The End of Twin Peaks Feels Like a Bitter Breakup

What does this mean? Whatever.

I’m disappointed and I’m mad. I’m mad that I’m disappointed. I started writing this reaction to the end of Twin Peaks: The Return the day after it aired. I’ve deleted it and restarted it three times. It has taken time to find the right words to express my profound disappointment over not just the end of the new season (and probably the show, period), but also the continuation as a whole which was only punctuated by a surreal, non-ending ending.

I love (loved? We’ll see) Twin Peaks. When I discovered it in college 12 years ago, it was like I made an amazing discovery. An unearthed surprise from the past that struck all the right chords with me. It was scary, it was funny, it was strange and so much more and most of all it was unapologetic about those things. It was a show that gave me all of the things I loved most about my favorite shows at the time like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Lost, The X-Files. Larger than life, complicated characters, action, supernatural/unearthly situations, and writing that showed the creators respected the audience’s intelligence. The follow-up movie, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, was a stark change from the series but it still dialed up a dark, yet strangely emotional story in spite of the uncomfortable material.

But that was twenty-five years ago. The series ended just about every main story-line with a painful cliffhanger that suspended many of our favorite characters in situations that put them in peril, questioned their survival, created emotional turmoil in their lives, or, in the case of main character, Dale Cooper, raised existential questions about his fate as he appeared to be possessed by series villain, BOB, a malevolent entity responsible for murder and depravity in town. The movie didn’t bother to address these questions and turned in a prequel about (mostly…) the death of (seeming!) series macguffin, Laura Palmer. A few minor story points indicated vague details about Dale Cooper’s fate, but for the most part, FWWM, was its own thing. Written by series creator, David Lynch, without co-creator, Mark Frost, it was a prequel spin-off with a different feel and treatment of the material as well as elements that, maddeningly, called into question mythology the series had developed throughout its run. But it was over. The series was cancelled, no one was interested in funding new movies so, it was what it was.

When the new series was announced with both Lynch and Frost at the helm, I was ecstatic. For one, how many shows get a second chance to finish their stories twenty-five years after cancellation? Two, there would finally be some resolution to the ambiguity of the series ending. Three, with Lynch and Frost involved the new series would hopefully be more akin to the series or at least a new thing rather than the dark surrealism of the movie, sans Frost.

Unfortunately, David Lynch (and Frost?) wasn’t interested in any of those things. Twin Peaks: The Return provided little resolution to the open questions from the series’ cancellation, in several circumstances it excluded characters from the original run, and posed a host of new questions it had no interest in answering. Glaringly, most insulting, Twin Peaks: The Return reframes the story we thought we were watching to be about something else and calling the whole affair into question.

The iconic, brilliant pilot of Twin Peaks tells the story of what happens when beautiful, loved-by-all, prom queen Laura Palmer is found dead in a, seemingly, sleepy pacific northwest town. But everyone in Twin Peaks has a secret. Whether it’s hotel entrepreneur, Ben Horne, scheming to obtain the local sawmill so he can build a housing development, blue-collar Ed Hurley and diner owner Norma Jennings sneaking around behind their spouses’ backs to keep the flame alive on their 20-year-old romance, Laura Palmer’s boyfriend Bobby Briggs selling drugs and working for local crime thug Leo Johnson, or any host of other seedy plots, Twin Peaks was an exploration of the dark underbelly of small town America and unspoken malevolence in suburbia. Into this web of murder, drugs, and lies comes Special Agent Dale Cooper to investigate Laura Palmer’s murder as the latest murder with the mark of a killer seen first in the southwest part of Washington a year earlier. Young, handsome, loquacious, and slightly off, Cooper is seemingly a paragon of virtue, but he, too, has secrets.

Over the course of two seasons, Twin Peaks embeds Cooper deeper and deeper into the town and the mysterious woods outside of the town where the “strange old woods” have more than just a spooky mood. But the character of the town was a real and present thing and it was a special place outside the hustle and bustle of the busy world with larger than life stakes.

I should have been prepared for Twin Peaks: The Return because Fire Walk With Me was a stunning departure from the humanity of the series. I refer to FWWM as a spin-off more than a prequel or continuation of the series because it was centered mostly on the last days of Laura Palmer’s life.

The parts of FWWM that weren’t centered on Laura told the muddled back story of the murder of the first girl killed by Laura’s assailant and the FBI agents who investigated. Consider it a prototype for the kind of mood and storytelling The Return would practice. Characters behaved strangely and rarely spoke like people. Scenes smashed from one frame to another. And the supernatural elements the series explored with whimsy and stark horror were dealt with in FWWM as confusing dead-end jumbles. Series hero Dale Cooper appears first in a confusing, glorified cameo effectively retconning the character’s pre-Laura past (co-starring David Bowie as a character named Phillip Jeffries who does little more than confound). Cooper appears later in short vignettes in the red curtained Black Lodge where he has been trapped since the series end, yet time, apparently, is a murky thing in that realm which is why we see this in the context of Laura’s final days. But no real resolution is given to his post-series fate other than to clarify that Cooper wasn’t possessed in the show’s final moments but rather replaced by his malevolent doppelgänger. Even better!

Regardless of the fantastical fate befalling Agent Cooper, the story of Twin Peaks was about a small town reeling from Laura Palmer’s death and about the gateway, figurative and literal, to Hell it opened. FWWM opened the door to a broader story about the elements at the play in Twin Peaks, but in context as a prequel, our show characters were on the trail of these elements already.

In Twin Peaks: The Return, however, Lynch and Frost have decided the story wasn’t really about the dark underbelly of a small town where malevolent forces were at play or the reaction of a small town to the death of a beloved, troubled girl, no the town of Twin Peaks is merely a footnote in a broad pastiche of strange, seedy characters all over the country (and world!) and there are aliens, the nuclear age birthed the personification of evil, and, oh yeah, Laura Palmer is really an intergalactic (interdimensional?) Chosen One (?) sent to us to destroy (?) evil. And if that weren’t bad enough, we learn all of this through the most dispassionate and detached mode of storytelling possible. The characters of Twin Peaks: The Return are stripped of all humanity and the story, such as it is, is propelled forward by nothing and no one until the final 2 parts of the 18-hour season.

My theory about how and why this happened is about fundamentals of storytelling vs. art. David Lynch describes himself first, and foremost, as an artist. He’s less concerned with coherent narrative than he is with the artful fusion of pictures, words, sounds, and music. This has made for some of the boldest and beautiful cinema in the last 40 years. So, while there are other visionary directors and writers out there who tell stories in unconventional, but artful ways, they still adhere to the logic and basics of telling a story. Lynch does not want to do that. His ardent fans say that’s brilliant. I say that’s bold and, maybe creative, but it makes him an awful storyteller. And it disappointed me so deeply, so completely on September 3rd, 2017 that I’ve barely been able to speak about it since.

The world, characters, and story I’ve loved for 12+ years are gone from me. I can’t imagine trying to rewatch the show from the beginning without the whole experience being tarnished by the new season and the “ending” which denied any kind of closure to the story in favor of a nebulous, non-ending that served to confuse not with bold, challenging material, but by willfully withholding information needed to understand it.

I feel like an outcast from my own fan community. The usual stable of Lynch sycophants are praising what he delivered as “genius” and “visionary.” And I think, really, they just don’t want to admit they have no idea what they saw and are attributing meaning to it that makes them feel better. They don’t dare criticize a single story point that was ignored or a payoff forgotten or wasted. For some reason, with David Lynch, unlike any other filmmaker, writer, or actor he cannot be criticized. It cannot be tolerated. Martin Scorsese can be imperfect, Stephen Spielberg can turn in a formulaic stinker, but David Lynch is an artist and a genius and if you do not like his work, you just don’t get it.

The whole enterprise wasn’t a total disaster; there were a few wonderful performances worth praise in spite of the whole. Kyle MacLachlan’s turn as “Mr. C,” Agent Cooper’s evil doppelgänger was a dark, driven force unlike any character he’s ever played. Juxtaposed against the empty shell of one of his other 3 roles, Dougie Jones, he’s proven how effective his expression alone can convey a performance. What little we saw of the gallant Agent Cooper was like he’d never stopped playing the role. I might have liked more pathos in light of playing a man who lost 25 years of his life, but given his limited role it makes it somewhat worth it that he was a man of propellant action.

Harry Dean Stanton (RIP) had a bare semblance of a role in returning character Carl Rodd from FWWM. But what little screen time he had he was the only one in the whole cast imbued with great humanity and empathy. Nothing he said or did mattered to anything else happening, but heck, we got him strumming a guitar and singing a beautiful song. That alone was worth it.

Catherine Coulson’s final turn as Margaret Lanterman, the Log Lady, was also a beautiful performance made more poignant by the self-awareness that she had to know she was dying. I only wish what she had contributed had been in service of a more worthwhile endeavor that brought closure to the Twin Peaks mythos.

