I've been working my way through the new season of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 over the past week and four episodes in I'm starting to enjoy it more. After a very successful Kickstarter campaign, the new season premièred on NetFlix last week, resurrecting the show which ended in 1999 after having been on air for just over a decade--the show involves a comedian and two robot puppets making wisecracks or "riffing" on cheesy movies. You may recognise the famous silhouette:
The series has been brought back by creator and original host Joel Hodgson. Hodgson is not hosting in this relaunched series and has recast all the roles without ever giving a satisfying explanation, particularly after at least one cast member complained on Twitter publicly about the fact that he was not given a chance to return to his role. Hodgson's explanation is that he intended the show to be like Saturday Night Live and stay fresh because of its changing cast for new generations. However, I think if Bill Murray or Steve Martin said they wanted to be a regular cast member to-day, I don't think Lorne Michaels would say no.
In the first episode, new host Jonah Ray didn't really impress me and neither did the new voices for the robots, Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn. I read that Hodgson, who directs the new episodes, intentionally increased the pace of the humour and maybe it's a sign that I'm too old that everyone seems to talk much too fast on the show. On the other hand, I don't have this problem with any other new shows. The host segments, where Jonah and the bots leave the theatre to do bits throughout the show, in particular feel oddly rushed. But four episodes in I am starting to warm to Jonah whose voice and style seem like a cross between Norm Macdonald and Bill Murray. The robot voices still just disappoint me, and I particularly feel the absence of Kevin Murphy as Tom Servo. The voices of the new Tom and Crow are sometimes actually a bit hard to distinguish.
Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt as the new mad scientists, Kinga Forrester and Max, respectively, are much better and have a nice rapport but a bubble effect that allows their scenes to be broken up suggests they can't seem to do long takes for some reason. I guess it's not a big deal though it makes me appreciate more how hard the original performers worked every episode to accomplish those invention exchanges and host segments. Of course, the rough production qualities were always part of the show's charm and it extended to the performers, particularly with Joel who made you laugh with him when he stumbled over his lines. I heard one of the reasons Joel left in the fifth season of the original run was his conflict with Jim Mallon, who directed and produced most of the series. I don't know anything about that but so far, from what I can see, Joel is a much better performer than he is a director. The first episode of the new series, where Jonah is introduced and the explanation given as to how he became the new host, is muddled and a bit hard to follow. The running gag that he has to re-enact the whole thing every episode for the theme song stops being funny after the second episode--and if you for some reason decide to dive in at a later episode, it's confusing. However, the commitment to puppets and practical effects is wonderful to see and much of the new designs are amazing.
Mostly, though, I miss Mike Nelson. Not necessarily as host, though I liked him as host, but Nelson was head writer from the show's second season to its 1999 season so inevitably the show has a different feel without him. The new head writer is Elliott Kalan, former head writer for The Daily Show. I don't know if any of the jokes I've laughed at so far are his--the writing staff for MST3k is huge as it's always been--but I do sense a difference in the voice at work with the humour. I'm not sure how much that might also be due to the fact that the show was previously a idiosyncratic product of a Minnesota comedy scene and now has a cast with much more of a standard L.A./New York feel.
Of course, if I really want more Mike, I can just watch RiffTrax. Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff, the original mad scientists, are touring doing their own riffing performances, too, and one can't help wondering how this MST3k diaspora came into being, further making me wonder if yet another cast was really necessary. But, okay. It's done. I'll try and enjoy it.
Speaking of crowd funded projects, my friend Iain Marks, director and cinematographer and contributing writer to American Cinematographer, has launched a page to fund his upcoming Cyberpunk film Harsh Reality. He has a cool trailer up on the page which you can see here.