SNL: Mark Ronson, Cameron Diaz, Bruno Mars (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in November 2014.

When people look back through the annals of “SNL,” this episode may go down as the one when the Season 40 cast fully discovered its confidence.  But since episodes are usually cataloged by the guests, this one might be hard to identify, because the guests did not do anything spectacular.  Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars came in and performed a couple of songs, while host Cameron Diaz did not have any showcase performances.  She gamely slotted in to whatever role she was needed in, but this episode was about the likes of Leslie Jones, Kyle Mooney, Aidy Bryant, and Beck Bennett asserting themselves in an ideal mix of original and recurring material.  The energy was high, with everyone coming in hard, making their comedic point, and moving on to the next sketch before wearing out their welcome.  The show may have petered out a little bit at the end, but it was still strong enough to set a new high watermark for the season.

Schoolhouse Rock – After a seasons-long rut of unimaginative, cookie-cutter political cold opens, “SNL” went silly and retro.  The result was a “Schoolhouse Rock” parody that was the show’s most pointed take on the current state of affairs in D.C. in years.  All it took to make it happen was Bobby Moynihan’s matter-of-fact delivery of “I’m an executive order, and I pretty much just happen.”  Then it ended abruptly when it seemed like it had plenty more to say, though its point was a simple one, and no more needed to be said. B+

Cameron Diaz’s Monologue – This could not have felt like a more tossed-off monologue.  The audience Q&A routine is not as overdone as the song-and-dance number, but it is a lot easier.  So Cameron Diaz’s fourth “SNL” monologue won no points for originality, but it did earn some laughs, partly because of how inconsequential it felt.  The questions were so willfully obtuse, it felt like playfully mischievous Internet trolling come to life. B-

Back Home Baller (BEST OF THE NIGHT) – This sequel to last season’s classic “Twin Bed” initially felt like a bit too much like self-indulgence, like when a rapper from the inner-city starts focusing on bling after tasting success.  But then, at about the point when Lil’ Baby Aidy ran into Jean while taking out the garbage, it all changed.  There was the gag about the wi-fi password, with an endurance gag reminiscent of the Will Forte-starring Spelling Bee sketch from 2005, making this song became a celebration not of excess, but of nonsense.  “SNL” sketches that transform right before our eyes are something to savor. A-

HBO First Look: Annie – The trend of segments tonight that were mostly successful despite not having much of a premise continued with this excuse for having black Annie claim parentage by Wyclef Jean and Bonnie Raitt.  There was not much of a point here beyond giving Leslie Jones her best opportunity yet for corralling her aggressive style into something genuinely surprising, but that proved to be enough of a point.  The Ram Jam-style “Black Annie” finale number a non sequitur, but also weirdly appropriate. B

Nest-presso – This commercial for express chicken development felt like it was taking aim at something specific, but at-home poultry farming is probably not commonplace enough for this to be addressing a common complaint.  While it was well thought-out, it just came off as weird for the sake of weird.  Though Vanessa Bayer does deserve praise conceding that she did not know how the machine worked, serving as a parody of commercials in which users are experts on the products in their homes. B-

Woodbridge High School Theater Showcase (BEST OF THE NIGHT) – This experimental piece about the “funeral of Main St.” was successful not just because it was pretentious, and not just because it was about pretentious high schoolers, but also because everyone was so damn committed.  Despite the hilarity, it was somehow also weirdly inspiring.  The reactions from the parents played by Kenan and Vanessa could have been on-the-nose, but they provided a nice rhythm and underscored the hilarity. A-

Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars – “Uptown Funk” – Bruno and the rest of the singers appeared to be going for a sunny “Miami Vice” with their outfits.  Anyway, the title certainly fits this song, and the performance lived up to that. B+