New cast member, Amy Shiels, who played the empty but effervescent Candie was delightful. She played a quintessentially “Lynchian” character, both in the fact she is a beautiful woman adorned in a pretty dress and also Candie wasn’t quite right, operating on her own wavelength separate from the other characters in her scenes.

But these bright spots are bittersweet because they weren’t in service of a coherent story with characters to follow and stakes to protect. And the plot also decided to throw in narrative curves seemingly “just because.” The most egregious example of this (how do I choose??) is when the character played, ironically (!), by David Lynch, Gordon Cole, reveals at the top of the 17th part a whole slew of back story about what Agent Cooper was doing before he disappeared twenty-five years ago. There are a few problems with this, but let’s start with the ones off the top of my head: Cooper was pretty busy before he disappeared at the end of season 2. He was on the trail of his old FBI partner, Windom Earle; chasing down clues relating to the secrets of Owl Cave and the White and Black Lodges, and spending time with the woman he’d fallen in love with, Annie Blackburn. Cole tells us that Cooper and Major Briggs had discovered evidence of a malevolent presence/entity called “Judy” before Cooper disappeared and they were making plans to reveal its presence. Is it possible that Cooper and Briggs discovered something all those years ago that we didn’t know about? It’s possible but it flies in the face of the story we watched. Cole intimates this is why Cooper disappeared. Based on the good story we were shown at the end of season 2, rather than the last-minute, crammed-in story we were told at the end of season 3, that doesn’t pass the smell test. Cooper disappeared because he pursued Earle into the Black Lodge to save Annie who’d been kidnapped; in the lodge, he faced his “shadow self” and that version of Cooper escaped, trapping Cooper there. Trying to retcon the whole thing as the result of this malevolent entity, Judy, is lazy. And, more insulting, why do it at the end after none of this came up before? Maybe if this story had been developed instead of the “story” about Cooper “asleep” in Dougie Jones body eating cake slowly and being, literally, pushed from room to room in his insurance agency office it would be easier to accept. Or, at least, if the narrative work to establish the idea would have been more than a monologue by a character with about 90 minutes left in the series, I might be more accepting.

And that’s just one thing. There’s so much more.

What about the glass box in NYC? It seemed like Mr. C put it there, but we never got much of an answer.

What was Mr. C’s plan? He was first trying to escape being pulled back into the Black Lodge and then he was looking for Judy (I guess?). So, if he’s looking for pure evil, why would he seek out the coordinates to the White Lodge? And why would it then deposit him at the Twin Peaks Sheriff’s station?

This is less of a question and more of a criticism (surprise!). What was the thinking behind the character of Freddie with the green glove? Here’s where Lynch’s “artist first, storyteller/filmmaker second” stuff falls apart. BOB was the embodiment of evil, depravity, and fear throughout the first two seasons and FWWM. Rightfully so. He was in many ways the “villain” of Twin Peaks, if such a role could be identified. But he was also a supernatural entity. Spirit, demon, alien? Whatever he is, it didn’t seem like BOB was a force you could defeat so much as contain or lock away. The end of Twin Peaks episode 16, “Natural Law,” features our leads, Cooper, Truman, Hawk, Albert, and Major Briggs hypothesizing about the nature of BOB. Cooper hopes to understand so as to stop him, but it seemed as clear as anything on Twin Peaks ever was that BOB was a force. Well, hold on, because “nope!” BOB is really just a big black bubble that, if you punch it hard enough with a special green rubber glove, can be destroyed. And, if that weren’t enough, the guy wielding the glove isn’t Cooper or Hawk or, heck, even Andy. No, it’s some random guy named Freddie who appeared once in part 2 and then showed up again in part 16 to explain how he got the green glove before using it in part 17 to punch out the ultimate embodiment of evil. Why didn’t James Hurley have the glove? I mean, it’s an asinine idea in the first place, but at least it could have been something a character we knew with some emotional tie to the events of the series had. Hell, James could have picked it up while he was motorcycling the roadways of America with the likes of Wally Brando.

While we’re on the subject of James, why did he come back to town? What was his “motorcycle accident “all about? Where is Donna Hayward? She was James’ main squeeze. And she learned that Ben Horne was probably her dad at the end of season 2. Never mentioned.

Speaking of Haywards, why is Gersten Hayward in a disturbing adulterous relationship with a drug-addled guy married to Shelly’s daughter? What does it have to do with anything?

Why is Shelly fooling around with a strange, dangerous, maybe supernatural drug dealer named Red?

Why can Carl Rodd, who apparently relocated his trailer park franchise across the state from Deer Meadow to Twin Peaks, see spirits (Garmonbozia?) expel from dead children? And does it even matter that he can since it’s never referenced again, nor needed to advance any story?

Was the “Evolution of the Arm’s” doppelganger in league with Mr. C? Is that why it hurled Cooper into an abyss when he tried to leave the Black Lodge? Did things go wrong because Mr. C created a Tulpa to replace him or were things haywire before that? “Is it future? Or is it past?”

How about the question we’ve been waiting twenty five years to answer? “How’s Annie?” Turns out, we’re still waiting to find out. She’s mentioned once by Hawk and then never again. Heather Graham is busy, but not so busy she couldn’t have appeared in this. Cooper risked his life and spent 25 years in purgatory to save Annie. We never learn what became of her.

Oh yeah, what the hell happened to Audrey? Is she in a coma? Is she dead? Delusional? Why even include her if that’s what you’re going to do with her iconic character? Nothing. At least Donna went unmentioned.

I could go on for a bit, but let’s stop with the biggest cul-de-sac of all: Dougie. What purpose did including 12+ episodes of Cooper meandering around in Las Vegas, unable to do anything without help, serve? We kept being promised that it would all payoff in the end. Other than the Mitchum brothers flying Cooper to Washington, that story added nothing. And even that bit, Cooper could have found another way to get where he was going. What makes this whole thing worse is the thought that maybe there was an element of gamesmanship here. Not just on the audience, but on executives and movie studios. It was revealed recently that Lynch and Frost wrote an unproduced screenplay in the late 80s, One Saliva Bubble, with a character very much like Dougie. Were Lynch and Frost regurgitating an old character in a new form? A more popular, high-profile form that would validate a past script that wasn’t picked up? It doesn’t seem far-fetched to me. There is a reading one could make about Twin Peaks: The Return being Lynch’s revenge for the critical savaging that FWWM received. Much of the new season was spent justifying and layering in elements of FWWM. Regardless, it’s troubling to me that they may have retrofitted another character and another story to make this one. There’s no way to know for sure.

All of it culminated in a mind-boggling two-part finale with an unsatisfying, cobbled together confrontation with Mr. C and BOB, time travel, and then dimensional (?) transport to another world “because.” Cooper undoes Laura’s murder by Leland/BOB and the timeline is, arguably, reset but Laura still disappears. Theories abound that what we saw in the last episode was actually a happy ending and Laura’s/Carrie’s scream destroyed “Judy.” Maybe? I didn’t expect I would have to pull out my trigonometry textbook to understand the end of the show. The Black Lodge sequence at the end of season 2, while surrealistic and crazy, makes a certain logical sense. You had enough information throughout the preceding season and your own common sense to piece together what was happening. Not so with the latest finale.

Characters do things because they do. We are given no reason for why these things happen. Despite Cooper having a deep emotional bond and friendship with Audrey Horne, they never encounter one another. Despite Cooper having fallen in love with Annie Blackburn, her name never once comes up and the haunting “How’s Annie?” tag from the season two cliffhanger goes unanswered. Instead, Cooper apparently has a deep, abiding romance with his former FBI assistant, Diane, played by Laura Dern. Despite never appearing in the flesh before season three, she is now the most important new character and someone who Cooper loves deeply, despite none of this being apparent before. Apparently, artists can change their stories at will, make characters do and say anything no matter whether it makes any sense, and conveniently ignore what came before if it doesn’t line up with what you want to do now. That’s bold and visionary!

Since Cooper and Diane are (apparently) soul mates, they partner on a trip 430 miles away from Twin Peaks (I guess) because that number was given to Cooper by the renamed Giant, who is apparently the “Fireman” now. What they are doing seems important, but again, we have no idea what it is. Eventually, they cross from day into night with the help of “electricity,” which Fire Walk With Me kinda sorta tells us is important, but it is front and center in season 3. They appear to have gone into a new world (a parallel universe? A pocket dimension comic books are so fond of?) the nature of which is unclear. They now behave differently and somewhat distantly from one another. They go to a motel and have sex which goes from passionate to disturbing and painful. Diane disappears in the morning and Cooper forges ahead, leaving from a different motel and driving a different call than the one he used to get there. Another parallel universe? A dream? Whatever.

