Admittedly, this is one of the easiest shows to get into, in some ways; the series’ premise is explained neatly and succinctly in under two minutes by the opening credits. The show is little more than a vehicle to make fun of old movies much the way classic horror hosts like Vampira and Ghoulardi did, and the actual premise (mad scientists experiment on the effect of bad movies on the human brain, as measured by a guy and his robot companions forced to watch said bad movies) is just an excuse to make it happen. Every episode is more or less its own self-contained story, and if you can get behind the concept of mocking cheesy sci-fi films, there’s not much more you need to know.
In fact, this is one series you definitely don’t want to watch from the very beginning; first off, the “very beginning” is only available in the form of fan bootlegs, since the series started as a local show in the Twin Cities. (I remember turning it on and thinking, “Ooh! Sci-fi movie! Huh? Why are there guys in the lower right-hand corner of the screen? Ohhhh…this is the BEST IDEA EVER!” I was so disappointed when it went to cable and I couldn’t watch it anymore. (My parents didn’t believe in cable.)) Secondly, the first season is very much all about them getting comfortable with their series; nobody had ever done anything exactly like MST3K, and it took them a while to figure out how to pace their jokes. (Which is “frequently”, by the way…they estimated that in later seasons, they wrote about 700 jokes per episode.) And thirdly, not all the episodes are legally available; the producers got broadcast rights but not video rights to most of the movies they showed, and so the process of releasing the series on DVD is as much an adventure in “What can we get the rights to?” as “What are the classic episodes?” (Fortunately, the series’ creators actually included the phrase “Keep Circulating the Tapes” in the credits for the first seven seasons, and their pro-bootlegging stance has led to a wide network of informal episode trading. So long as you buy the episodes that are commercially available, they seem to be willing to turn a blind eye to bootlegging the ones that aren’t.)
So I’d skip ahead to at least Season Two, perhaps even Season Three or Four to introduce you to Joel (the original host and “man in space” for the first five seasons.) He’s got a laid-back delivery style and a penchant for silly gimmick props (the Invention Exchange, which opens every episode for the first six seasons or so, was an exercise in prop comedy.) The most recent release from Shout Factory, “MST3K Volume XX”, features several later Joel episodes (“Master Ninja” I & II, “The Magic Voyage of Sinbad”), while the next release will feature five classics (the complete “Gamera” collection.) These episodes also feature the classic mad scientist duo of Doctor Clayton Forrester and his dim-witted sidekick, TV’s Frank. Doctor F is perpetually frustrated and grandiose in his schemes by Frank’s incompetence (and his own, which he chooses not to acknowledge.)
In Season Five, Joel left (due to creative conflicts over what would eventually become “Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie”) in the episode “Mitchell”, which may still be available through Rhino. He was replaced with Mike Nelson, head writer for the series, who played a temp at the mad science labs who got shanghaied into doing his own bad movie riffing. Shout Factory’s first DVD set, the “20th Anniversary Edition”, features three excellent Mike episodes…including the departure of Doctor Forrester at the end of Season Seven. (Cast changes are a feature of the series.)
The last three seasons, which aired on the Sci-Fi Channel, featured Pearl Forrester, Clayton’s mother, who vowed to carry on his work after smothering him with a pillow. She acquired her own henchmen (Professor Bobo, an ape from the titular Planet Of, and Observer, a brain in a dish with a human to carry it around) and proceeded to do her own tormenting. This era featured some experimentation with actual storylines, which some liked and some didn’t. If you like the idea, try to watch “Revenge of the Creature” through “The Deadly Mantis”, “The Thing That Couldn’t Die” through “The She-Creature”, “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” through “Agent for H.A.R.M.”, and “Prince of Space” through “The Projected Man”. Watching those out of order will leave you occasionally wondering why Mike is in Ancient Rome, or what Pearl is doing on a planet where apes evolved from men!!! (Luckily, you can always ignore all that and just focus on the movie.)
Eventually, the series ended…but it’s definitely not gone. Joel is currently doing “Cinematic Titanic”, a live stage show where he and several MST alumni riff on bad movies (they also have some DVDs available), while “Rifftrax” features Mike Nelson and other MST alumni riffing on major studio releases through the magic of downloadable MP3s that you can manually synch up with films like “Iron Man”, “Twilight” and “The Happening”. (They also have some DVDs available.) All are recommended.
I’ve tried to cover the basics, but really, it’s a wide and sprawling show that I’ve barely scratched the surface of. (Just think, all this space and I haven’t even mentioned “Manos: The Hands of Fate”.) Feel free to share your favorites, and remember to “repeat to yourself, ‘it’s just a show, I should really just relax!'”