SNL: Ariana Grande, Chris Pratt (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in September 2014.

To kick off its milestone 40th season, “SNL” entrusted the premiere to first-time guests Chris Pratt and Ariana Grande.  Pratt proved to be the perfect utility player host, comfortably slotting into all his roles without overshadowing the cast.  His trademark goofy energy could have been put to greater use, but this was an episode of “SNL” that wanted to try out new material and cover some of the most pressing news stories.  New cast members Michael Che and Pete Davidson looked perfectly comfortable as they made auspicious debuts.  Overall, this was an episode that was not entirely focused but was overall more interesting and more experimental than “SNL” usually allows itself to be.  Let’s take a closer look at each of the sketches:

State of the Union with Candy Crowley – This is one of those typical “SNL” cold openings: a news talk show parody that allows multiple stories to be covered with minimal connective tissue.  At least in this case, the various stories were all under the same umbrella of “NFL in Crisis.”  While Roger Goodell and former Baltimore Ravens Ray Lewis and Shannon Sharpe all had their funny moments, this sketch did not make much of a point beyond “Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson are not the only NFL players who have had legal troubles.” Lewis’s hook of constantly changing the subject to kids going to school made up for the fact that this was yet another non-impression from Kenan Thompson, while Sharpe continued to be one of Jay Pharoah’s best impressions, with a particularly Eddie Murphy-esque laugh. B-

Montage – The new opening sequence marked the full-time debut of new announcer Darrell Hammond, who sounded like a hustler convincing us how awesome the “SNL” cast is.

Chris Pratt’s Monologue – It is hard to get excited for yet another musical monologue, but at least Chris Pratt can play his own guitar and he has been known to occasionally sing on “Parks and Recreation.”  The typical “SNL” monologue is meant to illuminate the host’s personality, and that was exactly what this monologue did, as Pratt incorporated a few flubbed lines into his performance and demonstrated his freaky relationship with wife Anna Faris by referencing their child’s “really sexy birth.” B

Cialis Turnt – It is cool to give the very “adult contemporary” Cialis commercials the “trap” flavor of “Turn Down for What,” but beyond that initial burst of energy, this commercial parody fell into the trap of explaining its premise rather than building upon it. B-

Toys Come to Life – This sketch started out fairly simple and innocent, though a little loud, but it was worth it for the well-timed set destruction.  Then it got into dangerous territory, which is always nice to see on an “SNL” that is all too often safe now.  It was a celebration of sexual discovery, with He-Man, Lion-O, and She-Ra discovering the joy of touching themselves, with Aidy Bryant, as one of her patented saucy characters, reveling in it all. B+

Animal Hospital – A strange choice for a recurring sketch, considering the gag about an animal hospital whose patients die from simple procedures is rather one-note.  Still, this garnered a few laughs by working in a few oddities along the edges, such as the guinea pig having the name “Mrs. Wonderful” or a parrot apparently learning to talk from Little Caesar’s commercials. C+

Marvel – At first, this looked like it was going to be a slam on the “Ant-Man” movie, which would have been rude, but then it became clear that the joke was how impressive Marvel has been with making surprisingly awesome movies based on supposedly unbankable characters.  That is a fair point, because before “Guardians of the Galaxy” became the biggest box-office hit of the year, it looked too ridiculous to have any mainstream accessibility.  So, in that sense, this sketch was as delightful as it is ultimately was because “Pam,” “Fancy Ghosts,” and “Pam 2: The Winter Pam” looked like they could actually be as good as “Guardians of the Galaxy.” B+

Ariana Grande – “Break Free” – It can be interesting to see a stripped-down version of a song like “Break Free,” but also disappointing, because the original version is already great, and you’ve been waiting to see a live version of that high energy.  Luckily, Ariana Grande split the difference by bringing the whole beat in after the first chorus.  She looked confident, but not arrogant – the shrug at the end was a nice touch. B+