Cooper finds a diner called “Judy’s” where he confronts a gang of cowboy hicks harassing a waitress and learns another waitress works there, but she’s off. He goes to the waitress’s house and, lo and behold, it’s Sheryl Lee as a waitress named Carrie Page. Cooper insists her name is Laura Palmer, but she doesn’t know that name. He wants to take her to Twin Peaks and she agrees because she just killed a guy in her living room. Okay. Visionary! After roughly twenty minutes of night driving without dialogue and without purpose or plot or motivation revealed, they drive through downtown Twin Peaks (North Bend!) and end up at Laura Palmer’s house where, conceivably, her mom, Sarah Palmer still lives. But they learn that Sarah doesn’t live there. Confused, they go back down to the street, where Cooper seems to realize that something is amiss, he utters, “What year is this?” Whether it’s Cooper’s question or the veneer was cracking anyway, Carrie hears Sarah Palmer’s voice faintly calling Laura for breakfast. Carrie screams like only Sheryl Lee can and the power shorts off everywhere and we smash to black.

After twenty-five agonizing years of not knowing what happened to our favorite characters and the town of Twin Peaks, we still don’t know. And we’re more confused than ever. All we’re left with are more questions and memories of 12 episodes featuring Kyle MacLachlan as Dougie learning how to eat pancakes and doodle on insurance contracts.

While the bulk of Twin Peaks fans are poring over the third season looking for clues and trying to disassemble the unknowable “puzzle” that Lynch and Frost conjured up from old scripts and ideas that were maligned 25 years ago, I’m inconsolable. I loved Twin Peaks so much and I feel like I was bamboozled, like a member of a cult who realized the whole thing is at the whim of its eccentric leader and the only rule is that he makes the rules. 

Will I buy Mark Frost’s book, Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier? It’s pre-ordered already. Of course I’ll read it because I hate myself and. like anyone coming out of a bad breakup, I have to spy on my former love to see what she’s up to. I’m desperately hoping that the book will provide answers or closure to that train wreck of a finale, even though I know it won’t.

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MST3k Review: 1102 – “Cry Wilderness”

Rowzdower!

No one is happier than me to report that episode two of MST3k’s new season is an improvement over the premiere/pilot of this reboot/reimagining of the series.

The characters are getting more comfortable in their roles, the riffing is stronger, and the movie is suitably goofy and accessible for the new team to tackle.

But the series apparently won’t have a traditional MST3k theme opening. It starts with a cold open and then Jonah is forced to reenact the opening because Kinga can’t record it for some reason… I suspect this is being done because if you binge episodes on Netflix it will skip over the opening if it’s the same and I guess the show runners don’t want that? I don’t know how I feel about it yet… it’s strange, but it doesn’t lessen the experience. I’ll wait to see how I feel in a few episodes.

This episode’s experiment is a wonderfully odd film from 1987 called Cry Wilderness. It has no discernible plot that I can detect, but I suspect this one could become classic over time. It’s just so strange and the characters are exactly the kinds of goofy personalities that make for MST3k history. Time will tell.

Basically, a young man escapes from a boarding school because he’s been dreaming (having visions?) about Big Foot and wants to find him. He goes from boarding school to the untamed wilds of forested park land in about 4 seconds and there are cougars and tigers and skunks and every other kind of animal just wandering around on the paths within easy reach. He finds his father, a park ranger, and an assortment of other strange characters and they do… something. It’s better if you watch it.

The riffing is much improved. The performers aren’t saying everything really fast like they were in the premiere. But the riffing does still feel overly polished. It doesn’t feel like a guy and his robots reacting to a movie in real-time. In fact, there are a few riffs that start a split second before the thing or event they’re reacting to. That’s a bit dizzying in the moment, but since there’s already been huge strides made in the riffing it’s encouraging.

And while the characters are improving, the Bots still feel like background characters. Just other voices with which to make jokes. They show up a little bit more in the out of theater sketches, but just barely.

But the big news is CAMEOS! Pearl, Bobo, and Brain Guy show up in a brief sequence midway through the episode. I had been looking for an anchor and it was great to see them inhabiting those roles. Something was off about Bobo’s face prosthetics, but I didn’t care. Kevin Murphy was there to help me ignore it. From a character standpoint, Kinga was overjoyed to see her grandmother and Pearl didn’t really seem interested, which was exactly the Pearl Forrester reaction I would have expected. Good stuff.

When the show improves with each episode, it makes it easier to continue on knowing that each one will be better than the last one.

MST3k Premiere Review: 1101 – “Reptilicus”

Movie sign!

I shared my broad, non-spoiler reactions to the new MST3k’s premiere episode here. Since I can finally talk spoilers and refer to the movie, I’ll share my impressions beyond those broader thoughts.

As I noted before, there was certainly a lot of good aspects to the premiere. I’m encouraged to watch more.

The show opening is spirited and it certainly covered a lot of narrative ground. It did not, however, explain why the Satellite of Love or the Bots are back in space. As a fan of the original series, and one who was particularly moved by that show’s conclusion, this rubbed me the wrong way. I made this comment to Joel Hodgson on Facebook and he actually responded to me! Joel said (I made grammar edits for clarity and OCD reasons…):

“I appreciate your note, but I didn’t feel like sewing all those elements together up front. Felt “top heavy.” Also, I’ll explain how the bots got back into space downstream. Next season.”

First off, I’m glad to hear he thinks there will be another season. More MST3k can only be a good thing. But while I respect that Joel took the time to respond to me, it doesn’t persuade me to his view because he dedicated a lot of upfront narrative as it is.

I would say explaining how the Bots, who escaped their previous captors, ended up stranded on the satellite again is a worthwhile story to tell. Or at least acknowledge. The previous iteration of MST, while goofy, still maintained a loose but straightforward continuity. That’s why I think the transitions from Josh to Kevin, Joel to Mike, Frank and Trace to Pearl, and Trace to Bill were about as smooth as could be expected given the affection for those characters. The show acknowledged something was different and, while not dwelling on it, at least gave it attention so the audience didn’t feel unmoored. Since this is being positioned as a new season and kind of a reboot, it clearly doesn’t play by those same rules, but it’s why I, as a “legacy” fan, feel it’s a rough start.

It also doesn’t help that Tom Servo and Crow, who were last performed so vividly by Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett (and Trace Beaulieu before him), are shells of their former selves. Again, I recognize I may just be longing for the old performers who embodied these characters for so long. But even when I try to account for that bias, it’s undeniable that in this premiere episode Tom and Crow are merely additional voices to deliver jokes. I have no idea what their new personalities are supposed to be. For new viewers, they may not care. But for legacy fans, I can’t imagine I’ll be alone in this.

Even in Bill Corbett’s first episode as Crow, arguably the second toughest character transition for the show (after Joel to Mike, of course), he began developing a personality that was somewhat of a hybrid between Trace’s Crow and the one he would eventually perfect, that “barely contained East Coast anger” Crow. He left an impression. I have no impression of the new Crow, voiced by (but not puppeted) comedian Hampton Yount.

It’s even worse for Tom Servo, now voiced by comedian Baron Vaughn. It’s inarguable that Kevin Murphy was Tom Servo for 99% of MSTies. Yes, I know the character originated with Josh Weinstein. But he had two (sorta) seasons with Tom and the show was barely defined at this point, he didn’t have much time to make a mark. I don’t see any huge contingent of “Weinstein was better” fans coming out of the woodwork other than the “I HATE TOM SERVO’S NEW VOICE” guy. Kevin Murphy inhabited Tom Servo from Season 2 to the end. His mark on the character is indelible. The singing, the swaying to music in the theater, the unique deep baritone, even the odd quirks he developed over the years like an underwear collection… It’s unfair to compare Vaughn to Murphy, but it will happen. Particularly because Murphy’s Tom was so memorable and developed.

Jonah probably comes out the best, from a character perspective, in the premiere. But he’s definitely more Joel than Mike. And, of course he does because this is Joel’s party. What do I mean by this? Well, Joel “Robinson” was a thoughtful, easy going father figure who didn’t really rock the boat. He did inventions, he taught the bots lessons, he tried to focus on the positive aspects of movies, and was pretty much an amiable lug content to watch bad movies while being held hostage.

Jonah’s not much different. He has that “millennial,” Chris Hardwick vibe (the two are real life friends, actually) where he seems to get excited and geek out on subjects of interest. But in the premiere, Jonah plays very much of a Joel role. He doesn’t really act like a guy who just got kidnapped and is forced to watch bad movies.

Mike Nelson started off “cooler” than he would ultimately be by the end. “Insecure, beefy Midwestern guy.” He bucked the Mads. He tried to escape a lot. And he didn’t police the Bots’ riffs in the theater like Joel did. He was like a big brother, if Joel was akin to a father figure. Jonah has been pitched as akin to your friend’s little brother who you don’t really want hanging around you, in terms of his relationship with the Bots. But if that’s the idea, it’s not apparent in the premiere.

The strongest additions are Felicia Day as Kinga Forrester and Patton Oswalt as “TV’s Son of TV’s Frank” or just Max. He prefers the former. They’ve got a good chemistry together. I like Felicia Day from her other work. Patton Oswalt is hilarious and I’ve enjoyed him at least since The King of Queens. Their “evil” goal is somewhat different than Dr. F or Pearl’s; it’s more meta. Kinga is resurrecting Mystery Science Theater 3000 and wants to inflict bad movies on Jonah because that will get better ratings. I think it’s an inspired choice. My only fear is that meta stuff can get tiresome fast if not well balanced. We’ll see.

