SNL: Kendrick Lamar, Woody Harrelson, Kate McKinnon (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in November 2014.

Season 40 of “Saturday Night Live” has been notably light on recurring material; this episode, with the exception of one sketch and one Weekend Update segment, was completely devoid of anything recurring.  While it is nice to have a tendency towards original material, the best “SNL” seasons have always had a decent mix of new and repeating characters.  It is time for the cast and writers to really figure out what they do best and focus on that. If the show was relying on the host to kick itself into gear in this way, then Woody Harrelson was never going to be the man for that job.  Instead, he was happy to ride along with whatever he was asked to do, a style that worked just fine but would have worked better if this season had a better sense of its identity.  Kendrick Lamar definitely brought it, though.

Barack Obama and Mitch McConnell – It can work comedically to have politicians appear laid-back in an atypical setting, but it requires playing off or playing against their known personas.  This sketch did play off Obama’s enmity with the GOP Congress, but it was not specific enough to have anything to do with Mitch McConnell.  Overall, this felt like an impression of the format of this type of gradual time-lapse sketch, but there was hardly any rhyme or reason to its pacing (the subtitles of what number drink the guys were on were meaningless). C

Woody Harrelson’s Monologue – There is no point in complaining that “SNL” is doing yet another musical monologue, but it might be worth complaining when they don’t even bother to come up with an excuse to have the host sing a song.  Perhaps that was just the laid back vibe you get with Woody Harrelson, but it works better to comment on the host’s personality, rather than just acknowledge it.  When Woody’s “Hunger Games” co-stars appeared, this became one of the most unfocused monologues ever, but it worked because of how unscripted it felt.  Jennifer Lawrence was much more memorable here than she was during her own hosting appearance a couple of seasons ago, because she clearly did not care if she screwed up, which paired well with Woody being too stoned to remember 1989. B

The Dudleys! – The viewer comments were a fairly accurate distillation of overeager, micromanaging reactions to modern television.  The initial concerns were reasonable, though a little out of place, then they built to finding problems where there were simply weren’t any, culminating in overcorrecting to the point of absurdity.  The snail mail letters worked as satire of reactionaries as well as a corrective to remind people that there can be opposing complaints to shows that they feel ownership towards. B+

Match’d – Kyle Mooney sounded like his Inside SoCal character, which was an appropriate fit for this MTV dating show marked by crude, unbridled horniness.  It worked as well as it did because Kyle, Beck Bennett, and Taran Killam can be so charming even when they are playing terribly uncouth characters.  What also elevated Match’d were the jokes that had nothing to do with the pool of horniness, like Kyle pronouncing “Veterans” as “Veteras” and Cecily’s bachelorette character noting that you “can’t shake hands with a ghost.”  It was an interesting tactic to have Woody play Cecily’s dad without him explicitly intimidating any of the guys.  It made the dynamics a little weird, but it allowed for avoidance of some cliché material. B

A New Day – In this celebration of NYC’s relaxation of marijuana possession laws, the “SNL” video team went all out in its filmmaking style, but could have put more thought into its ideas.  Thus, this worked as a mood piece – with the stoners’ emergence into daylight particularly beautiful – but fell short as social commentary, choosing to portray tokers fairly stereotypically. B-

Halftime Locker Room – “SNL” has apparently developed a bit of a habit for locker room pep talks, what with Will Forte’s dancing coach, Jesus coming to visit Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos, and now, this demonstration of how to properly tackle your opponent while avoiding the risk of concussion.  For a moment, it looked like this was going to turn into accidental romance, especially with the motto of “PUT YOUR PRINCESS TO BED!”  But this was a lot more than that, really exploring the extent of the comic lengths players could take to prevent concussions.  Kenan’s appearance as a “nine-time Pittsburgh Steeler” who gradually displayed the symptoms of concussion himself was a solid subversion of the old guard denouncing the new ways.  This was more of a riff than a fully formed sketch, but it was amusing enough at that. B

Young Tarts & Old Farts – Usually the impression showcase sketches of “SNL,” while hit-and-miss, are fairly reliable, but this edition featured more misses than usual.  It did not help that the premise of this one – old musician sings with young musician – was not particularly clever and thus did not offer anything to fall back on.  The fast spitting from Kendrick Lamar, appearing as himself, barely even registered as a joke.  At least “Crosby, Stills, and Psy” worked as a quick gag, and 2 Chainz actually had an interesting take on “Fire and Rain.”  This worked best when it went bizarre, especially with Blue Ivy Carter looking cute alongside Elton John. B-

