The return of the cult TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000, which originally ran on three different networks for roughly 11 years until 1999, is an act of playful subversion. In late 2015 series creator Joel Hodgson broke Kickstarter records with a campaign to fund 14 new MST3K episodes, raking in more than $5.7 million. During a July panel as part of the pop-culture pantheon that is San Diego Comic Con, Hodgson revealed that the show’s reboot had found a home: Netflix. Last Friday the streaming service premiered a new version of the program that unearths stools of the silver screen.
For the uninitiated, here’s the conceit behind the show: a Gizmonic Institute research lab employee is trapped in a bone-shaped spacecraft called the Satellite of Love by a small team of mad scientists (“Mads” in the show’s parlance), who force him to watch obscure and forgotten B movies. Our hapless hero jeers and riffs on the films with the help of a couple robots—the golden, gangly Crow T. Robot and the squat Tom Servo, whose head is a gumball machine.
Interacting with a movie is by no means novel. Responding to a physical act onscreen with one offscreen, as the MST3K characters sometimes do, is part of what helped make The Rocky Horror Picture Show a phenomenon—it’s the audience’s interactions with the film that have helped keep the schlocky 1975 movie a midnight staple. The same goes for 2003’s The Room, which moviegoers still greet with fistfuls of plastic spoons anytime a framed photo of the eating utensil appears. It can be theatrical and overly ritualized, sure, but the responses are earnest, and speak to the power of film that turns so many ardent moviegoers glassy-eyed. There’s something to sharing a communal space with strangers and feeling the energy created by reacting to the film as a group. Even if audiences tackle the new MST3K solo, the viewing experience is is enhanced by the onscreen commentary from keen comics who know all the beats.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return arrives at a curious time for film. Netflix is not only shifting the way indie flicks and blockbusters get distributed, it’s also changed our viewing habits. The service’s cornucopia of films can be overwhelming, rendering many users unable to select something to watch. Since Netflix tries to tailor its list to an individual’s taste based on his or her viewing history, it’s increasingly easy to ignore something new in favor of the comfortably familiar. The new MST3K throws a wrench in the equation. Nothing can help liquefy ossifying tastes like asking someone to purposefully watch a 90-minute stinker.
Not all of the movies featured in the new MST3K season are outright failures. Episode three’s Time Travelers (1964) is mostly plodding; episode four’s natural disaster flick, Avalanche (1978), mostly forgettable. But the cast, led by Gizmonic employee Jonah Heston (Nerdist podcast host Jonah Ray), enlivens the dullest moments with a torrent of riffs. The Mads—Kinga Forrester (Felicia Day) and Max (Patton Oswalt)—also get some quips in during the breaks, a holdover from MST3K‘s original runs that can seem gratuitous given the switch to commercial-free Netflix.
The commentary also skews toward contemporary references, and I jotted down some that hit me the hardest: Kickstarter, Skrillex, Twitter, “branding,” Interstellar, bitcoin, Electric Six’s “Danger! High Voltage,” and at least two utterances of Coachella. At their worst, a reference like, say, “Facebook” plopped into MST3K reminded me of Lil Yachty and Carly Rae Jepsen’s recent cover of “It Takes Two” for Target—on some level it works, but it’s also a painful reminder of cultural shifts that make such an utterance feel heavily marketed, yet another attempt to make something old appeal to younger viewers.
When MST3K‘s intra-episode viewers hit their stride—as they do with great clarity while reacting to the 1980s bigfoot dud Cry Wilderness in episode two—time feels irrelevant even though the film moves at a glacial pace. The new MST3K‘s most subversive qualities come out when it’s not only demanding viewers’ undivided attention but encouraging them to zoom in and even appreciate a trashy film’s mistakes. The folks behind MST3K have long known that a powerful film experience comes in how we respond, and sometimes even the most inept movies are capable of making us feel something unique—we just need to fill in the blanks.