Finally, the movie: 1961’s Reptilicus. If there’s a definition of a “cheesy” movie, this is it. It’s got everything a MSTie could want: drab, lumpy white guys in coats talking about made up science, hot 60s babes, and more models of buildings and a green lizard monster than you can shake a stick at. Plus, the monster spews green acid that looks like Ecto Cooler and is an effect added after the fact and so doesn’t render well. Ripe material for riffing.

The riffing: this episode bears re-watching, but the riffs came so often and so fast that it was hard to react to them. It was definitely a case of the new riffing team getting comfortable because this gets better as the episodes go on and everyone settles down. I laughed out loud a few times, but was more bemused than anything.

The new MST3k feels very much like Joel Hodgson is behind it. It’s feels like the show rewound to its Season 3 and Season 4 sensibilities. I have no problems with Season 3 or 4 of MST3k; there are great episodes in those seasons: Pod People, of course, Master Ninja, Gamera, Manos, Monster A-Go-Go, and more. It’s just that the show evolved after those seasons. The riffing got tighter and the characters grew into their roles. It felt more like a guy trapped in space forced to watch bad movies. The riffs became more conversational than some guy doing a voice shouting at the screen (although those riffs still happened).

I realize that I may be coming off fairly negative. It’s not my intent. But I had high expectations. Probably too high. And since my preferences come from Season 5 Joel and the Mike era of the show, my expectations are probably even more uncalibrated. I just see too many people heaping praise on the premiere and, while decent, it really doesn’t warrant it. It succeeds at launching the new show and reestablishing the premise, but so far it only honors the “Joel” era of MST3k and there were 4 ½ other seasons (and a movie!) to draw upon.

Fortunately, I saw enough good things and lavish attention to detail that I’m not calling it a misfire. And since I’ve already watched ahead beyond the premiere, I know that each episode forward is an improvement.

New MST3k Restores Creator Joel Hodgson’s Vision

(image: Netflix)

Mike fans might be left in the dust.

Before the full season drops on Netflix next week, Kickstarter backers received an advance streaming screening of the season premiere (pilot?) of the new Mystery Science Theater 3000.

I’ll keep spoilers light in case you are trying to stay fresh for the new episodes.

Full disclosure: I’m an original fan of MST3k, with a preference for the Mike Nelson hosted episodes. I’m not a Joel hater by any stretch (he’s the creator for goodness sake) and happily cite “Monster A Go Go,” “Manos: The Hands of Fate,” “I Accuse My Parents,” “Eegah,” “Mitchell,” among others as personal favorites. But the sensibility of the Mike episodes was a little more mature, both in content and in the characters’ personalities, so it was a fully formed show by that point and the riffing was stronger because they had it down to a science by then.

For the uninitiated, the show premise is the same as it ever was: a mad scientist traps a man in space and subjects him to bad movies to torture him (Mike), find the worst one to take over the world with it (Joel/Mike), or get better ratings (Jonah, I guess?). He’s joined by robot pals, Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, and they make fun of the movies sent their way.

The new show concept is blissfully unaltered in that way. Comedian and internet personality Jonah Ray is the new host, comedians Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn are the new Crow and Tom, actress Felicia Day, of Buffy and Supernatural fame, is the new mad scientist, Kinga Forrester, and actor/comedian Patton Oswalt is the new henchman, TV’s Son of TV’s Frank.

The pilot opens to show us how Jonah has been captured and segues into the new theme song and then dives into the episode like any MST3k begins. It was a cute, maybe slightly too precious sequence featuring a few cameos including one original cast member cameo that, jarringly, went unexplained. The production values, while still mostly kitschy scale models and strings, are more polished here than the original series and feature more green screens. There are also a bunch of cast extras around which is a change from the “intimate,” sometimes “claustrophobic” feel of the original series. Even the MST3k movie, which had a bigger budget, still focused only on Mike, the bots, and Dr. Forrester. Here, there is a villain band that plays at “commercial” breaks and it’s certainly different, although not necessarily unwelcome. The movie is Reptilicus and is a classic MST3k-type film, so solid on that front.

But the first thing that struck me was a sense that series creator, Joel Hodgson, is reclaiming his show after leaving under contentious circumstances halfway through the fifth season in 1994. Since then, Joel has seemingly made peace with the departure, but watching this new version of the show makes me think he’s working out some of his issues and unapologetically reclaiming his creation.

For one, Jonah Ray works for the Gizmonic Institute, which is where Joel and the Mads worked in the original series. After Joel left, the institute disappeared from the show as it was Joel’s IP. Second, the invention exchange has returned—Joel’s stand-up comedy featured hand crafted inventions sort of like a prototype Carrot Top routine. The inventions only survived a few episodes into the Mike era before they were jettisoned in favor of more “life on the satellite” bits and random skits that kept the story moving forward more smoothly. Third, and this is more of a feel thing, the episode’s sensibility and riffing more closely match that of a, say, third season episode. There are some sharp third season episodes to be sure, like “Pod People” and “Cave Dwellers,” but the show was still finding its feet at that point and the riffs and skits sometimes feel detached. Even though the show was scripted and they were trying to create the feeling that the characters were spontaneously reacting to the movie, it wasn’t until the later years that the characters felt truly embedded with the movies and like they were in a theater being forced to watch them. In this new episode, the riffs feel too polished and the characters seem detached from the movie. There’s also quite a bit of silence and a dearth of riffs at some points. Even if the characters just made sound effects, sighed, laughed, or muttered to one another, in the original show’s best episodes the silences were usually filled with something interesting. That’s missing here.

Finally, the new show completely ignores the original series conclusion. Or at least it appears to. At the end of the original show, Pearl Forrester accidentally puts the Satellite of Love into reentry mode and Mike and the Bots escape the crash to live together on Earth continuing to watch bad movies on afternoon TV. In this new series, Jonah is put up on the Satellite of Love with Tom and Crow with nary a mention of how they got back up there. I’ve already seen some fans question this and the series’ staple response of “It’s just a show, I should just relax” being used to repel the question. But that doesn’t do it for me. It feels like Joel is taking back his show and ignoring anything inconvenient or which he doesn’t like.

While, yes, this is a show with a guy shot into space to watch bad movies with human intelligent robots, MST3k always had a pretty solid story continuity that they referred back to often:

  • The transition from Josh Weinstein’s Dr. Erhardt to TV’s Frank was at least acknowledged in a backhanded way (he was “missing” on a milk carton).
  • Since Weinstein also originally voiced Servo, Joel reprogrammed him with Kevin Murphy’s voice.
  • Mike helped Joel escape the satellite and was subsequently kidnapped as the most convenient option. The bots even needed to give him some training in his first episode.
  • TV’s Frank was absorbed into sidekick heaven and Dr. Forrester needed his mom, Pearl, to help him recover from Frank’s absence in the following season.
  • Forrester lost his funding and was reborn as a star baby in a 2001 homage while Mike and the Bots became beings of pure energy at the edge of the universe.
  • Mike and the Bots were then brought back to the satellite by Pearl Forrester who confessed to smothering Dr. Forrester in his sleep because he grew from a star baby into another “idiot obsessed with his experiment.”
  • It also turned out that Crow got bored at the edge of the universe and lived on the satellite for 5,000 years before Mike and the others returned and he “changed his bowling pin” and had a different, Bill Corbett-sounding voice now. Crow also didn’t seem to know Mike anymore, which was a story point that continued for a few episodes.
  • The whole of season eight followed Pearl and her henchmen and the Satellite of Love 5,000 years in the future flying around the galaxy getting into funny scrapes everywhere including Mike blowing up 3 planets and being put on trial.
  • Everyone made it back to present day and Pearl began her quest to be a fully certified mad scientist and take over the world.
  • Even Joel and Frank came back and updated us on what they had been doing since leaving/dying.
  • Then, in the final episode, Mike and the Bots prepare to go back to Earth in a surprisingly poignant farewell. Even Pearl and her minions’ goodbye is sweet.

Given how nice of a swan-song MST3k’s original finale was, it’s jarring to see it just casually ignored. I would have preferred just a brand new reboot if they’re going to do that. Given how much time went into Jonah and Kinga’s introduction, I don’t see why there couldn’t have been some attention paid to the series’ original closing. Even if it was as simple as noting that these are duplicate bots and a duplicate satellite. That would have been more satisfying and respectful to the original series legacy and solid finale.

OK. Geeky fan rant over.

What I liked:

  • Jonah Ray has a good temperament as a host and has, by far, the funniest riffing delivery.
  • Patton Oswalt, while not given much to do, makes the most of it and is funny as always.
  • The updated mythology is interesting and I’d like to learn more about Kinga et al (aside from the aforementioned rejection of the previous series’ conclusion).
  • Movie riffing is still the main ingredient, as it should be.

