When I first heard that Joel Hodgson wanted not only to revive his most famous creation, the “talking back to the movies” TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000, but to revive it with an all-new cast, the only reaction I could muster was scoffing disbelief.
The original series, which ran from 1988 until 1999 on several different networks, did switch out its host and the voices of its robot puppets over the course of its run. But that happened gradually. A voice might change here, an onscreen performer there, but most of the show’s core remained present, especially in its Emmy-nominated writers’ room. Eventually every major role had turned over, without ever really rocking the boat.
But replacing everything at once, especially when nothing was wrong with the original series, seemed like a pointless overhaul. I’m not a huge fan of TV reboots in general, but if they have to happen, they tend to work best when they can put a new cap on a series that ended poorly. (See: Gilmore Girls.) Hodgson’s argument that the show could be like Doctor Who — changing casts every so often, even as its premise remained largely the same — struck me as a weird idea. I wanted my Tom Servo, dammit!
Well, consider me chastened, because the new MST3K is a lot of fun. I’ve only seen two episodes (Vox’s own Aja Romano will have a complete review of the 14-episode new season in a few days), but both made me laugh multiple times, and the second easily belongs in the upper tier of the show’s full catalog period. The show wasn’t broken, but it also hasn’t been fixed. It’s been touched up here and there, but in a way where you’ll barely notice.
Here are five big things to know about the new MST3K.
1) The bad movies being riffed on are funny in and of themselves
The best episodes of MST3K would be funny even without the host and robots jeering the bad movie they’re being forced to watch. That’s because they feature movies that are already amusing, because their badness stems from something that’s inherent to their construction.
Take Cry Wilderness, the movie that forms the basis of the new MST3K’s second episode. Like all of the show’s targets, it offers plenty of opportunity for mockery. But it’s also a movie about Bigfoot that seems to have run out of budget halfway through filming, and thus features lots and lots of stock footage. The whole idea of the movie is so preposterous that it doesn’t really need added jokes.
Once that extra layer of jokes is in place, though, everything becomes a feedback loop. You’ll laugh at a moment of ridiculousness in the movie, then laugh at a quip from one of the commentators, then laugh again at the movie’s stupidity. It becomes a perfect, rolling ball of comedic chaos.
2) The new cast members remember that MST3K is most enjoyable when it’s good-natured
At its worst, MST3K can be a little mean-spirited. That’s perhaps inherent to the premise. Making fun of a movie, no matter how bad, involves adopting a feeling of superiority, the sense that you’re above the film at hand and thus it’s worth mocking.
The series has always avoided turning its characters into jerks by presenting them as basically good-natured. They’re making fun of the films to hold on to their sanity as part of a scientific experiment designed to drive them up the wall, and that makes their mockery of the films feel less aggressive and mean and more like the byproduct of bored friends trying to keep each other’s spirits up.
This is thankfully true of the new cast as well. New host Jonah Ray has a sleepy, avuncular manner that recalls the days when Hodgson himself used to host. As Jonah’s robot pals Crow and Tom Servo, Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn loosely follow the characters’ roots as a sarcastic wiseass (Crow) and an eggheaded goofball (Servo), but you never get a sense that they’re just piling on to the movie. The riffing is fun, not cruel.
3) The show’s aesthetic has been updated, but not all that much
Original-flavor MST3K was just as beloved for its deliberately low-budget aesthetic as it was for anything else. It sometimes felt like the sets were made of cardboard, and the visual effects were intentionally made to look like something out of a 1950s B-movie. You could see the wires dragging around miniature spacecraft, for instance.
These new episodes have updated the show’s look, but only a bit. The sets are still deliberately clunky, the various alien characters that Jonah and the robots encounter still wear costumes that look like they were thrown together at Hobby Lobby, and spacecraft are still tugged around by wires. While the designs have been completely rebuilt from the ground up, they still look agreeably cheesy.
MST3K’s low-budget aesthetic has always been an intentional choice — it takes some degree of work to look this cheap without being unappealing — and it’s nice to see the revival hasn’t felt the need to spruce everything up with unnecessary computer effects or more polished finishing touches.
4) Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt are just fine
Both Day and Oswalt are more than game — and Day even gets to sing a bit of the theme song! — but it’s slightly weird to have such recognizable faces involved in a series that used to be produced in the hinterlands of Minneapolis and stuffed full of Midwesterners. (The new season was filmed in Los Angeles.)
With that said, their presence is in keeping with the way the new MST3K has subtly updated its comedic reference points. Where the original series tossed out jokes that seemed to have been gleaned from an endless childhood spent watching huge quantities of television, the new series tilts slightly more toward the manic pace of something like Weird Twitter. The references to obscure pop culture are still present, but they often head off into the flights of fancy that recall the more hilarious corners of social media. (And no, I’m not spoiling the jokes for you — they’re the whole reason to watch!)
5) Tom Servo can fly now
Okay, if any of the bits in the new series made me cry out for my now thoroughly destroyed childhood, it was seeing Tom Servo zip around like a hover car.
The new season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is streaming on Netflix.