Weekend Update – With three guest commentators and a closing segment, this felt like the longest Weekend Update ever, overshadowing the fact that this was the debut of Michael Che and Update’s inaugural two-man anchor team.  Che wasted no time in establishing his persona, confidently delivering hilarious non-punchlines like Derek Jeter getting “all the ass.”  Colin was as robotic as ever, but somehow he was exponentially better just by being a counterpoint to the more spirited guy next to him. Colin and Michael’s Grade: B
The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a PartyThis is why Cecily Strong, and not Colin Jost, was replaced as anchor.  It is hard, though, for The Girl… to still be as viscerally thrilling as she was in her first appearances, but she can still make the next new awesome turn of phrase, like “this isn’t just an outbreak, it’s an outrage” and “let me ‘mansplain’ this for you in terms you can ‘manderstand.’” B
Leslie Jones – Writer Leslie Jones’s second Weekend Update appearance proved to be much less controversial than her first, but also much less memorable.  She has a point of view, but her performance style is a little hacky and shouty. C+
Pete Davidson – New featured player and “resident young person” Pete Davidson made quite the impression in his first on-camera appearance.  Discussing the “How Much Money Would You Go Down On a Guy For?” game, it initially sounded like he was dispiritingly wading into gay panic territory, but it turned out to be something much more interesting, as he philosophically considered the potential merits of casual prostitution. B+

Girls’ Night – This sketch looked like it was going to turn into an earnest examination of the aggressively sexual flirting by both men and women as represented by hip-hop, especially when Aidy Bryant’s character was reminded that she is a feminist and was warned that she was probably hitting the ass stuff a little hard.  But then it ended too soon to be able to make much of a point. B-

Bad Boys (BEST OF THE NIGHT) – With this short, the Good Neighbor crew concocted a spiritual successor to its “Wing” piece that was cut after the dress rehearsal of the Andrew Garfield episode last season.  In the process, they created their best “SNL” short yet and the best sketch so far of this young season.  This pastiche of nineties dramedies deconstructed its source material down to its barest and most absurd bones, presenting profoundly empty dialogue and conflicts about nothing resolved with a total lack of affect.  The one little kid escaping by running through the fourth wall was a nice touch. A

NFL on CBS – This rundown of the rap sheets of the Baltimore Ravens and Carolina Panthers had essentially the exact same structure as the “Key & Peele” East/West Bowl sketches.  Though this was nowhere near as funny as those classics, its diverse list of crimes – treason, American Taliban, Somali pirate, tax fraud – made it worth recommending.  And “THE Ohio St. University” has never before been rendered more hilariously. B

Ariana Grande ft. The Weeknd – “Love Me Harder” – This rather sweet performance can serve as a counterpoint to last year’s Lady GaGa and R. Kelly duet “Do What U Want.”  While that club thumper reveled in its sleaziness, this one was delightfully flirty but not gratuitous.  The twirl at the end really sold it. B+

Video Game Testing – The premise of this typically weird last sketch of the night became clear too quickly, but it was so weird and so lived-in that it did not matter too much how obvious its progression was. B

Some Bullet Points:
-After Weekend Update, there was a bumper in remembrance of Don Pardo.  (Hopefully there will be a more substantial memorial later, perhaps during the 40th anniversary special.)
-Looks like I’m going to have get used to writing down quotes from the Girl At a Party again: “The fact that you would even ask me that makes you a spigot, and no, I’m not Jewish.” “I’m thinking about it 25/7.” “It’s UN-COMP-RE-HEND-ABLE.” “You’re being like a fetishist dictator.” “If Neil Grass Tyson is that smart, why’d he bite that guy’s ear off?” “I have a crush on Gandhi, but I’m sure Jessica discovered India, too.”
-Chris Pratt feels more connected to “SNL” than most hosts, as he really did live in a van down by the river.
-“Why is cake, Danny?”
-“I called the park. They’ve been closed for two hours.”
-Some of the credits on Bad Boy: Production Coordinator “J Cup,” Script Coordinators “Dilprer Minhawse” and “Roller Hockey,” Camera Operator “Crybaby Presents,” Costume Designer “Danger Bees,” and Executive Assistant “St. Lunatics.”
-Regarding Puzzle World 6: “Well, like, the gameplay was, like, stupid easy.”
-Ariana Grande’s cat ears were cute.