What Needs Work:

  • While there were some good lines, and I laughed out loud more than once, they were infrequent. The riffing is definitely not as sharp as the series’ more refined later season efforts.
  • The characters in-theater chemistry needs work—it feels a little too much like people reading a pre-written script with little interplay between them.
  • Jonah’s, Baron’s, and Hampton’s voices are all a little bit too similar sounding. And Jonah’s joke delivery, while the best, feels like he’s doing a voice. Clearly some seasoning is needed for the riffers.
  • Tom and Crow should be over sized characters and they barely registered in this episode. Perhaps that was by design, but Hampton and Baron have big shoes to fill, particularly Baron since Kevin Murphy was the Tom Servo for most fans. I hope the Bots’ new personalities stand out more in episodes to come. As it was, they were just additional joke voices in the theater.
  • The “celebrity” cameos were too over the top for my taste. I hope these get better as the season goes on.

Summary:

I’m an original MST3k fan. I can’t hide it. I also won’t apologize for it. My initial reaction to the pilot is mixed.

The series concept is as solid as it ever was—making fun of bad movies. Clearly, a lot of care and attention has gone into the new series from the writers, performers, and set crew. The riffing was serviceable; not “The Final Sacrifice,” “Mitchell,” or “Space Mutiny” levels, but certainly not the worst. And it really does seem like the writers and performers have tremendous upside. I mean, Dan Harmon is one of the writers!

But I’m bothered by the omissions to the new story as they pertain to the original series ending. It’s a complaint only a fan would have and even maybe only a complaint a Mike-biased fan would have. Joel seems to be trying to restore MST3k to the pre-1994 version that he hosted. He’s the creator and he drove the revival effort. But I think he may be forgetting that many MST3k fans came onboard during the Mike years and after through DVDs that were initially heavily weighted by Mike episodes. Discounting that fan base and perspective is dangerous because Rifftrax, run by Mike Nelson and featuring Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, exists. If these new episodes don’t measure up, fans have alternatives including just re-watching old episodes.

As a fan, I want MST3k and movie riffing as a genre to continue. I’m skeptical after what I saw in this premiere, but encouraged enough to continue.

REVIEW: The Secret History of Twin Peaks (Spoilers)

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I love Twin Peaks.

I was too young to enjoy the show when it originally aired in 1990-1991. I was too busy watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies. My first exposure to the show was eleven years ago at college. I took a class at Syracuse University called “The Modern TV Drama: 1980 to Present” taught by a quasi-famous pop culture expert, Professor Robert Thompson. We met once a week on Thursdays for two hours and we watched and discussed the first shows to treat audiences like they had any intelligence, Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, Moonlighting… etc.

We spent three classes on Twin Peaks. I’m not going to recap all the reasons why you should watch it; I’ve already done so. But I’ll say this: the pilot for Twin Peaks is something everyone should see. It’s TV history. It changed everything. If you like Game of Thrones, Westworld, Lost, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad… (more!), thank David Lynch and Mark Frost. Professor Thompson showed it to us and I was intrigued by the melodious and indulgent opening credits and gripped at once by the series’ opening images of a mysterious, beautiful woman looking at herself in the mirror and a rumpled man going out to fish and making a horrific discovery—a dead body wrapped in plastic.

I sought out Twin Peaks DVDs and ravenously devoured the show. At the end, I made the horrific discovery that my progenitors made fifteen years earlier: the show ended with a hell of a cliffhanger. ABC cancelled the series after its second season. The “follow-up” movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is actually an R-rated prequel covering the last seven days of the victim’s, Laura Palmer, life.

For 25 years, the original fans of Twin Peaks languished until 2014 when it was announced that David Lynch and Mark Frost were reviving the series on Showtime and would also deliver a tie-in book about the town. The series has since completed filming and is slated to arrive “sometime” in 2017. But first, Mark Frost’s book The Secret History of Twin Peaks arrived on October 18th. This is the first new content in this story in 25 years and to say I was excited to read it is an understatement of the highest order. There was also an audio version announced featuring some of the show’s actors voicing their original characters as well as a smattering of others.

Originally titled The Secret Lives of Twin Peaks, the book’s press release said it would “…[reveal] what has happened to the people of that iconic fictional town since we last saw them 25 years ago.” This book does not do that.

Instead, The Secret History of Twin Peaks is an epistolary novel which means it’s told through letters, articles, memos, and commentary by a couple of people. Essentially, the “book” is a dossier found at a crime scene in July 2016 which the FBI is investigating. Could this be a plot point in the coming season? No clue, but it’s exciting that there are new mysteries to consume. FBI Assistant Director Gordon Cole has assigned an agent to review the tome and discover the identity of the “Archivist” who put it together.

In summary, I enjoyed the book. I was riveted. The “story” begins in the “real world”  explaining where the dossier was found and setting the stage before diving headlong into a deep historical narrative concerning Lewis and Clark’s exploration in the Northwest Territory (Twin Peaks is in northwest Washington near the Canadian border in the present sovereign borders). It winds through early American history, secret societies, conspiracies, and myths of Native Americans and the early North American peoples featuring some interesting linkages to the opaque mythology of the show.

However, the title of the book is something of a misnomer. While Twin Peaks and the history of (some of) its characters factor into the story, much of the novel follows an ancillary character from the show, who has been given a rigorous backstory more grand than his minor appearances on the show would indicate, and his adventures outside of the town. Major historical figures appear throughout the story and the scope of Twin Peaks’ connections to the wider world are expanded upon in ways that were only vague hints towards the close of the show’s final season and partially in the film. It’s a testament to Mark Frost’s writing and the vivid tapestry he weaves that all of this information is gripping and holds attention even though, for large portions of the story, the links to Twin Peaks are marginal at best.

When Twin Peaks and its characters, or their parents and grandparents, are in focus the story is damn fine. We learn dense backstory and interesting tidbits about the major families who founded the town and who are, unsurprisingly, related to most of the main characters from the show. One character, Josie Packard, whose backstory was largely shrouded in mystery on the series, receives a good bit of coverage and all major gaps are filled in. Josie’s history is not likely to get a lot of attention in the new season, for reasons fans will understand, so it’s nice to get closure on that thread. There are a few other examples of this, some more interesting than others, but I’ll let readers discover those on their own.

But let’s face it: the real reason Twin Peaks fans wanted to get their hands on this book is to find out what happened after the cataclysmic events of the series’ final episode. But unfortunately, if that’s all you came to find, you will be disappointed. The events covered in the book go just barely past the end of the show* and only fleeting answers are provided. But one of the finale’s major events (not the one you really want to know about) is addressed in clear detail and provides interesting, if not unsurprising, resolution. In the course of addressing that hanging thread, another character whose fate was up in the air is unceremoniously declared alive and well with no mention of his own violent encounter.

Which leads me to a subject about the book, which is already an Internet point of debate: there are a number of glaring historical and Twin Peaks plot inconsistencies. In some interviews, Mark Frost has addressed this in a couple of ways: 1. He has noted that the nature of the novel is one where the narrator(s) are not always reliable, and 2. A cryptic response “All will be revealed in time…” Let me address these in order.

Regarding the “unreliable narrator,” that would not explain certain incorrect important historical dates. It also would not explain characters who should have had direct information on events giving conflicting information. The most obvious and harmless example to mention is a retelling of what happened with the Big Ed, Norma, and Nadine love triangle. I won’t recount it here, but the book directly conflicts with what the show told us happened. It’s particularly egregious because the story was told in the season two premiere, which was written by David Lynch and Mark Frost (the author), in a funny and memorable scene that’s easily one of my favorites which you can enjoy here as a matter of fact. There are several other examples like the wrong date for the moon landing. There are also a number of stunning omissions** such as no mention made of the White or Black Lodges (directly), no mention of Annie Blackburn, “blink and you’ll miss them” entries about Windom Earle, and a handful more. For non-fans, this is gobbledygook, but for people who have watched and re-watched the series many times over the past two and a half decades it is clear and it’s troubling.

There might be hope, though. Frost’s response that “all will be revealed…” hints at what some of us have already suspected about this book: that it is, in of itself, a mystery to be solved. The changes and the omissions may be deliberate obfuscation by the “Archivist” (who is identified eventually). Or maybe something happened to the Dossier after the “Archivist” parted with it (maybe not intentionally?). In fact, given what I’ve noted about the Big Ed story above, it’s hard to believe that Mark Frost would have been that careless. I would have hoped that he reviewed the series again before diving back into the new season and this book. Even if he just skimmed some episodes, I would hope that he’d have paid close attention to the ones he and Lynch directly generated. So, it’s difficult to swallow that he just screwed it up or simply wanted to retcon it. It seems likely (or maybe I’m desperate to believe) that Frost made the plot changes on purpose because they are obvious and fans would notice. Perhaps they point the way to some hidden truth. Fans on Reddit are already pouring through the text to see if there is some kind of embedded code—I love the Internet, by the way.

Setting aside any plot or historical errors for the moment, The Secret History of Twin Peaks is an engrossing read. It’s new Twin Peaks content for goodness sake! Two years ago, no one thought we would ever see new Twin Peaks anything let alone a novel and a new season (seasons??). There was clearly a lot of energy put into the book. It’s also exciting to think that maybe the items I initially perceived as continuity errors might point the way towards some hidden truths that a plain reading of the text doesn’t reveal.

