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ONE PERFECT EPISODE / Mystery Science Theater 3000: "The Pumaman" / Shannon Frost Greenstein

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To identify the perfect episode.  What a daunting task.  There’s been, after all, decades’ worth of footage upon our television screens. Television has played a vital role in shaping modern humankind and the zeitgeist as a whole.  How, therefore, can we pick one single episode of one single show in the HISTORY OF TELEVISION to be the best?

Well, actually, it’s quite simple.  Because, once you’ve seen ThePumaman,you cease needing to answer the question at all.

Yes.  That’s right. The perfect episode of any show is Mystery Science Theater 3000’s The Pumaman.

Now, wait!” I hear you objecting.  “Pumaman is, like, two hours long!  It’s a film!”

Well, touche, my mercurial audience, but have you considered this? It was a weekly program with named episodes, and appeared both on Comedy Central and the SyFy network.  It’s syndicated, and…believe it or not…there have been 217 episodes and a feature film since its inception.  MST3K is a series, The Pumaman is an episode in that series, and that episode, friends, is literally PERFECT.

Let’s discuss.

First, there’s the original film being riffed upon by the MST3K cast, “The Pumaman”an Italian superhero flick directed by Alberto De Martino in 1980.  (De Martino refers to the film as, “The only pic I did wrong in my whole career,” so we’re already off to a swimmingly good start.)

But you see, avid readers, this is WHY this episode is perfect.  On MST3K, the more atrocious the B-grade film, the better the riffing.  And “The Pumaman” the film is really, REALLY bad.

A man…just an ordinary paleontologist, doing paleontology things like dusting bones and building cats…learns he is, in fact, the Pumaman, a man-god with superpowers transmitted through the patriarchal line, dating all the way back to that time aliens visited the Aztecs.  Significantly, the original Pumaman was bestowed a golden mask, which allows the wearer to control human minds.  How?  Well, that’s not important, so just relax.  

Meanwhile, there’s a villain, naturally, who has acquired the mask, and intends to use it to control the minds of global leaders…as villains do. Enter an oddly-shaped Indigenous man, apparently a member of an ancient Aztec cult, who, somewhat inexplicably, throws our paleontologist out a window.  Yup, right out of it.  We realize later that he is testing the hero to see if he has “cat-like” abilities, but it’s, like, WAY later.  Really doesn’t make sense at the time.

Next, our paleontologist realizes his full powers when he is given a golden belt by his visitor.  Why? Well, I don’t know, they needed some sort of accessory or something.  It’s not that important either.  Why?  Because, Negative Nancy, his powers include the “puma sense” to anticipate danger, flight…because pumas???...and superhuman feats of strength.  

Then there’s this long part in the middle where everyone loses all respect for pumas, and finally, in a brilliantly original denoument, the paleontologist flies off into the sunset with his love interest, a vapid-sounding blonde who they put in a leather catsuit and then gave a Ph.D. for some reason.

Like…ok.  

But if our story ended there, this would be an entirely different conversation. And our story does not end there, because, in 1998, Mystery Science Theater released its episode The Pumaman, and suddenly created something miraculous, something complex that is greater than the sum of its parts, something we understand intrinsically in our very core:  The Perfect Episode.

The MST3K cast has a freaking field day with this one, due mainly in part to the absolutely appalling special effects.  The worst of the worst?  Probably the flight scenes, wherein the Pumaman is VERY OBVIOUSLY suspended by his pants to overhead wires and flails around like an impaled beetle to simulate “flying.”  It sparks what is probably the best of the best, the best riff from the MST3K cast throughout the entire episode:  “Help! I’m falling at a 45 degree angle, breaking all the laws of physics!”  It’s all set to a tinny background of upbeat EDM that has one cast member remarking, “Soundtrack by my little brother’s Casio!”

The Pumaman does not cease to entertain after multiple viewings, remains universally relevant, and has contributed enormously to MST3K’s exalted position in the lexicon of cult-followed art. Yes.  I said art.  The Perfect Episode requires mastery of the craft, perfect writing, direction, and acting, and that special je nais se quoi that makes it so riveting.  And who knew?  By relying on fodder that is literally the exact opposite of that, like a Hegelian Dialectic, MSt3K circled back around to complete perfection.

The Pumaman even has his own theme song. And, if you ever encounter him out and about on your travels, you’ll be able to hear it, too, playing faintly as he sails away:  “Pumaman, he flies like a moron!” 


Shannon Frost Greenstein is a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee and a Philadelphia City Paper fiction winner. She resides in Philadelphia with her family, and is apparently not allowed to acquire any more cats. Her work can be found in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Crab Fat Magazine, Spelk Fiction...actually, you know what, just Google her.