For a puppet show born on a Minnesotan UHF channel nearly 30 years ago, Mystery Science Theater 3000 has enjoyed remarkable longevity. Two decades after it ended its original ten-season run, the show has grown from cult classic to genuine pop culture phenomenon; the end credits encouraged viewers to “keep circulating the tapes,” and now MST3K is available on DVD, YouTube channels that annotate its machine gun fire barrage of jokes, and, of course, Netflix. Like Herbert West holding a glowing green syringe, Netflix stands ready to re-animate every cancelled show you loved in high school, whether it’s Arrested Development, Gilmore Girls, or Voltron—and now they’ve resurrected Mystery Science Theater 3000 with a new cast featuring Jonah Ray, Patton Oswalt, and Felicia Day. But like Herbert West’s creations, the new MST3K is a bit shambling and dead-eyed—a shell of its former self.
The core premise of Mystery Science Theater 3000, immortalized in its catchy theme song, is so simple and irresistible that it feels impossible to get wrong. Mad scientists kidnap one of their blue collar employees (first, show creator Joel Hodgson, and later, head writer Michael J. Nelson), strand him on a satellite populated by wise-cracking robots, and force them to watch and “riff” cheesy movies, the worst they can find. (“La la la!”) Blending an esoteric wit with a Midwestern DIY aesthetic, MST3K never felt like it was punching down on the movies they riffed, even though cinematic atrocities like Space Mutiny and Manos: The Hands of Fate deserved a good sock in the eye.
Brought to life by a successful Kickstarter campaign by Hodgson and a pickup from Netflix, the new season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 has an aura of smug nerdbait, like a sentient ThinkGeek catalog. The show certainly looks the best it ever has, upgrading the mad scientists’ underground lab to an elaborate moon base populated by the Inframan-inspired, go-go boot wearing henchmen/house band The Skeleton Crew. The robots have also been upgraded; not only can Crow T. Robot finally wiggle his arms, but Tom Servo’s hoverskirt now allows him to float across the screen for added sight gags. And bad movies have never looked better, either; goodbye grainy pan and scan videotapes, hello widescreen and high-definition. It’s hard not to guffaw when honest-to-god movie stars like Jayne Mansfield and Rock Hudson appear, though the new MST3K’s best discovery is Cry Wilderness, an inexplicable family film about a boy’s bromance with Bigfoot. With its slick production values, the new season feels like an exceptionally well-made fan film—it’s a shame it isn’t very funny.
Despite their beaming “it’s an honor just to be here!” smiles, the new cast of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 can’t make it work. Sporting a canary yellow jumpsuit, host Jonah Ray is an amiable blank; the prologue to the first episode tries to establish him as a kind of nerd rock star, a personality that is never really developed. (If Joel was a sleepy-eyed father figure to the bots and Mike was their lunkheaded big brother, Jonah is the new roommate you never see except when you have friends over and he wants to use the kitchen.) Patton Oswalt’s talents are underused in the role of a second generation second banana (“TV’s Son of TV’s Frank”) hopelessly in love with Felicia Day’s mad scientist Kinga Forrester—who mistakes screaming her lines for telling jokes. The show brightens up when original series villains Pearl Forrester (Mary Jo Pehl), Observer (Bill Corbett), and Professor Bobo (Kevin Murphy) cameo, though Pearl doesn’t pass the torch to her evil granddaughter so much as drop it on her way to play the slots on Talos IV.
The new voices for Crow and Tom Servo, Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn, are clearly game when it comes to riffing movies, though it takes about half a season before they work up a comfortable rhythm instead of breathlessly rattling off line after line. (Contrary to what your drunk, couch-crashing buddy thinks when he yells at the Transformers movies on FX, riffing is hard.) Despite the wealth they have to work with—an Italian Star Wars rip-off starring David Hasselhoff!—the riffers fail to distinguish themselves. It’s vaguely pleasant “background noise while you’re cleaning the apartment” humor at best.
Still—I wish Jonah and the bots stayed in the theater. The host segments are shockingly unfunny: take, for example, Kinga’s invention exchange where the idea of “Hitler Coffee” is supposed to be so inherently hilarious that they don’t bother writing the rest of the skit around it. Gratuitous celebrity cameos stop the show’s momentum dead. Felicia Day’s reunion with Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog star Neil Patrick Harris quickly loses its charm when you realize they just stuck NPH in front of a green screen for five minutes; with their scenes likely filmed weeks apart, he’s singing at no one. It’s a Kickstarter reward, not a skit.
Restarting a beloved series with an all new cast is an unenviable task, but what’s disappointing about Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return is that for all the talented people contributing to it with the utmost love and admiration, it fails to establish its own identity. IMDB shows over 50 writers in one season and a glance at the show’s end credits will reveal names as surprising as Jerry Seinfeld, Rebecca Sugar, and Ernest Cline. Perhaps this is a case of too many cooks producing a bland mush. Part of the problem is that, in a sense, MST3K never went away. The original writers and performers have, in various combinations, continued the movie riffing game with The Film Crew, Cinematic Titanic, a “The Mads are Back!” live tour, and Rifftrax, which has now riffed more cheesy movies than MST3K’s original run. The Bluths and the Gilmores were out of our lives for years before Netflix asked “Where Are They Now?” and while Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo might have been in cold storage, their voices weren’t. So perhaps more so than other Netflix revivals, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return needs to prove itself as something fun and new and vital, not just “fine.” The toe-curling awfulness of Manos: The Hands of Fate seems more fun in comparison.