Weekend Update – When Colin Jost suggested that viewers bring up the immigration story to their grandfathers at Thanksgiving, the obvious question was, why not bring out Drunk Uncle to talk about it right now?  Despite that oversight, this was the best Colin Jost/Michael Che edition of Weekend Update so far.  Colin continued to excel with weird, unexpected punchlines, like the Keystone XL pipeline being a job provider for bird cleaners.  But the clear highlight here was Michael Che’s personal and conflicted take on the Billy Cosby rape allegations.  His separation of Cosby and Cliff Huxtable was a legitimately thoughtful exploration of the difference between controversial real people and their less controversial fictional characters. Michael and Colin’s Grade: B+
Weekend Update: Angela Merkel – Kate McKinnon’s appearances as the German chancellor have been as spirited as any of McKinnon’s other performances, but they have mostly eschewed strict accuracy.  That is not a problem when her Teutonic punnery is working, and she was on fire this time, particularly in wagering that Obama’s Keystone pipeline is XL. B
Weekend Update: Charles Manson and Star Burton – Taran Killam’s Manson shared some of the freeform mysticism of his Matthew McConaughey impression.  This commentary did not go much beyond “this marriage is very weird,” but it did offer a fair look into the mind of a madman with quips like, “We finish each other’s-” “Spider penis!” and “Peanut butter and-” “Chaos!” C+

Baby Boss Dinner – To preserve the vitality of recurring characters, it helps to place them in a new context, and indeed it was illuminating to see Beck Bennett’s baby boss at home and canoodling with his wife, played with gusto by Cameron Diaz.  But the biggest highlights remained the physical comedy, particularly the slide down the stairs.  There were a few times, though, that this sketch treated Richard Patterson as an actual baby instead of just having the body of a baby (he wouldn’t fit in the kitchen sink). B-

Dr. Dave and Buggles’ Animal Hour – Typically, sketches that lay out their shock value in the opening moments tend to die out as they move along, as they have nothing to build upon since they started too crazy.  But this particular early-shock sketch did a lot of sideways world-building, exploring every implication of a animal show host whose genitals were ripped off by his monkey co-host.  The crewperson working on the exit sign was a nice bizarre touch; it almost seemed like a weird technical gaffe with really bad staging and direction.  Also, that lemur was really into Cameron. B+

I’m going to fight Andy Rydell – After running for class president, Kyle Mooney’s Chris Fitzpatrick was back to confront his personal tormentor.  The Good Neighbor shorts usually have a purposely amateurish aesthetic, and this one did, too, but it was also particularly well-edited, with the stock footage car crashes and explosions perfectly timed to the music.  Ultimately, this sketch worked as well as it did because of how humanistically both Chris and Andy Rydell were portrayed. B+

Poetry Class – Vanessa Bayer always gives it her all as the free-spirited Ms. Meadows, but she has a limited range of quirks.  These sketches live and die on the strength of the poems, and they are usually not very spectacular.  Kenan got a laugh line with his “Friends” poem by calling Ross a little bitch, and so did Ms. Meadows by noting that that piece made her feel like she really knows that show now, but that was about it. C-

Mark Ronson and Mystikal and Bruno Mars – “Feel Right” – It was a little odd that Bruno Mars was a credited musical guest alongside Mark Ronson even though he was only a backup singer for the second performance.  One wonders why Mystikal was not also afforded an official distinction.  Not that it affected his commitment, as he gave it his all, successfully transplanting his forceful, gospel-tinged spitting style into Ronson’s funk explosion. B+

Night Murmurs – There was a nice germ of an idea here, in which phone sex operators took advantage of their customers with weird and unreasonable requests.  But the specifics were so random and so incongruous with the girls’ silky tones, making it so that the premise was never fully clear at any one time.  The constant adjustment of poses should have added to the hilarity, but it was hard to accomplish a simple task like that amidst the wall-to-wall weirdness. B-

Some Bullet Points:
-After the Theater Showcase sketch, there was an In Memoriam shot of legendary film and stage director Mike Nichols, who passed away this week.  Nichols never appeared on “SNL,” but he did direct “The Graduate,” which was written by 10-time “SNL” host Buck Henry.
-Kyle Mooney’s audience character in the monologue was Brad Parsons, a film student at The New School.  As a media studies master’s student at The New School, I feel the need to point out Parsons is TNS’s school of fashion and design.
-Leslie Jones was channeling Missy Elliott during her rap in Back Home Baller.  Specifically, “bowls, bowls, all type of bowls” called to mind “boys, boys, all type of boys” in Missy’s “Work It.”
-In case anyone needs to use the wi-fi at the McKinnon house, the password is OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOb45ltngX333145tdq314w.
-“So next time you’re at Starbucks, why not order a double shot, of compassion?”
-“A new government report concludes that 90 percent of people who drink excessively are not alcoholics and can change their behavior easily, which is exactly what an alcoholic would say.
-Andy Rydell wears name brand circus clothes.