Friday, April 14, 2017

MST3K - Pouring One for the Homies

MSTies rejoice! 'Mystery Science Theater 3000' (MST3K for the officiated) has returned in all of it's glory! After a successful Kickstarter campaign, and finding a new home on Netflix, the series is back on the air as of today. If you ponied up enough money, you've already seen the pilot episode of Season 11 or the new season in it's entirety.

Even if you are not one of the original viewers, you can easily pick up the show with this new, revamped mode. A 2.0 upgrade, if you will.

Since the season is now officially out on Netflix, I can break my personal vow of silence and give a mini-review on the first episode. No spoilers! There's been some concern from long time fans and newcomers that this updated version of MST3K might miss out on some of the quirky beats that made the original show a delight to watch.

MST3K was the brainchild of Joel Hodgson, a comedian from Minnesota. The idea spawned in his youth about people talking back to a movie in a theater. In the original show, Joel played Joel, an every-man who was pretty good at his job. But his boss, a mad scientist named Dr. Forrester, didn't like him. So he shot Joel into space and started the experiment MST3K. The goal was to find the worst movie ever produced and unleash it onto the world. While in space, Joel built a few robot friends (Crow, Tom Servo, Gypsy, and Cambot) and all partake in the movie riffing. A few years in, after tensions brewed between Hodgson and the producer, Joel left and was replaced by Mike. On the show, Joel managed to escape, and the janitor Mike was shot into space as the replacement. The dynamic on the show changed with the robot companions, new mad scientists, and more comedy sketches. But the series always managed to hit the right notes year after year. The show was eventually cancelled in 1999 after a resurgence on the newly developed Sci-Fi channel.

On first glance, it seems childish. Grown men and women dressing up in outlandish costumes. Performing silly skits and making nonsensical inventions. All while talking to robot puppets as they quip at a cheesy movie. This simple premise is not easy to replicate. MST3K took riffing to a new level of art. Being sarcastic or sardonic is fine once in a blue moon, but throughout a full film? Well it's not only dull but unoriginal. The jokes made on MST3K were smart. They pulled in references from some of the oddest of places (Roman art and architecture, Japanese Mythology, the Revolutionary War, you name it) and they all worked. It was funny while making you think. This is what makes MST3K stand out from your average movie riffing. It was also engaging on multiple fronts so it could be easily approachable for different audiences. The sketches in between the movies can be hit or miss, but they always cracked a smile from me. But what kept my attention were the rifts. On a number of occasions I remember having a pen and paper out to write down jokes that I didn't understand, so I could go to the library and look them up later (the days before the internet, gasp!). And it made me appreciate just how in-depth the quips were when I revisited the show later on. I felt like I enjoy and learned something from the show.

It's also one of the few series that was both child and adult friendly. The more I think about it, there were virtually few to no movies featured that were gory or filled with cursing, nudity, and the like. They were B-grade films that had enough of a budget to get by. The MST3K crew felt that the movies that did the over-the-top stuff were too easy, so they focused on films they could sink their brains into, and it ended up working for a variety of audiences.

With Season 11 now out, is this updated version of the classic show worth the hype?

Most definitely.

I'll be the first to gripe about reboots, remakes, and "reimaginings." I think they are dumb. The point of remaking a product, whether it's a movie or a soda, is to improve upon the original. Most of the time, that doesn't happen. It's become a crutch for Hollywood to take something that was already pretty darn great to begin with, and modernize it for today's audience. They hope to capture the same feeling as the original to turn into a profit. If it made money once, why not try it again and make more money? But they don't always work out well, or just fall flat and become the worst movie of all time.

Going into the MST3K project, I was nervous to back it. I did it without hesitation because it's MST3K, but I was part of the growing legion of fans that were curious, but cautious.

A new cast was announced. New writers. New production crew. But the one thing they all had in common was that they were MSTies. Fans of the show. They had been through the Joel and Mike years and understood how people reacted back then to the change. Joel would still be at the helm, so he couldn't steer us wrong. Right?

The new season stars Jonah Ray, who is Jonah, a space transport operator (is that an official title?) for Gizmonic Institute. He hears a distress call and goes to check it out, only to be caught be a mad scientist, the daughter of Dr. Forrester (Felicia Day), and sidekick 'The Son of TV's Frank' (Patton Oswalt). Jonah is sent to the Satellite of Love where the MST3K experiment continues on. This time Dr. Forrester hopes to turn this into a lucrative opportunity - packaging the results into a product that Disney would want to buy so she can become rich. It's a fun twist on the formula. Jonah is accompanied by the original robots, who have been tweaked with "new abilities," which is an odd way of saying they interact with the movies a bit more. Servo now flies and Gypsy is able to sit in on the movies as well.

The set looks and feels like an upgraded MST3K. It's the same saturated colors, but it feels more refined. A lot of that has to do with the technology; HD has made images sharper while being affordable. New materials for set design have been released, making it easier and more cost efficient to build content. The whole show feels like it got a fresh coat of paint without sullying the good name of MST3K. Jonah's brand of humor is different from Joel and Mike. His influences are 90's and 00's driven, so there are more timely pop culture references that we haven't before. While still providing some of the off-the-wall, "where did they come up with that" riffs that we come to expect. I'm already a Jonah fan after his wonderful Monster Rap. Crow and Servo ask Jonah to talk about some of the fictitious monsters around the world (other then Godzilla), but only in a rap. By far one of the better skits I've seen over the run of the series. I'm sure it will be a YouTube favorite in no time.

The interaction between Jonah and the bots has been great so far. It feels like the bots have accepted him as a friend. He's not the father figure (Joel) or the mentor (Mike). The bots have lived on their own for a while and have developed into their own, um, people. You can see how they have matured by their mannerisms, and how they riff. It's the subtle details like this that make it feel like MST3K has aged well with the times. The first movie of the season was a good choice (what can be better then puppets make fun of other puppets?) and really highlights the comedy we will see in the future episodes.

This is a much watch series for any movie nerds, MST3K fan, or newbie to the rifting scene.

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