For the past few weeks, I have been in a life-and-death struggle with TB 152371 on Netflix. Let me explain. I had given up writing “reviews” on Netflix, because I found the voting unfair. No one seemed to actually read the reviews; they just clicked “helpful” or “not helpful” if they agreed with your rating. For example, “3 out of 29 members found [the following] review [of Idiocracy] helpful”:
I made the mistake of thinking this movie was co-written by Ethan Coen of The Coen Brothers fame (he has been known to write without his older brother). It is actually co-written by Etan Cohen of King of the Hill fame. Directing and co-writing is Mike Judge, the creator of such gems as Beavis and Butt-head and King of the Hill. So if you are looking for a movie that pretends to be intelligent, but is really just an excuse for countless fart jokes, go for it. If not, insist upon being paid to sit through this tiresome stink-bomb. It is interesting, however, that Mike Judge decided to make a film noting the dumbing-down of our culture when he has been such a big part of it. I give it two stars because the film is not completely without merit—few films are; two stars usually means I hated a film about as much as I possibly could. And that is certainly the case here. (As for the review above about people not liking this film because they are idiots and don’t get it: satire is a hard business. I doubt anyone missed the satire in this film—it simply wasn’t well done. Also: the film is certainly not a statement about our future but about our present; see, for example, the ending of the movie where the whole process is starting over again. Regardless of all this, I find it offensive that a reviewer would claim that  this film is worth 5 stars—right up there with truly great films like The Gold Rush, It Happened One Night, His Girl Friday, The Bicycle Thieves, Mr. Arkadin, Dr. Strangelove, The Conversation, Videodrome, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; and  that anyone who doesn’t agree with his opinion of this movie is an idiot. On one point I will go with Idiocracy—a film as much about intolerance as stupidity: it is well on display in some of the reviews here.)
Add to this, the fact that the top three vote-getters are always listed first and you can see that your review rating is based almost entirely on when you wrote it and how closely your opinion comports with other viewers. I can accept the former problem, but not the latter because my reviews are usually pretty clear in helping people decide if they will like a given film, regardless of how I feel. Take, for example, my review of The Gin Game—a movie that most people don’t like very much, but which I gave five stars:
This is a very strong production of The Gin Game. The acting is superb: not necessarily better than the Cronyn and Tandy Broadway original (not available on DVD at this time), but different. In particular, Dick Van Dyke’s Weller has a fragility that Cronyn’s did not; I think it is Van Dyke’s best work. D. L. Coburn did a good job of expanding his play into a movie. In particular, he added a touching dance scene that deepens the characters and theme. He also added some scenes outside the sunporch that, while somewhat sentimental, add much welcome ambiance. In terms of the technical aspects of the film, they all work in the service of the script and acting. The description of the film provided here (and the DVD cover photo) will give those who are unfamiliar with the play a very skewed idea of what to expect. This is not an extended episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show. It is a serious, thoughtful, adult drama. It is most definitely not light entertainment (even though it is quite funny at times). Despite having read and seen the play before, this film put me through the emotional wringer—but without pandering. It is deeply affecting.
So I feel that I have often been wronged by the Netflix community (and Netflix itself, which has created the rules and continues to monkey with their user interface, making it worse each time); they have not shown themselves to be worthy of my keen insights. Just the same, I am an attention hog and when I find a movie that few have reviewed, I can’t help myself. This leads us to a fateful date: 20 December 2010. This is the date when Netflix made four episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 available via Instant Watch only: Devil Doll, Devil Fish, Robot Monster, and Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster (all four are available as Mystery Science Theater 3000: Vol. XIX [Limited Edition]). Thus, there were no reviews on four episodes of a show that I’m a big fan of (Crow T. Robot is one of my heroes). I immediately watched the episodes and wrote reviews. I think I was the first person to review all of them except for Devil Doll.
This episode of MST3K is from the eighth season and so features the final cast: the Pearl crew. Two hosted segments involving “not the devil: a devil” (played by writer Paul Chaplin) are particularly funny, as is Tom Servo’s soul being transfered into a toaster strudel for the entire last act of the movie (you have to see it). The riffing is also very strong. My one complaint is that the movie, Devil Doll, is actually rather good and I found myself drawn into it and missing a lot of the riffing. It deserves a second viewing for this reason. Overall, this episode is up to the highest standards of MST3K. It isn’t the best (I think Devil Fish, for one, is better), but it is very good.
This episode of MST3K is from the first cable season when Josh Weinstein played Tom Servo and Dr. Erhardt. In general, it is better than most of these early episodes. Just the same, it is weaker than later seasons. I figure there are half as many gags (or riffs) as there were during the later years (with TV’s Frank and beyond). Robot Monster is the classic “alien in a gorilla suit with a diving helmet” movie, which is beloved by bad-film buffs everywhere. As a stand-alone film, it is far harder to get through than any Ed Wood film—even though Wood’s films are almost all longer. Because of its short length, this MST3K includes two episodes of “Radar Men from the Moon.” The riffing on these is substantially better than it is on “Robot Monster.” The hosted segments are much better than usual for MST3K during this period. Overall, this is quite a watchable episode, especially for this period.
