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‘Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return’ Is A Revival Done Right

Nearly two decades after going off the air, ‘Mystery Science Theater’ returned in April on Netflix with a new host and new episodes.

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I grew up watching “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Granted, I was barely old enough to enjoy it during the show’s initial run. I probably understood a quarter of the jokes overall and almost none of the references. I really became a “MST3K” connoisseur during and after the Mike Nelson era, devouring reruns, tapes, and DVDs.

Few shows or movies combined accessibility and laughter as it did. The premise—mocking bad movies—was simple. Newcomers didn’t need to know a plot or the characters. The mostly anodyne jokes ranged from brilliantly obscure references to silly observations, giving almost everyone something to like. The encapsulated, unique nature of the show also meant that it could maintain a timelessness that most other comedy can’t. Because of all this, “MST3K” cut across age and personality types like no other.

Yet it remained a cult show, giving it a Lewisian “You too? I thought I was the only one” quality for devotees. Fellow fans for whom “Mystery Science Theater” quotes are no longer references, but ingrained and instinctive responses. While it certainly wouldn’t determine a close friendship, it always complemented one. All this made “MST3K” foundational comedy for me, like “Airplane,” “Blazing Saddles,” or “Monty Python” are for countless others.

The Reboot Allayed My Fears

Nearly two decades after going off the air, “Mystery Science Theater” returned in April on Netflix with a new host and new episodes. It was originally rescued by Kickstarter in a manner befitting the show’s bootstrapping nature. I was worried the reboot would suffer a similar fate as other recent revivals like “Arrested Development,” “Gilmore Girls,” or “X-Files”: No chance against the hype and too far along to recapture the magic of the original.

My fears were quickly allayed in the first episode. The charmingly low-budget demeanor remains. There’s enough of the familiar without it ever crossing into Member Berry territory. Most importantly: it’s funny.

New host Jonah Heston (Jonah Ray) tends toward the aw-shucks stylings of original host Joel Hodgson rather than Nelson’s detached bemusement. It makes sense, considering Joel’s involvement in the reboot and Mike’s absence (I, for one, miss Mike’s cynical chuckles). Regardless, Jonah seamlessly fits into the host role. While the new Crow works, I never adjusted to Servo and Gypsy’s new voices. Gypsy’s transition might be the worst part of the reboot (which says a lot about how well done it is). Her new voice kills a unique trait. And she drops in once or twice an episode to deliver jokes that are never funny.

It’s Not Perfect, But It’s Good

The new “Mads” (Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt) aren’t as good as Dr. Forrester and TV’s Frank, but they easily surpass Pearl Forrester’s crew. The “host,” or non-movie, bits are more consistent than the original. The new sketches never hit the same highs, but none of them drag like some of the old sketches would.

As for the riffing itself, Jonah and the bots seem a bit manic at times. Often riffing takes a backseat to reciting jokes “with the speed and determination of the incomparable Robin Williams.” It feels more manufactured, especially when so many jokes start a few seconds before the relevant scene.

The reboot offers fewer very obscure references than the original series. Jonah and the bots also seem to laugh at each other’s jokes less. It takes away from the original series’ homegrown charm and the sense that the writers and actors are in it to amuse themselves. But it’s the first season with a new cast. I have no doubt they’ll find their rhythm. Despite all the nitpicking, the new movies contain plenty of great jokes and laugh-out-loud moments.

“Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return,” like the original series, contains some gems and some duds. It never matches the likes of “Werewolf,” “Space Mutiny,” or “Cave Dwellers” in its first season. But it doesn’t have to just yet. The new episodes are funny. “Cry Wilderness,” “Avalanche,” and “Wizards of the Lost Kingdom” come close enough. I have no doubt that they’ll make some all-time classics in future seasons. Regardless, “Mystery Science Theater” is back in the best way. I’d go on, but I think Ian Sera put it best.