MST3K Returns-A Spoiler-Free Review of the Premiere

About a year and a half ago, I happened to be home sick from work. On that day (a coincidence, I swear) I noticed that Mystery Science Theater 3000’s Joel Hodgson was doing a Reddit AMA. I’d been a fan of the show since my local cable company added Comedy Central during season five (so I only knew Joel briefly before Mike took over — still, I loved them both like a parent refusing to choose between their children), and I paid close attention.

Then I paid Kickstarter, because it turned out that the AMA was to announce a campaign to crowdfund a revival of MST3K. Joel had made noise about bringing the show back for years, but I’d shelved it with the Gambit movie or a decent take on Fantastic Four in the “I’ll believe it when I see it” category. Joel laid out his case, though, explained what he wanted to do, introduced us to Jonah Ray as the new host and Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt as the new Mads… and damned if I wasn’t convinced. There was never any question of if I would contribute, just at what level. I wound up dropping the most I’ve ever contributed to a Kickstarter campaign (although not nearly as much as some people, whose backer rewards included a visit to the set during filming, along with my eternal envy).

Fortunately, the level I chipped at contained a perk that brings us together today: a week before the show’s April 15 debut on Netflix, Kickstarter backers were able to stream the first episode for 24 hours. I’m under oath to Joel not to divulge any secrets of the revival, but as a die-hard fan of the series for over two decades, I’m here to report that the show is in very good hands.

Jonah Ray quickly endears himself to us — he’s charming and quick-witted, with a casual, everyman appearance that belies series talent not only for comedy, but music as well. Oh yes, this incarnation of MST3K embraces the musical pedigree of the original, killing it in what is not only my favorite segment of this new episode, but one of my favorite musical scenes the series has ever had.

There will be a period of adjustment to get used to the new voices for the Bots, but there’s no way around that. That said, the upgrades to them are remarkable. The puppeteering on all three of the main robots is leaps and bounds beyond that of the original series, allowing a freedom of movement that opens up the comedic and character potential a bit more. If you’re afraid you’ll miss the cheese of the originals, though, there’s plenty of it elsewhere to latch on to. Baron Vaughn, the new Tom Servo, has a sassy wit that feels perfect even if the voice is new, and Hampton Yount’s Crow is as full of bizarre non sequiturs and head-scratching wisecracks as ever. The biggest departure, however, is Gypsy. Gone is Jim Mallon’s breathy faux-lady voice, replaced with Rebecca Hanson’s sweet “midwestern” tones.

Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt fall naturally into their roles, and the Mads’ base in this version is truly eye-popping. While the design still evokes the campy B-movie roots of the series, there’s so much going on that I want to watch their segments over and over again just to make sure I haven’t missed anything.

The biggest fault in this episode, to be frank, is that it moves a bit too quickly. The riffs during the movie are rapid-fire to the point where I occasionally wanted them to pull back a hair and allow us to catch our breath. Similarly, the host segments (especially the first and last one) moved very quickly, not giving us much time to feel out the nature of the relationships between Jonah, the Bots, and the Mads. The original series felt more intimate, this one expands the scope to a degree where I’ve actually got questions about the Mads’ operation that were never relevant before. (Yes, yes, I know — it’s just a show, I should really just relax.) That said, this is only episode one of fourteen. There’s plenty of time for the series to feel the characters out and build them following the lead of the performers, which is exactly what it did not only in the early seasons of the original, but virtually any time one of the hosts, Bots, or Mads was replaced.

In so many ways, so many great ways, this feels like time has barely passed. It’s not a reboot or a remake. It’s a revival, or a regeneration. The show has reconstructed itself like a season of Doctor Who where the Doctor and companions all switch at the same time. It’s different, and it needs a little help finding its legs, but its core is intact, strong, and ready for more. For the first time since the institution of the IRS, April 15 is a day to look forward to.

Blake M. Petit has been nerding up the internet for over a decade. You can nerd along with him at BlakeMPetit.com or at his Facebook page.

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