Since I also listened to the audio book, I’ll say that the voice cast is quite good. Annie Wersching of 24 and Bosch fame provided the narration for the FBI agent investigating the dossier and I wish she was a listed cast member for the new season. She did a great job here and she’s a good actress otherwise. Perhaps, one of the many actresses listed in that 217 deep cast list will be portraying the character she voiced? I wish David Lynch had voiced Gordon Cole as I was expecting some yelling at the start and didn’t get it, but I suppose his time is better spent in the editing bay getting us a damn trailer for the new season. Otherwise, Len Cariou narrated as the “Archivist” and the guy should read all my books for me—he had a rich timbre that lent itself to the material well.

All in all, if you’re at all a fan of Twin Peaks, this book is essential reading (or listening) for you. It’s a great appetizer for us to snack on while we wait for the main course coming next year. Pick it up and read slowly; 2017 will be here before we know it.

 

*Given that the initial press release said the book would cover what happened to the people in Twin Peaks over the last 25 years and offer a “deeper glimpse into the central mystery that was only touched on in the original series,” I wonder when that approach changed. Or if the publisher simply used provocative language to promote the book’s plot and Frost never had any intention of doing that? Some of the Twin Peaks fan sites have done interviews with Frost, but they’re so busy falling over to complement him and gush over the show that they haven’t asked about this significant discrepancy in marketing.

**I wonder if Lynch asked Frost not to put some topics in the book like Annie and The Black Lodge, directly, because he would prefer they only be addressed on screen. Purely a guess, but it might be a “real world” reason why those rather important topics aren’t mentioned at all.

The MST3k Reunion Was Everything It Needed To Be And More

e6cb31b27ff62b87dad5e700b1eac58fOn Tuesday, June 28th, 2016, multiple casts of Mystery Science Theater 3000 joined in Minneapolis, MN for a live reunion streamed across the country via Rifftrax, a venture led by the show’s head writer and second host, Mike Nelson, second (and definitive) Tom Servo, Kevin Murphy, and second Crow T. Robot, Bill Corbett.

But let me take a step back.

If you’re not in the know, Mystery Science Theater 3000 is about a man trapped in outer space on a craft called the Satellite of Love and is forced to watch bad movies by an evil scientist. To survive these experiments, the man makes fun of the movies with the help of his robot companions that he built (Joel) or inherited (Mike). The show’s opening credits explain the premise, too.

The concept exists purely to watch a movie with running comedy commentary. The show ran from 1989 to 1999, starting first on a local Minneapolis TV station, KTMA, then transitioning to the precursor of Comedy Central (originally called “The Comedy Channel”), and finally to the Sci-Fi channel before it was cancelled. MST3k is the brainchild of comedian Joel Hodgson, who portrayed the series’ first hapless test subject Joel Robinson. Joel hosted the show until midway through the 5th season when Mike Nelson stepped into the role of “Mike Nelson” and replaced Joel on the SoL. The opening was modified when Mike took over. But the premise remained the same: make fun of bad movies.

Over the course of the show, many performers came and went. Originally, the mad scientist, Dr. Clayton Forrester (portrayed by Trace Beaulieu who also voiced Crow T. Robot), was assisted by Dr. Ernhardt (played by writer/comedian Josh Weinstein) who disappeared after the first season on the Comedy Channel. He was replaced by TV’s Frank (played by writer/comedian Frank Conniff). Weinstein also voiced and worked the puppet for Tom Servo, Joel’s bubble gum machine headed robot, and writer/performer Kevin Murphy assumed control of the bot until the show’s end in 1999. After Joel left in season 5, Frank Conniff departed at the end of season 6. Frank was effectively replaced by writer Mary Jo Pehl who played Dr. Forrester’s mom, Pearl. Trace Beaulieu left at the end of the abbreviated 7th season, which was also the last season on Comedy Central. Pearl Forrester became the primary “villain” when the show moved to Sci-Fi and writer/comedian Bill Corbett joined the show to assume the role of Crow and a new character called Observer or “Brain Guy” who worked with Pearl.

After the show ended in 1999, the various writers and performers went their separate ways. Joel worked in Hollywood on various projects. Frank Conniff, Trace Beaulieu, and Josh Weinstein all worked in LA as writers on various shows and projects. Mike Nelson wrote a few books as did Kevin Murphy.

But in 2006, Mike worked for a small film studio called Legend Films and they asked him to do movie commentary on a few movies in their catalogue like Night of the Living Dead and Reefer Madness. They came up with an idea to do movie commentary ala MST3k, but via tracks recorded separately that could be synced to avoid needing to acquire movie licenses. They called it Rifftrax. Nelson eventually brought along his buddies Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett.

Joel also still had the movie riffing bug. He, Frank Conniff, Trace Beaulieu, Mary Jo Pehl, and Josh Weinstein formed Cinematic Titanic, which toured the country doing live movie riffs. The Rifftrax gang also started doing live movie riffs, but streaming them live to theaters throughout the country via Fathom Events.

Meanwhile, MST3k is living a new life on DVD and in streaming through a company called Shout Factory. Once Cinematic Titanic ended, Joel worked with Shout Factory to reacquire the rights to MST3k. Seeing opportunity through Kickstarter, Joel ran the most successful campaign in the history of the platform to create a new season of MST3k. A new young writer and comedian, Jonah Ray Rodrigues, who works for Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist, has been named the new host.

Wow. That was a big step back.

The MST3k reunion hosted by Rifftrax was also that enterprise’s 10th anniversary and its 20th live show. Mike, Bill, and Kevin were joined by Joel, Trace, Frank, Mary Jo, Bridget Nelson (Mike’s wife, who played many roles on MST3k over the years and has riffed with Mike and Mary Jo on Rifftrax), and Jonah Ray. Josh Weinstein chose not to participate.

Over the years, MST3k fans have fallen into various camps. Joel fans vs. Mike fans. Trace fans vs. Bill fans. Old vs. young. All a lot of nonsense really. MST3k is about making fun of bad movies. The talented writers and comedians who contributed to the show over the years only heightened the show’s reach and creativity. While I’m more a fan of Mike’s era on the show, there are some truly hilarious episodes during Joel’s tenure on the show. Sometimes Joel’s delivery alone moves a funny line to hilarious. Take this example from his final episode, Mitchell.

And I’ve never seen much point in comparing Trace and Bill’s runs on Crow T. Robot; they’re different, but hilarious in their own right. Trace’s Crow is a puckish, self-absorbed clown. Bill’s Crow has more attitude, but is insecure and prone to outbursts of rage.

Despite whatever divisions exist in the fan base, the reunion was full of nothing but good laughs and cheer. The writers and comedians who created and perfected this brand of comedy led the way by being funny. It was like a college reunion of good friends. Comedy is content, but there’s also an alchemy in personality. I felt glad just to watch them perform together. They can make one another laugh in ways that felt genuine and part of the live experience. This was never more evident than at the end when all performers appeared on stage together for a “Riff-a-palooza.”

The show opened with Mike, Kevin, and Bill riffing an educational short film for kids called “The Talking Car.” It sounds cute enough, but the eponymous talking car is a regular car with a pair of animated eyes and a mouth. A little boy almost gets hit by a car and his dreams are then haunted by three talking cars. It’s quite horrific, but the jokes were pretty sharp.

Mary Jo and Bridget followed up with a riff of an old sales short about fancy kitchens? I guess. It was called “A Word to the Wives” and it starred the dad from A Christmas Story. I confess, I think just about anything Mary Jo says is hilarious. Her delivery is always just the right mix of biting and “gee, gosh.”

Next up, Trace and Frank tackled a short film called “More Dates for Kay.” It’s such a strange short that I’m not exactly sure how to describe it. Basically, a young woman isn’t very popular, so she began a social outreach campaign that seemed an awful lot like hooking… Frank and Trace help make those connections for you in case you missed them. This was the strongest individual riffing team and effort in my opinion.

Mike, Kevin, and Bill came back out and took on a hilariously melodramatic short called “Shaking Hands with Danger.” It was made by the Caterpillar construction equipment company and is all about negligent men injuring or killing themselves in various implausible scenarios. The guys also took the opportunity during this window to show a greatest hits reel of Rifftrax over the years as well as formally introduce their senior co-writers, Conor and Sean.

Finally, Joel and Jonah took the stage. Jonah was still an unknown quantity. With the new show coming soon, I was very interested to see how he performed. I also wanted to see Joel perform again. I attended one of the Cinematic Titanic shows when the troupe appeared at George Washington University and thought he was great with the live audience. The good news is that Jonah is a natural. I was a little bit nervous about him, but after hearing his performance, he’s a solid riffer with a great delivery. He did screw up a riff, but it set up Joel for a great live moment. When Bill introduced them, he took a moment to thank Joel for creating movie riffing. A nod to the founder in this time of reflection and transition was especially needed.

