Although fans never really saw the original Crow T. Robot or Tom Servo wearing shoes, they left awfully big ones to fill.
"Mystery Science Theater 3000" fans were braced for blasphemy when the new Kickstarter-backed episodes of the season now known as 11 were dropped to Netflix at midnight Friday. As a Minnesotan who started watching the Minneapolis-produced show during season zero in the late '80s, I worried that the revival would be too Hollywood and destroy the scrappy charm that was such a part of its original appeal.
I shouldn't have worried. After watching four of the 14 new episodes of "MST3K," I feel that the Satellite of Love is in good hands with new host Jonah Ray and his crew. Here's an early report card on the new beginning.
Movie choice: A+
Frank Conniff, TV's Frank, of the original show, has written about how his job was to pluck movies out of the cheap options available to the show. Whoever is choosing them now learned well from the master. The crew started off with a 1961 Danish-American monster movie called "Reptilicus," then moved on to a 1987 Bigfoot flick called "Cry Wilderness," 1981's "Carnival Magic" about a talking chimp, and 1978's "Starcrash," a David Hasselhoff "Star Wars" rip-off. These are the types of mockable movies I was hoping for.
Homage to its roots: A+
Fans might have expected a token nod to the decade of classic shows, but after watching four episodes, I've found original-series Easter eggs peppered throughout, rewarding dedicated fans for watching closely. I've spotted throwbacks to "Pumaman" and to Rowsdower of "Final Sacrifice" fame and to classic lines such as he "tampered in God's domain." And if I'm not mistaken, a sly Ray line about a state park was a reference to the original cast's vow to not make obvious statements in place of jokes.
With "MST3K" creator Joel Hodgson steering the ship and other alums on board, those of us who've practically memorized each line of our favorite classic episodes will continue to rejoice in these wise little throwbacks.
The visit from Bobo (Kevin Murphy), Brain Guy (Bill Corbett) and Pearl (Mary Jo Pehl) in the second episode felt like approval from mom and dad -- or dad and dad and mom. The Minnesota nods are an extra bonus -- whether a Prince reference, mention of Lake Minnetonka, or a jab at our musical Midwestern accents, dontcha know.
Celebrity appearances: A
When it came out that the show would feature big-name celebrity guests, I thought it was a terrible idea. The charm of "MST3K" was its goofball, underdog status, as it was produced in an office park in a Minneapolis suburb, not on the same Hollywood lot as "Grey's Anatomy." Once you get a few famous faces in there, they tend to take over. But the celeb appearances I've seen so far -- Mark Hamill as a cocky magician in "Carnival Magic" and Jerry Seinfeld as a blowhard investor during "Starcrash" -- were light and fun and the star never took over the scene.
It looks easy to riff on a movie, but try doing it just sitting in your living room watching "Sharknado." It takes a magical mix of observational humor, encyclopedic pop-culture knowledge and perfect timing, yet both the old and the new "MST3K" hosts make it look simple. Ray and the crew delivered some zingers that are just as memorable as the classic lines fans have memorized.
Here are five random lines that made me laugh out loud:
1) "Wow, in between scenes, that carny won the Masters!" -- When a green-jacketed barker appears. From "Carnival Magic."
2) "I wish Bigfoot had given me more specific directions to the danger." -- Yeah, get on that, Sasquatch. From "Cry Wilderness."
3) "This is like if Bob Ross painted an action sequence." -- If only. From "Cry Wilderness"
4) "Either this print is in really bad shape, or it's raining tar!" -- Maybe both? From "Reptilicus."
5) "They scouted so many DMVs before they had the perfect location for this lobby sequence." -- Look, location-finding beggars can't be choosers. From "Reptilicus"
Everything else: B+
It's going to take more than four episodes to get to know and perhaps love the new cast, but so far, so good. Ray is affable, the new Crow's voice sounds eerily like the old one, and Kinga Forrester (Felicia Day) and TV's Son of TV's Frank (Patton Oswalt) make a perfectly serviceable Mads. Crow and Tom's relationship with their human pal isn't quite as clear yet as it was in the old days, but that'll likely come.
The wraparound segments with the Skeleton Crew band (led by Har Mar Superstar, named for my childhood mall) feel a little unnecessary, and I still don't get what Gypsy is doing when she drops in to the theater, makes one joke and vanishes, but eh, it might grow on me.
There's a smart inside joke in the "Cry Wilderness" episode about how "lots of shows don't get good till the fifth episode" and how you spend your time watching and trying to figure out why your friends love it so much.
Fans don't need five episodes to get back on board here. They had me at the very first one.
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