, some hilarious and some not, still get volleyed at forgotten genre flicks by three silhouettes in theater seats at the bottom of the screen.
Seven minutes into the first episode, they’re right back at it. The first joke to make me laugh was the second delivered by the new cast: As 1961’s Danish-American eyesore Reptilicus kicks off, one of the robots greets the title card “A Sidney Pink Production” with “Poor Sid Pink — he got blacklisted, obviously.” The first joke that killed me hit some 20 minutes later, chirped out by back-bench robot Gypsy (Rebecca Hanson) as a stern Laplander scientist sets his hat with undue solemnity on a piece of office furniture: “Now you’re Mr. filing cabinet!”
Gags like these demonstrate that, despite the kvetching of some critics, MST3K has never been about sneering at low-end filmmaking. More often, it’s helped show how to groove with the irregular and the demanding, to watch attentively, to find pleasure and meaning in another era’s also-ran culture. The most challenging movies in the original series, the indie ’60s horror films/art objects Monster a Go-Go and Manos: The Hands of Fate, stir an anxious fascination that may serve viewers well if, one day, they move on to arthouse and experimental cinema, the kinds of movies whose creators demand patience and curiosity and ask the spectator to fill in the gaps. If you can hack The Beast of Yucca Flats, you can hack the avant-garde — just keep the quips to yourself.
The joking in the new episodes comes more quickly than in earlier seasons; sometimes it seems the cast is racing to fit their words into the movies’ gaps. But in terms of temperament this new MST3K is a welcome throwback. New host Ray slots right in between originals Joel Hodgson and Mike Nelson. He’s got Joel’s sweetness and Mike’s playful brattiness, but not Joel’s sleepy mien or Mike’s caustic edge. If Joel was like a parent to the robots, covering their eyes when the movies got lurid, and Mike was like an older brother, egging on their darker impulses, Ray is a fan-kid thrilled to have scored a playdate.
In the two episodes available for review, Ray and the new voice actors playing Tom Servo (version 3.0, voiced by Baron Vaughn) and Crow T. Robot (also the third iteration, Hampton Yount) have yet to exhibit clearly delineated personalities. All three of the leads’ voices are similar enough that, during the movie segments, if you aren’t watching the silhouettes, you might not catch whose joke is whose.
The premise has been lightly updated with just the right amount of winking hustle. Now the movies get sent to Jonah and the ’bots by Felicia Day’s Kinga Forrester (daughter and granddaughter of mad scientists played in the first 10 seasons by Trace Beaulieu and Mary Jo Pehl). A supremely enthusiastic Patton Oswalt charms as the sidekick, and that rinky-dink theme song has been embiggened and given a Har Mar Superstar update. Another complaint of MST3K’s critics has always been that even, without the jokes, the movies never had a chance, as they were cut for time and content, crammed down to the scale of 1990s screens — in short, treated like the UHF fare the show’s creators grew up stuck watching.
Now, at last, the series is HD, formatted for today’s TVs and preserving the films’ aspect ratios. The movies now more often yield moments of no-budget beauty. Since cinematographer Joseph D. Urbanczyk’s sometimes striking compositions don’t get cropped, the mountain location shooting in Cry Wilderness, the baffling 1987 Bigfoot adventure Jonah and the ’bots take on in the second episode, is transporting even when the riffing flags.
The MST concept hasn’t changed much since 1988, but the times have, as have the show’s metaphorical implications. In its earliest years, first on local Minneapolis TV and then on Comedy Central and what once was called the Sci-Fi Channel, viewers couldn’t miss the resonance of the idea of a man trying to amuse himself while forced to watch “cheesy” movies. For restless audiences underserved by their TV options, that’s what UHF and basic cable were about. You ran through the channels hoping for something at least interesting enough to respond to. Many of the most ardent of the so-called MSTies who embraced the show discovered it while dial-turning: How often before or since has TV stopped you and made you ask what the hell is this? (In interviews, the new cast members often describe having had that experience.)
What the hell is this?, in turn, has always been the unspoken question that the hosts and the robots answered each week when hit with inept UFO, monster and biker movies. Of course the series was perfect for pop-obsessed Gen Xers: It was entertainment as criticism, smartassery as survival strategy, a promise that in a culture of crap your (learned, witty, reference-steeped) response to art actually improved the art.
Today, the jokes must come faster, at the speed of Twitter rather than basic cable. But 90 minutes is too long to quip at such a clip. Eventually, as the episodes wear on, the hosts slow down, allow some dead air to stretch and trust us to watch the movie with them. I relish that trust as much as the best of the jokes. What seemed most new about the old MST3K was its insistence that watching itself was a participatory act, a collaboration with the original creators; what seems new about it now, as .gifs and YouTube quick-takes flood our feeds, is its insistence upon the value of collaborating at such length with old, odd finds not marketed to you. Its message: You should really just relax.