Monday, May 29, 2017

Owning Your Okayness: MST3K The Return: A Review

After a ton of hype and a lot of well-placed promotion, the MST3K Revival season kicked into high gear this past April.  Now that the season’s been binged and with a tour waiting in the wings,  I thought I’d peel back the layers of what’s good, bad, and just plain okay about the new season of MST, as broken down into several different categories.

The New Characters

We have three fresh characters for this new season, and they’re a mixed bag when it comes to what they provide the show.

The best of the lot is definitely Max, TV’s Son of TV’s Frank. Managing to nail both the pathetic sweetness that Frank Conniff brought to the role while adding a level of diabolical sociopathy of his own to the mix, Patton Oswaldt is the show’s shining jewel  when it comes to both creating an enjoyable character and echoing the show’s mythos.

A step down from that is sadly Jonah Heston.  While he’s managed to inspire a new generation of fangirish swooning, Jonah really doesn’t come off as his own character for much of the show, often coming off as a watered-down version of Joel Robinson.   Jonah Ray often seems the most in his element when Heston is singing, when he’s talking about his love of space, or when he’s doing something joyfully, freewheelingly geeky (like singing about how every nation has a monster, or being somewhat embarrassed by being caught by the bots dancing alone in his room).  Hopefully that will be the focus of his character next season.

My biggest disappointment is sadly Kinga Forester.  While it’s nice to see Kinga’s personality leavened  with a yearning for approval and intimacy, a personality trait that was often sublimely portrayed in the makeup of Trace Beaulieu’s Clayton Forester, she never truly wields a sense of menace over Jonah until the very end of the season.  She just doesn’t plain have the right spark of Forester madness,  that over-the-top silly wickedness that made Pearl and Clay stand out as villains (the one exception would be the notion that she forces Jonah to relive the opening themesong over and over again and will otherwise shock him with a cattle prod).  Whenever she battles for screen gravitas with Pearl Forrester, she ends up getting blown out of the water.   This isn’t Felicia Day’s fault – she does bring humor and earnestness  to the part – but her muddled thoughtline (see the storyline portion of this article) is hard to overcome.  And while her obsession with ratings makes sense as an outgrowth of Clay’s own pursuit of same eras ago.

Also a shoutout to Ardy, my favorite minor character, who has potential to be a lot of fun next season.

Grade: C+

The Returning Characters

Speaking of Pearl, Mary Jo Pehl owned every second of her screentime as a returning Pearl Forrester, who clearly regrets raising her granddaughter, just as she clearly regretted raising her son (twice).   While Bobo and Brain Guy were their  silly best, the makeup job and-or mask for Bobo was simply atrocious.

Among the ‘bots, Crow comes off the best, feeling like his typical whiny yet artistic self.  But while Baron Vaughn tries his best to make Tom Servo sound distinctive it’s often hard to tell him apart from Jonah unless you’re paying close attention to the screen.   Personality-wise, the ‘bot suffers from losing the theatrical bombast that Kevin Murphy made so integral to the part, and aside from his frequent appearance in dresses there isn’t much of the insecure, artistic and yet bombastic Tom monster that we’ve all come to know and love.

An absolute crime, however, is what they’ve done to Gypsy.  While her new, actually-provided-by-a-woman voice is fine, her personality is a mess, and she comes off solely as a mother hen instead of her tough, frantic, independent and intelligent creature she was.  Adding her into the theatre segments is a fresh notion, but her one-liners are awkward, and it’s been well-established that she’s the only one in the cast of characters who truly realizes how terrible the movies the others get subjected to are.  And let’s be frank: her new body is creepy, with or without the disembodied arms and torso feature.

And I’ll say it, because some of you must be thinking it: What about Cambot?

Grade:  C-

The Material and Riffing

Here’s the one thing I can find very little fault with.  The selection of movies is excellent, echoing all of the show’s favorite target material in a single season.   All that was really missing was a goofy 60’s era JD picture; otherwise the selection would’ve been utterly complete.

The riffing itself was quite funny and up to snuff in general, but in the first four episodes is subject to being too speedy, and even in the later episode there would be incidents of ‘riff clumping’.

Grade: A

The Host Segments

This is one of the show’s weakest areas.  While some of the segments stand out vividly – anything involving music, Jonah’s repeated attempts at building his space suit, the crawl of nonexistant monster movie names, the fashion show, the running joke of Tom and Crow trashing Jonah’s new robots, Kinga and Max’s Mesozoic Ranch crime against humanity (and deliciousness!), Hitler Coffee - many segments drift by without much of a connecting thoughtline or a driving joke.


The Story Arc

After attempting a fairly decent linear storyarc throughout the Sci Fi years, the show tries to establish a running thoughtline through season eleven.

And that thoughtline is a romantic one.  Who woulda thunk  it?

For it seems that Max has an enduring crush on Kinga and Kinga is woefully ignorant of same, being in love with her long-distance internet boyfriend – who dumps her when she asks to meet him face to face. Max pines away at her until she decides to marry Jonah for the ratings.   The wedding does not go well, thanks to the interference of Max and a Reptilicus he’s been raising.

 It’s strange to see the vague Forester/Frank subtext brought to life in their children as text – one almost wonders if they’d go in this direction if they hadn’t cast a woman as Forester’s descendant.   The idea is whole romance-for-ratings idea is implemented too late in the season, and seems to mostly be there to insert false tension into the premise.  Max’ pining is, however, well-established and the final turn his obsession takes manages to make him even more villainous than Kinga.

As for the sudden ‘death’ of Jonah, one can only presume it’ll have a quick resolution in the season twelve premiere.


Special Effects and Other  Notes

The general model-making looks decent enough, as does most of the make-up, with the biggest exception being Bobo’s new mask. 

The Skeleton Crew is a decent though not necessary addition to the show.  Ditto all of those celebrity cameos, which seem to exist only to point up the fact that MST is a Big Deal Property now.    As for the notion of Jonah reliving the opening of the show every single

Letter Grade: A-

The Verdict

How much you enjoy this season ofMST3K  will depend upon how strongly you’re wedded to old versions of the returning characters; if you’re here just for the riffing you won’t be disappointed.  Even if you’re NOT just here for the riffing, then you’ll bump into some flaws that may be hard for you to swallow.

The show’s biggest problems in the years ahead will be integrating the new castmembers into the old structure.   They only need a little bit of polishing, and Jonah needs to become a bit more of a character (and the writing staff should familiarize themselves with who Gypsy became in the Mike years of the show ).

Bottom line: am I angry, as an old fan, about this revival?  No.  Do I feel like I wasted my money by contributing to the Kickstarter?  Definitely not!  But the experience isn’t   perfect.  The new season is fun to enjoyable to okay – a grower.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Final Grade:  A Fitting B

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