The final segment was, like I noted earlier, a massive riff with all of the guests. They riffed a short film of the original Superman serial starring George Reeves. This one was particularly interesting because it was paid for by the government as an ad for postage stamp bonds… the connection between Superman and the stamps was tenuous at best.

But just when we thought the night was over, the Rifftrax crew wrangled everyone back on stage for one final riff. It was a short film from the highly popular “At Your Fingertips” series. This one was focused on Grass. Yep. Grass. If you’ve never seen one of these things, it’s entirely about how kids can make things with grass. What can you make with grass? Everything, apparently. Even things that no normal person would ever want to make with grass. It made for strong riffing material and a great finish.

When it was over, my mouth hurt. I had been smiling and laughing for two hours straight. The mark of a good night.

 

ADDENDUM:

At the press conference before the reunion, the riffers were asked about which MST3k episode they liked which doesn’t come up much. An underrated episode. Mike responded almost immediately to say he really enjoyed The Girl in Gold Boots (a Season 10 entry about a country girl who becomes a “dancer” in LA, which I rather enjoy, too). Joel posed a question back to everyone regarding the famous (possibly most famous) episode of MST3k Manos: The Hands of Fate a movie during Joel’s run that ranks near the top of worst films on the show and ever made. Joel asked what everyone thought of it. He noted that he knows it’s regarded as a fan favorite, but he doesn’t think it’s a particularly strong riff. He didn’t understand why it’s so well regarded.

Allow me to respond.

I think Joel is forgetting about the MST3k “fiction.” Remember that the show is about a guy who has these terrible movies inflicted on him. When the staff happened upon Manos, they clearly recognized how terrible the movie is. In the episode, both TV’s Frank and Dr. Forrester apologize for sending the movie even though it’s their job. Throughout the episode, the bots break down over how terrible it is. Even Joel, who was normally easy-going and laid back, screamed at the movie during an interminable scene where characters just looked at one another. His line was, “DO SOMETHING!” if I remember correctly.

But my point is that the episode is not necessarily remembered for the stellar riffing on the material (which, in my humble opinion, is still quite good). No, it’s remembered as a fantastic overall episode. And in the fiction of the show, this poor guy has to watch this awful movie. I feel like the MST3k audience perceives Joel/Mike and the bots as a shield against the movies on the show. If nothing else, that’s how I perceive them. They’re on the front line, exposed to the movie up close and personal. And so I think MST3k fans have sympathy for the characters as they’re exposed to this awful movie.

It’s even more than that, though. Frank Conniff noted how the show brought Manos out of obscurity and it’s taken on a life of its own. It’s such a remarkably strange movie. Bad, yes, but it has such unique characters. Of course, the most notable character, Torgo, is so weird, off-putting, and unique that he can’t help but be memorable. In fact, the character left such a strong impression that Mike Nelson portrayed Torgo out of the theater for a couple of seasons.

Anyway, my main point is that, as goofy as the premise is, fans bought into the idea that Joel and Mike are forced to watch these movies. As such, the episodes have to be taken in totality, not just the riffing. Because Manos is recognized as a very bad movie, it stands out for fans because of that fact. They identified with the plight of the characters.

Manos was also the first movie to be so oppressively bad and disturbing. Yes, there was King Dinosaur, Time of the Apes, The Castle of Fu Manchu, and Monster A Go-Go, but Manos really is in a category all its own. I’ll be honest, I think Invasion of the Neptune Men is worse mostly because Manos is at least watchable in a “car accident” kind of way, whereas Neptune Men is boring, repetitious, and punishingly inept in every possible way. But Manos was also shown at a time when MST3k’s popularity was reaching its peak, meaning a lot of people saw it. King Dinosaur and Time of the Apes are more like deep tracks.

I hope Joel and his new writing staff and performers remember this as they finish crafting the new season. Movie riffing is absolutely the number one ingredient in making MST3k, but the creators would be wise to remember how much the audience commits to the fiction that frames the riffing. Some of my favorite MST3k episodes feature the characters breaking down throughout the movie like Manos, Wild World of Batwoman, any Coleman Francis movie, Invasion of the Neptune Men, and Hobgoblins. I’m sure there are more, but those are the ones that come to mind. I just think it lends credence to the premise when the characters occasionally get mad about the movies inflicted on them they can’t control. Therefore, that’s why I would suggest Manos is so beloved to Joel. It’s not the riffing specifically, but the fact that the audience is “in it” with Joel and the bots.

Belated Review – X-Men: Apocalypse

x-men-apocalypse-oscar-isaac

And, yes, I’m trolling the haters by using this image.

Beware. There are some spoilers, but nothing too damaging.

Let me get this out of the way first: go see X-Men: Apocalypse. If you read nothing else, you’ll be fine. The movie is an X-Men movie, through and through. If you like superhero movies, you’ll enjoy it. If you like X-Men movies, then great, you’ll enjoy this. I actually think I liked it more than Days of Future’s Past. X2 is still my favorite of the series—it has a solid pace, emotional intensity, and does a great job handling the large ensemble cast. But Apocalypse comes close.

Anyway, I try to review a movie on its own merits and leave public perception and outside influences aside, but since this review is coming so long after the movie originally premiered I have to address the critical reception it’s received so far. So, here it is: what are they talking about? Did we watch the same movie? Now, it’s not groundbreaking cinema by any means. And it’s not a surprise like X-Men: First Class was. But this is a solid effort with a fairly uncomplicated story, some standout performances, and fun action sequences. Really though, it’s so in-line with First Class and Days of Future’s Past that I don’t really understand why it was viewed with such disdain.

Here’s the story: back in the days of ancient Egypt, Apocalypse ruled (played by an unrecognizable Oscar Isaac of “Poe Dameron” fame from Star Wars: The Force Awakens). He had acolytes among the people and four mutant honor guards. But a secret conspiracy struck when he was at his most vulnerable, during a process to transfer his essence into another mutant with a healing factor a lot like Wolverine’s, and his honor guards were killed and Apocalypse was left buried under a pyramid.

In the present, we catch up with characters we know like Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Professor X (James McAvoy), Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), and Havok (Lucas Till). We also meet some “new” faces like Jean Grey (Sophie Turner – Sansa!), Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan), Kurt Wagner (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy), and Psylocke (Olivia Munn). We even catch up with Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne) who was in First Class, but sat out Days of Future’s Past.

The world is in tentative peace. Mutants were revealed during the events of the previous film and things aren’t perfect, but mutants are something of a policy question at this point rather than a group politicians are seeking to legislate or restrain. Professor X has gotten over his crisis of faith and has embraced running the Xavier school. But that’s all he’s embraced—helping mutants control their powers and giving them the tools to acclimate back into society. The idea of the “X-Men,” a proactive force protecting mutants and people from mutants around the world, remains shuttered below the mansion.

Mystique, however, has become something of a folk hero among mutants for preventing Magneto from killing Nixon. Mutants (and, indeed, everyone) know who she is and some even have posters of her. She is a dedicated one-woman mercenary out to save and free as many mutants as she can from various circumstances. This is where we first meet Nightcrawler.

Meanwhile, Magneto has assumed a fake name. He’s married with a daughter. And he’s living a very simple life, working at a steel mill (of course he would). He’s starring in his very own 80s action moving opening or maybe The Outlaw Josey Wales fits better—a man who’s left war and violence behind and you cringe while watching it because you know it won’t last. I hope that’s not a spoiler for anybody.

Finally, Alex Summer’s brother, Scott, has just undergone his mutant transformation. He’s brought to the Xavier school where he acquaints himself with fellow “freak” Jean Grey and stands out, at least initially, as the most powerful, but uncontrolled wild card of the bunch.

It doesn’t take long before Apocalypse is awakened and goes about recruiting the most powerful mutants in the world to take it back from “the weak.” His ultimate plan is decent, if not a little convenient. His recruits, with the exception of Magneto, suffer from the over-stuffed ensemble and don’t get much to do other than pose and look threatening. Olivia Munn’s Psylocke came off better than Storm and Angel did and I’m not sure why I thought so, maybe it’s because she had very few lines and otherwise just got to be a badass. Whatever you think of Munn’s acting, she’s got a good “threatening” stare.

The third act gets a little bit frenetic with a lot of things happening intercut with grey men in control rooms providing exposition bolstered by world-destroying CGI, but that’s hardly a complaint limited to the X-Men films. On balance, though, the final confrontation was exciting and satisfying. The X-Men movies never really had “boss” fights at the end of their films, at least not in the traditional sense, but this one does and it actually serves to mean something thematically for the story which impressed me.

The ending maybe gets a little too cute with a couple of knowing winks and nods at the audience that probably rankled other movie reviewers, but I confess that they worked for me, particularly a reference to the original 2000 X-Men movie. And I’m excited to see where the franchise goes from here because the characters are left in a particularly tantalizing place as the movie ends.