Kendrick Lamar – “i” (BEST OF THE NIGHT) – This performance gave Woody’s man plenty of space to do his thing.  The sweat, the leaning forward, the black contacts, the robot dance, and the funky dance all contributed to a feeling of self-actualization very appropriate for this song.  The backup arrangement conveyed a tinge of gospel, which contributed to the sense of preaching the truth. A-

Weekend Update – The Kim Kardashian runner provided a fair amount of conceptual energy that this era of Update wants to make into a thing, but they still have a ways to go before they will be doing something truly original.  Colin’s blandness was actually put to good use, though (“getting back to real news”).  he tends to revel in his weird punchlines – he should do more jokes like “Who Wore It Best?” among the world leaders.  And Michael should probably focus on the puzzle-solving jokes like the note from Dennis Rodman to Kenneth Bae and the pigeon in a dashiki. Michael and Colin’s Grade: B
Weekend Update: Leslie Jones – In her first Weekend Update appearance, relationship expert Leslie Jones stirred up some controversy, but at least she had something unique to say.  But here, she did not challenge or otherwise critique the crazy bitch stereotype.  Instead, she just confirmed its existence and shouted a bunch of crazy nonsense, which is really not her forte (save for the description of the various penis types as the “seven dwarves”).  Weirdly, the responses from vanilla Colin Jost (“I feel like I have to talk to HR first”) were the best moments. C
Weekend Update: Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson – The tricky thing about post-“True Detective” Matthew McConaughey impressions is that they resist being fitted into a format.  The idea generally is that McConaughey’s “just keep livin’” ethos is crossed with the mysticism of Rust Cohle.  So there was no overarching point to this commentary, because by the very nature of Taran Killam’s impression, there could not be any overarching point.  The puns based on his movies and Woody’s statement that they did not take either of the two diverging roads were amusing, but not enough to make up for the formlessness. C+

Bar – This sketch looked like it was going to eventually become one of the Kate McKinnon-starring Last Call sketches, but it turned out that the alcohol establishment-based humor of “SNL” goes beyond desperate hookups.  Woody quietly gave his best performance of the night here as he seamlessly kept weaving the conversation back around to his disappointment about the current state of NYC crack.  It would have been nice if of the other patrons had anything interesting to say, though.  The fake-out at the end worked well, thanks to the inspired randomness of a “Vote for Nader” button being passed off as a police badge. B-

Campfire – Not too many “SNL” sketches have a well-structured beginning-middle-end progression.  This one did, elevating what was otherwise a rather low-key ode to apples.  Todd sang his apple song that he insisted everyone else knew, he became frustrated and threw his guitar, and then the twist revealed that his friends were just teasing and that they really did know the song all along.  It was a little depressing that Todd had to lose his only possession, though. B-

Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, and Chantal – “Pay For It” – This was actually a Jay Rock song featuring Kendrick Lamar, and as such, it was not as good as Kendrick’s first performance.  Jay Rock had nowhere near the unique presence as the episode’s credited musical guest, so since he had two verses to Kendrick’s one, this number did not do much to recommend itself. C+

Last Call – So it turned out that there were two bar sketches in this episode, and one of them was Last Call after all.  After four renditions, it is fairly clear how the desperation of these barflies will progress.  This is a rather simple premise anyway, so there is not going to be much room for variation.  What there is room for is plenty of imaginatively gonzo wit, and this time was no exception, with plenty of winners like “giving my buttmeat the whatfor,” “‘they’ being the people who hold the keys at White Castle,” Chip Fister being a Lay’s chip sifter, and “that was unstraordinary.” B

Some Bullet Points:
-To expound on J-Law’s cameo: she had the energy of her legendary talk show appearances, neglecting to remember the simple details of the movie she was promoting and adorably flubbing her talking points.
-“Little Daisy Dudley is now a staff sergeant in the United States Marine Corps.” “Daddies, I’m gonna be late for Afghanistan.”
-“If the pupils dilate-” “YOU DID GREAT!”
-Further proof that Colin Jost is not a robot: the Cake Boss declaring that he couldn’t be arrested because he’s the Cake Boss might have worked if those officers were cakes.
-P.S. Repeal Obamacare