The bad news is that the full Mystery Science Theater 3000 catalog — 11 seasons, 213 episodes at roughly 90 minutes a shot, plus one actual movie — is absurdly daunting for newcomers and even casual enthusiasts alike. The good news is that there’s no bad place to start, or, for that matter, stop. The cult-classic TV show, wherein a marooned spaceman and his two robot cohorts heckle real-life sci-fi and horror movies in onscreen silhouette, keeps a remarkably even keel whether the film in question is Attack of the Eye Creatures or Teen-Age Strangler or Deathstalker and the Warriors From Hell.
A full-length appreciation of MST3K can be found here, tracing its arc from a humble Minneapolis local-TV enterprise in the early ’80s to its reign over early iterations of Comedy Central and the Sci-Fi Network in the ’90s. But now, in honor of its 12th season, coming to Netflix this Friday after a nearly 20-year layoff, we’ll attempt to sketch out a newcomer’s guide to the best episodes, or at least the best ones to watch first. Go for the official DVDs if you like, but many full episodes now thrive on YouTube, and Netflix will get you started with 20 cherry-picked classic installments, from Pod People to The Giant Gila Monster to Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. This is either the dumbest great show ever or the greatest dumb show ever, or both. Here’s the proof.
‘Escape 2000’ (Season 8, Episode 5)
As discussed in great detail here, the opening scene of this 1983 Italian-made Warriors ripoff — wherein the endlessly repeated phrase “Leave the Bronx!” passes from a Zen koan to a total absurdity to the funniest thing you’ve ever heard — might be the perfect distillation of Mystery Science Theater 3000’s goofy genius. The hero is named Trash; a particularly colorful onlooker is named Toblerone (or something close to that). The punch line, after 90 minutes of ludicrous concrete-jungle action and inaction, is, “Cleanup in Borough 5!”
‘Manos: The Hands of Fate’ (Season 5, Episode 24)
Here is probably the single most famous MST3K installment, inept and watchably unwatchable in that distinct cult-classic sort of way; its rocky afterlife inspired a Playboy article with the headline “The Battle Over the Worst Movie Ever.” This one is nominally about a family that runs into some sort of satanic cult during the worst road trip imaginable, but its true subject is the viewer’s incredulity, and amusement, and, eventually, rage. (“DO SOMETHING!” someone finally yells at the screen in this version.) Stick around for the cult-member catfight, and for robot quips including “This is like the Russian parliament!” and “It’s like the Wilson Phillips breakup!” This is the first episode in Netflix’s best-of collection for a reason.
‘Mitchell’ (Season 6, Episode 12)
The best worst movies tend to trigger at least one freakout from an onscreen human or robot, as when mega-schlub detective Joe Don Baker, in the slovenly title role, verbally spars with a little kid at excruciating length. There’s an uncommon mean streak here, in that our hero is variously described as “The Chubby Blue Line” or “Dying Elvis,” or accused of representing “the declining years of Lee Majors.” The love scene triggers a disgusted chorus of NOOOOOO; the absurd car-chase scene, replete with “hot merging action,” allegedly makes “Driving Miss Daisy look like Bullitt.” It is rumored that Joe Don Baker vowed to “kick their asses” if he ever met any MST3K guys in person, and you can’t really blame him.
‘(content removed)’ (Season 3, Episode 2)
The show naturally got more polished as it went along, but you owe it to yourself at some point to experience (a) a really old one and (b) a Godzilla-related one, given how crucial that franchise is to the larger MST3K universe. “Action sequences filmed in Confuse-o-Vision!” is typical of the commentary here, but as the new Mighty Morphin Power Rangers film just proved, coherence is very much not the point with this senseless and timeless sort of thing.
‘Laserblast’ (Season 8, Episode 6)
It takes only one character, or one catch phrase, to vault an MST3K episode several tiers upward, and so it goes here with the poor hirsute cop whose every appearance inspires shouts of “Ready for some football!” in this Netflix inclusion. (He bears a passing resemblance to former Monday Night Football pitchman Hank Williams Jr., you see.) There are also extremely lousy laser effects in this 1978 farce, as well as sterling simpering-nerd character acting from Grease alumnus Eddie Deezen.
‘Space Mutiny’ (Season 9, Episode 20)
Netflix was also wise to include this extremely ’80s South African romp, whose buffed-out hero, played by Reb Brown, is variously nicknamed “Thick McRunfast,” “Slab Bulkhead,” “Blast Hardcheese,” “Butch Deadlift,” and “Big McLarge Huge.” There is also a hula-hoop-themed dance party, and a frizzy-haired lady who keeps showing up onscreen even after she’s been killed. Channing Tatum has at least considered remaking this.
‘The Pumaman’ (Season 10, Episode 3)
Italy again! The flying scenes in this 1980 superhero jaunt are wondrous indeed, even if there is little context for them, within the film or without. (“I hate to be picky, but pumas aren’t really known for flying.”) The theme song is endlessly adaptable.
‘Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie’
The show’s mainstream popularity peaked with this 1996 feature film about characters on a TV show watching a feature film, in this case the 1955 sci-fi adventure This Island Earth. You get 17 transcendent seconds, anyway, courtesy of the “Normal View” song. That alone, in this show’s cracked calculus, is worth 70 minutes of your time.