Bride of the Monster
This episode of MST3K riffs on Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster as well as the first part of a GM training short, Hired! (The second part is on the MST3K Manos: The Hands of Fate.) Overall, the riffing is about average for this period of the show: very good. It is even better if you know a bit about Ed Wood. The hosted segments are weaker than usual, with the exception of a light opera inspired by Hired! that Joel and the three bots perform. At the end of the episode, CamBot re-edit the end of the movie and although it isn’t really funny, it is indeed a great improvement. What is most striking about this episode of MST3K (although probably irrelevant to most viewers) is that this print of Bride of the Monster is exceptional—the best I’ve seen. In the end, this is a better than average episode—well worth spending an hour and a half watching.
And that’s when I met her—TB 152371. As soon as my reviews showed up (it takes Netflix a couple of days, not only to process a review, but to even process a “helpful/not helpful” rating), similar reviews of the same episodes written by TB 152371 also showed up. It was scary. First, she is actually beating me in votes for our Devil Doll reviews and she’s nipping at my heals on Devil Fish (thankfully, I have a substantial lead on the other two). Second, her reviews are so much like mine. She says, for example, “The movie ‘Devil Doll’ is pretty fun and we get to see Tom Servo as a toaster strudel, so that’s awesome.” Of Devil Fish, she says, “The riffing provided some real laugh out loud moments and the host segments were also pretty funny, including the Pearl/Bobo/Brain Guy storyline which I normally can do without.” And she even takes special note of the Hired! light opera, “The ‘Hired’ musical during the host segments is one of my favorite songs of the whole 10 year MST3K series, so its a definite highlight of the episode.” Who is TB 152371?!
So I did a little research on her. She lives in Burlingame, California—where my older sister lives. She has been a Netflix member for over seven and a half years. And here’s the kicker: she has reviewed 34 films—all of them Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes! I was immediately smitten. (Of course, I don’t have crushes like other people; when I find a woman—or man—who is interesting, I don’t want to date them; I want to interview them! So if TB 152371 finds out about this article: please contact me; I really want to do an interview. Really.)
This all came to mind because of the movie itself, Parts: The Clonus Horror. It is about clones that are being created to serve as organ donors for the rich and powerful. I know what you’re thinking: isn’t that what that awful movie The Island is about? Indeed it is, and that is why the producers of Parts sued the makers of The Island, pointing out 103 similarities between the films. The Island was a clone of Parts, why couldn’t TB 152371 be a clone of me? The evidence, it turned out, was in the review itself. First, let’s look at TB 152371’s Parts review (you may not be able to see this if you aren’t a Netflix member):
My mom would always tell me about this episode of MST3K and how it was her favorite (it aired during the Sci-Fi Channel era of the show after it left Comedy Central, I had already left for college and didn’t have cable any more). I finally watched it and mom knows best, because this [is] probably one of the funniest episodes of the whole series. Solid, hilarious jokes throughout the whole movie. And normally I don’t really find the antics of Pearl, Bobo and Brain Guy funny, but even their parts were good in this. The film itself is about a facility called Clonus where clones of carefully selected people are created in case they ever need replacement organs. The poor clones have no idea unfortunately and when it is time for them to be harvested they are told that they are going to “America”. Somehow Peter Graves and Dick Sargent got involved in this disaster too, so this episode is an opportunity to see them at the low points of their careers.
I would never have written such a review, and I would certainly be highly disappointed if any clone of mine had written it. Although I agree about not generally finding the antics of Pearl & Co. funny, I disagree that this episode is an exception. In fact, I find them more annoying than usual. What’s more, TB 152371 attacks the base film, calling it a “disaster” when it is actually a rather good movie. She falls into the common trap of judging a $200,000 movie (Parts) by the standards of a $100 million movie (The Island). But no one’s perfect; I still think she is an excellent judge of MST3K episodes. However, she cannot be my clone.
But is she anyone’s clone? Not if we are to believe her generally very believable reviews. She claims to have a mother, which we all know clones do not have. But the question still remains, as TV’s Frank would put it, howling despondently, “Who is TB 152371?!”
I just noticed another Netflix member: Flak Magnet. He has reviewed 820 films. I started looking through them and I noticed that he was often the top rated review. But I noticed something else: his “Helpful” scored tended to be right around 18. So if the film he reviewed hadn’t been reviewed much, he was at the top. If it had, he would be buried—with roughly 18 “Helpful” votes. What’s more, his vote totals have gotten significantly lower since the Netflix “Friends” feature was removed. This got me thinking: Flak had about 18 friends on Netflix; when he reviewed a movie, he told his friends and they all voted it helpful. Once you get a head-start like this on Netflix, it is almost impossible to lose your lead. So maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea for Netflix to get rid of its “Friends” feature.
On the positive side, Flak Magnet has reasonably similar taste in movies to me (that is: good) and his reviews are, on the whole, pretty informative—far better than usual for Netflix. He’s put together his own blog called The Movie Distillery that seems to just contain his short reviews. It ain’t Frankly Curious, but it isn’t without merit.
 It just so happens, I have my own favorite MST3K song. It is Tom Servo’s Super Agent Super Dragon—I wish I had the single. And look at the duds Crow’s wearing!