What I liked:

  • Quicksilver, of course. He’s back. I didn’t mention him as part of the quick synopsis run-through above because I didn’t want to go too far into the weeds of the plot. But Quicksilver steals the movie again with another fantastic sequence that ups the ante on his capabilities. He also sticks around this time which is only a good thing.
  • A very good extended cameo.
  • For those of us who remember how restrained the first X-Men movie was, black leather suits, unexciting uses of mutant powers, etc., this movie is the culmination of what fans have wanted for years: big, exciting displays of mutant powers like what we remembered from the comics or the various cartoon series.
  • Professor X gets to contribute! The professor is a tricky character because he’s extremely powerful. His ability to control minds would basically end movies before they started unless there’s a way to “block” him or take him out of the story. The first X-Men movie just put him into a coma in the 3rd act, X2 simply had him kidnapped and manipulated by another powerful telekinetic mutant, and X-Men: The Last Stand just killed him (!). First Class was the first film where the Professor got to do some stuff and the story cleverly pitted him against evil Betty Draper (Emma Frost) as well as another powerful mutant who devised the helmet that Magneto eventually wears, but is also just a force who cannot easily be controlled. Days of Future’s Past stripped the professor of his powers as he is basically a drug addict clinging to a medicine that helps him walk, but also suppresses the constant barrage of voices and thoughts to which he’s subjected. Finally, my point: in Apocalypse, Professor X is legitimately challenged by Apocalypse so he actually is a participant in the fight. It’s an exciting element, well executed.

What I didn’t like:

  • Perhaps the only point some of the critics made, which I partially agree with, is about the pacing. The movie spends a lot of time catching us up with old characters and introducing new ones. I didn’t mind this so much, but I did reach a point where I wondered when things were going to get moving.
  • Apocalypse’s inconsistent powers. This is, again, something not unique to the X-Men movies, but Apocalypse’s power is shown to be great. He literally vaporizes a group of guys at one point. So, it makes one wonder why he didn’t use this power when confronting the X-Men at the end of the movie. Characters like Xavier and Jean Grey, perhaps, can protect against this kind of attack, but people like Cyclops and Mystique have no defenses against stuff like that. It’s kind of the reverse problem of keeping the Professor out of the action because he’s so powerful, Apocalypse is so powerful that he could vanquish some enemies just with a look, but he only does it sometimes and it doesn’t make sense.
  • The movie takes place in the 80s, but it’s not really an influence on the movie like the 70s were in Days of Future’s Past. Other than hair styles and the fashions around the Xavier school, you’d barely know it was 1983. Some characters go to see Return of the Jedi at one point, but other than setting up an audience-winking, meta quip about X-Men: The Last Stand, it doesn’t really impact the movie. Not a major complaint, mind you, but it just seems like they could have done more with the time period.
  • Finally, and I don’t know if this is something that I “didn’t like” per se but, if I’m judging this film on its own merits, it’s a movie that relies heavily on backstory from the previous two movies to inform its story. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are fantastic actors, so you can feel the 25 years of history between these men when they speak or refer to one another, but that’s purely from their performances. The story doesn’t give us much information about their history other than some scattered flashbacks. As much as movies can be sequels or part of larger franchises, they still need to be able to stand on their own. I’m not sure this movie passes that test. I enjoyed it and understood everything I needed to because I’ve seen the other movies and I know the basic character beats from other X-Men media. I don’t know if Joe Movergoer would have understood everything in this movie on its own merits.

In summary, my advice is this: ignore the commentators and the critics slamming the movie. Go and see if for yourself. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised like I was.

Go See “Creed”

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Can’t do much better than Rocky Balboa in your corner.

This review is late, but no less valid now than when Creed came out two weeks ago. If I’ve seen you in person since I saw the movie, I know I’ve told you how good it is. If I don’t see you in person all that often, well: Listen Up.

Creed is a spin-off/sequel/restart (?) in the Rocky series. It’s hard to pin down exactly what it is because it follows everything we’ve seen in the previous six Rocky movies, yet follows a new character, Adonis Johnson/Creed (the fantastic Michael B. Jordan aka Vince from Friday Night Lights and Wallace from The Wire), Apollo Creed’s bastard son from an affair. Yet, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, for the one person out there who doesn’t know that) is the film’s co-star and his character arc is the next chapter in his life as if this were a strict Rocky sequel.

I spend a lot of time defending and justifying sequels, re-imaginings, reboots, shared universes, and all other kinds of franchise building efforts. Creed is, quite possibly, the best example of what a sequel (or whatever it is) should be.

The plot is no secret and is pretty plain from all of the advertising leading up to Creed’s release. Adonis Johnson is Apollo Creed’s son by another mother and like his famous boxing father, he wants to fight, but no one will train him. As his last hope, Adonis seeks out his father’s equally famous friend, Rocky Balboa, to train him. Based on the plot concept, this movie had the potential to be cheesy and not very good.

Writer and Director Ryan Coogler punched that idea right in the face, Ivan Drago-style. This isn’t just a good Rocky movie, it’s a good film in its own right. I can’t remember the last time a movie so satisfied everything I wanted it to be. Coogler made exactly the movie that this needed to be given its hybrid story and origins.

You can never overstate how important music is to a film. Creed’s composer, Ludwig Goransson, has made magic by weaving the Rocky films’ score in and out of a beautiful new arrangement, defined by a badass theme for Adonis that I think will become just as memorable as Rocky’s. Even the degree to which Rocky’s theme music is soft and emotional (for the most part…) compared to the dominant bass and trumpets of Adonis’s theme is right on the money—this is Adonis’s movie, but Rocky is his heart and his spirit. It’s just an incredible arrangement.

Now I won’t go into extreme detail, but I’m a big fan of the Rocky series. Even at its goofiest moments in Rocky III (Thunderlips) and Rocky IV (James Brown and Paulie’s robot), the films all have genuine emotional heart. And they’re inspiring, all about spirit triumphing over seemingly impossible odds. As a short man, with limited physical gifts, I identify with that message.

Director Ryan Coogler shares writing credit with Aaron Covington and these two have captured Rocky’s universe as perfectly as if they extracted it right out of Stallone’s brain. But what’s so good about what they have done here is nothing feels ripped off or copied. Every reference to what has come before, both in Rocky’s life and in Adonis’s relation to Apollo Creed, doesn’t feel like pandering; it feels like necessary, organic parts of this story, which only make them more satisfying. Too often it seems like sequels and reboots run away from what made the original film(s) they are based upon so great. Creed doesn’t do that at all. And it’s so much stronger for embracing its roots in the Rocky story and forging a new path ahead of Adonis, who is no Rocky clone, but does share Rocky’s determination and heart.

It would be a disservice to review this film without commenting on the boxing. It’s fast, brutal, and easily the most realistic of the Rocky films. Plus, Ryan Coogler sets up some imaginative shots that really put the viewer in the ring with Adonis. Most of the fighting is shot over Adonis’s shoulder except in a few cases the camera works to jolt you along with him.

I’m a fan of Michael B. Jordan’s work on The Wire and Friday Night Lights, so I’m probably not the most objective person to evaluate him. Jordan’s portrayal of Adonis Johnson (Creed) is simply great. He imbues the character with history, with pain, with sadness, with strength. It’s not inaccurate to compare Adonis here to Rocky in the original movie, but Adonis is wholly a different character. Even as Adonis courts Bianca (Tessa Thompson), it’s clear he’s got a lot more game than good ol’ Rocky had. But that’s OK.

Meanwhile, while Rocky’s boxing fights are behind him, his character still has a fight ahead of him. And I dare you to keep those eyes dry while Rocky confronts the toughest opponent he’s ever faced. I’ve heard talk that Sylvester Stallone might get an Oscar nod for this performance. I hope he does because it’s really meaty stuff and it’s proof that, while Stallone made his career out of bulletproof action heroes, Rocky Balboa is in his heart. This is why the film doesn’t solely belong to Michael B. Jordan.

I thought I had seen the last of Rocky Balboa’s world with 2006’s Rocky Balboa, a fitting conclusion (I thought) to this series of films. But I didn’t realize how much I missed that character and his world. Or maybe it’s just that Ryan Coogler has told such a compelling, emotional story that it breathes new life into the whole franchise. Creed is over two hours, but it flew by and I want more.

Go see this movie and try not to jump to your feet at the start of the last round. I dare you.

I’m on a Podcast!

Hi all!

There’s a great YouTube channel, and Facebook page (!), called “Obnoxious and Anonymous” that populates great entertainment news and opinion. I’ve recently joined as a contributor and I’m fortunate enough to appear on some of the weekly podcasts. It’s exactly my taste (in that we talk about nonsense), so if you enjoy my blog, you’ll probably enjoy the podcasts too.

This week’s podcast includes two members of the YouTube group “The Sausage Factory,” Cole and Orc. They have some great film discussions and “live watches” on their channel. They’re also big 80’s slasher film fans and I’m also a mega fan. TSF has a new episode premiering tonight, so check it out.

But this latest “O&A” video is one of the best and Cole and Orc are a couple of smart, funny guys so we have a pretty good discussion. I hope you enjoy and, if it floats your boat, subscribe to the channel! And this one!