Born in the far reaches of local television, formed in the soup of primordial basic cable and canceled for the second time in 1999, “Mystery Science Theater 3000" came back to life Friday, resurrected into the 21st-century world of big-time streaming media.
Formerly of KTMA in Minneapolis, Minn., Comedy Central (beginning when it was still Comedy Channel) and the Sci-Fi Channel (later Syfy), it resides now on Netflix, fueled by the collective energy of a dedicated fan base that pledged nearly $6 million in a Kickstarter campaign to produce new episodes.
Put simply, “MST3K” translates the private experience of watching and mocking terrible old movies with your friends into public comedy. It comes from a lost tradition of hosted TV creature features and late-night movies dredged from the bottom of a station’s library. It’s also a puppet show, largely; kid stuff, with a nerdy, grown-up spin.
Jonah Ray (also currently of Seeso’s “Hidden America With Jonah Ray”) is the series’ third host, after creator (and still captain) Joel Hodgson and successor Mike Nelson. As Jonah Heston (as in Charlton, one assumes), he is, like his predecessors, the subject of an experiment: Trapped in the “not-too-distant future” on a spaceship called the Satellite of Love, he is forced to watch bad movies — actual bad movies, shown in their entirety, that we watch with him — until his captors discover the one that drives him mad. In some vague way, this knowledge will allow them to rule the world.
Felicia Day plays Kinga Forrester, daughter and granddaughter of the series’ earlier antagonists, self-described “third-generation super villain and the inevitable master of all profit-making media.” Her more focused plan for universal domination is, essentially, to get rich off the series you’re watching: “I’m going to blow up this brand and sell it to Disney for a billion dollars.” Patton Oswalt plays her classically dim right hand, Max, also descended from an earlier character, known as TV’s Frank. (Max prefers to be known as “TV’s Son of TV’s Frank.”
Like the hosts before him, Jonah is a remarkably chill and cheery prisoner, clearly in no danger of losing his mind, addressing viewers, genially participating in “invention exchanges” with his captors, passing the time with robot friends Crow (Hampton Yount), Tom Servo (Baron Vaughn) and Gypsy (Rebecca Hanson). (The voice cast is all new, and Hanson is the first woman to play Gypsy; “I’ve upgraded her language center,” Jonah says. “I wanted to give her a Midwest accent – you know, those women have music in their voices.”)
Of the 14 new episodes (joining a selection of 20 original-run episodes already on Netflix), the two available for preview were built around screenings of “Reptilicus,” a 1961 Danish impression of a Godzilla movie, and “Cry Wilderness,” a 1987 Bigfoot-themed nature adventure for kids. The deceptively ingenious structure of the show offers a double experience, of both a terrible movie one might enjoy for its own sad sake and a running comical commentary on the film provided by Jonah, Crow and Tom, seen in silhouette against the screen; we watch with and behind them.
Connoisseurs may quibble. The commentary, which is scripted, can seem marginally less spontaneous than in episodes of old, though I would guess this is mainly a matter of practice. And not every hit lands — the new writing crew, led by former “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” head writer Elliott Kalan, also includes “Community” creator Dan Harmon and that show’s star, Joel McHale — and many references will go right past younger viewers, but with hundreds of quips in the course of an episode, enough do. And the sketches that frame and interrupt the showing are all delightful.
Although a rather detailed mythology emerged over the series’ decade-long run, the only consistency that matters is the show’s relationship to its material and its audience, and, allowing for changes in cast, writing staff and technology, this is fundamentally the same “MST3K” you might have loved, been baffled by or completely ignored for all those many years, all those many years ago. Notwithstanding the relative celebrity of its new players, the cultural weight of its new home and a status grown legendary with time, it lives up, or down to, its original low-res model. It is still a scrappy, silly thing, probably best experienced late at night, with friends, and following the show’s one specific instruction: “Turn down your lights (where applicable).”
‘Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return’
When: Anytime, starting Friday
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd