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The Netflix ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’ Was a Worthy Reboot from the Start

Some great chemistry, a goofy movie, and an unforgettable song about monsters helped "The Return" hit the ground running.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 Mark Hamill, Jonah Ray, Hampton Yount

Photo by Darren Michaels, SMPSP

[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]

Where to Watch “Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return”: Netflix

It doesn’t come until about a half-hour into the first Netflix original episode of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” but take a few minutes and just bask in “Every Country Has a Monster.” First off, the “What’s your deal? Why don’t you shave?” is the kind of non sequitur that Crow (an impeccable Hampton Yount) thrives on. Then, there’s the carvings, from the etched map to the parade of mythological creature standees that quickly pile up on top of it.

As for the song itself, it’s the linguistic version of “American Ninja Warrior.” That “Congo’s kongamato is a mondo flyin’ dino / I know I don’t wanna die, but when I do, he’ll be the guy” section is Jonah Ray doing the tongue/mouth equivalent of a one-handed salmon ladder. Glorious stuff.

It’s goofy without being obvious (c’mon, who else besides the inimitable songwriting duo of Paul and Storm would ever think to rhyme “loup garous” with “impundulu”) and it’s fun! Usually, when people are tasked with a rap break in a movie or a show, it comes with a secondhand dose of heavy, cringing shame. Here, it’s just downright joyful, all the way through Servo (Baron Vaughn) shouting “British Honduras!!!” as the post-Movie Sign audio fades out.

The moment I always come back to is the Kropermann verse. Have you ever shouted the phrase “Because he is the size of Luxembourg!” along with a roomful of people? I have. It’s intoxicating. You should really try it sometime.

The whole thing is a quick, concise example of how this Netflix-aired reboot had such great chemistry from the outset. Ray works really well as a straight man, Vaughn is great as the sly, winking third of the operation, and Yount is anarchy and mischief. That three-man weave is on display in “Reptilicus,” the first entry of “The Return,” the massive 14-installment season that dropped back in April 2017. The opening has a little origin-story nod to the classic theme song, complete with a new set of practical miniatures and a cover from bandleader Har Mar Superstar (who belts everything from “relax” through the end like a champ).

And then, after a quick check-in with Jonah’s tormentors (Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt), it’s off to the races. The gang takes the first clear “American International” joke and runs with it and it’s like the show never really went away.

Obviously, this was a passion project for many of the folks involved, but “Mystery Science Theater 3000” really threaded the needle between being a spiritual successor and its own chapter. It understood the power of little things like when to have all three make the same joke (shouting in unison really is the secret sauce of this show), when to let the on-screen characters yammer on with long-winded plot setups, and when to capitalize on a single-word punchline. (“Jim!” “Slugworth?”)

There are times when you can hear someone start to laugh at their own joke, which gives the whole show the kind of “Is this anything?” energy it needs from time to time. The balance between spontaneous and precise has been the magic formula for a lot of classic “MST3K” episodes, reaching back to its ‘90s heyday.

It’s not just the opening to “The Return” that makes a strong start. The second Netflix season  — naturally, kicking off with meme fodder “Mac and Me” — has a throwaway “White God” joke so elegant in its “this is a joke for about 35 people”-ness that it could only exist on this show. Fortunately, the “MST3K” spirit lives on, as the team behind the newer version is in production on another season, with a mix of new and old cast members. Until then, as another Thanksgiving arrives (and plenty of marathons along with it), “Reptilicus” isn’t a bad place to start.

Pair It With: Part of the Ray/Vaughn/Yount success comes from the fact that each of them are writers and standups. For more of their on-stage work, you can check out “The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail,” a time capsule of mid-’10s comedy in LA that still has plenty of surprises. Both Yount and Vaughn made appearances over the show’s three-season run, now available on Paramount+. And you can head over to the Comedy Central app to stream episodes of “The New Negroes,” a combination standup showcase and music video variety show hosted by Vaughn and Open Mike Eagle.

Missed any other outputs from Recommendation Machine? You can read every past version here.

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