SNL: Nicki Minaj, James Franco (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in December 2014.

With a crisis in policing in America, and a movie studio being hacked, possibly in retaliation to the upcoming film starring tonight’s host, this week’s “SNL” was not struggling for topicality.  Surprisingly enough, one of the most uncomfortable issues of the year shocked the show out of its politically tepid default, resulting in some legitimately funny material on a difficult subject.  However, what this episode was most notable for was a bizarrely naturalistic pace.  It was not slow and sleepy so much as it was that many of the sketches took their time to find a joke.  Rhythmically, this did not feel like a typical 2014 episode of “SNL,” for better, for worse, and for neutral.

Politics Nation – The Ferguson and Eric Garner decisions were impossible for “SNL” to ignore, though it was a little odd that the show chose to initially take them on with Kenan Thompson’s malapropism-prone Al Sharpton.  While this rendition of the MSNBC spoof did keep that goofy element, the reverend came off smarter than usual, with his gaffes seeming more like the result of frustration than incompetence.  The conclusion of him eagerly hugging an uncomfortable police officer firmly established this as a genuine, albeit silly, call for solidarity. B

James Franco’s Monologue – Typically, the leaked photos gag of the variety shown here by Franco and Seth Rogen would fall flat because they would fail to be convincing in their shock value, but in the case of two guys who created a shot-for-shot remake of a certain hip-hip video, the problem was its lack of surprise.  Tying together the Sony hack with the celebrity photo leaks and their own personal situations was somewhat clever, but it was all a tad too predictable. C+

Peter Pan Live – It helped that “SNL’s” take on NBC’s latest live musical was not just making fun of the production itself, considering live-tweeting already took care of that the night of the show.  Unfortunately, Aidy Bryant’s Tonkerbell does not have enough depth to carry an entire sketch on her own.  Another problem was the lack of effort to unify any of the individual elements.  Allison Williams singing a song that she also sang in an episode of “Girls” in particular had nothing to do with anything.  James Franco’s Walken impression felt rather lazy, but he somehow ended up being the best part of the sketch, probably because that sleepy delivery was purposeful. (“Are you a scary pirate?” “Yes.”) C

Star Wars Trailer – This had a slow rhythm that was bizarrely uncharacteristic of “SNL,” or anything else currently on TV, really.  Maybe that was meant to mirror the slowness of the old people.  Regardless, it was more disconcerting than funny.  Unfortunately, this parody’s humor consisted of hacky jokes about how old people have trouble hearing, difficulty with technology, and nagging spouses.  Fortunately, placing these tired gags in a space opera context provided some amusing juxtaposition.  And Han Solo yelling “What the f*** was that?” in response to the rolling droid filled the quota of gags about Harrison Ford being confused by the content of the movie he’s in. B-

Jingle Ballerz – Earlier this week, NBC aired an “SNL” Christmas special, which included the Michael Bublé duets album sketch.  In that bit, Jay Pharoah’s Kanye West rapped, “Jesus, I’m so much better than you,” so it was only appropriate that he played baby Jesus in the nativity scene in MTV’s Jingle Ballerz.  Good thing, too, as he showed up just in time to save a sketch that was filled with merely adequate impressions and too much pandering. B-

A Mike O’Brien Picture: Grow-a-Guy – This filmed piece from writer-turned-cast member-turned writer O’Brien at first seemed like it was just weird for the sake of weird.  But then it became truly edifying as it started establishing its own rules, though it became untethered as it then broke those rules.  As it threatened to become too strange, it became grounded in some sort of logic, and then as it threatened to become too logical, some new weird wrinkle was brought in.  The “Blade Runner”-esque ending in which grow-a-guys were exposing other grow-a-guys resulted in a few too many twists, but then with almost everyone revealed to be a grow-a-guy, it circled back around to being a perfect number of twists. B+

Troll’s Bridge – It is always nice when the world of a sketch feels lived-in, but in this case, that quality of depth did not really lend itself to any jokes.  Cecily committed to a potentially off-putting character and made her sort of likeable, but again, that was not in service of any clear joke.  This scene came close to working as a slice-of-life vignette, but its strange milieu suggested that it actually was attempting humor, which it did not really accomplish. C-

Nicki Minaj ft. Skylar Grey – “Bed of Lies” – Skylar Grey’s delivery of “Do you ever think of me when you lie, lie down in your bed of lies” really sold the double meaning of that line.  A more introspective tone than usual tends to suit Nicki Minaj quite well, and this fairly intimate performance was no exception. B

Weekend Update – Jost and Che’s breakdown of the Eric Garner decision (with the backdrop of Ferguson) was the most thoughtful material of their time on Update.  It was not particularly funny, but it is a hard topic to laugh about, so that lack of laughs was never necessarily a problem.  As Che noted, “It never gets easier.”  They still made time for some of their sillier material, but grand juries hung over the rest of the proceedings, with Bill Cosby’s best chance being one in Staten Island serving as the hardest-hitting punchline. Michael and Colin’s Grade: B+
Weekend Update – Secondhand News – Anthony Crispino is still the sort of character that requires writing down just about every line to catch all of his best jokes.  Indeed, there were a lot of news in the news this week, and Anthony sensibly stuck (mostly) to the lightweight stories.  His getting stuck looking away stage left was the best gag yet on his propensity for looking around. B+
Weekend Update – Leslie Jones – The advice of “SNL’s” relationship expert tends to go off in completely unpredictable directions, and that is the problem.  It ends up as weirdness untethered to any point beyond “this is the way Leslie Jones’ mind works.”  And yet, the question, “Have you ever been called a bitch by Harriet Tubman?” did its best to retroactively justify the hallucinogenic scenario. B-
Weekend Update – Kim Kardashian – This segment could not have felt more perfunctory.  Nicki Minaj matched Kim K.’s proportions and delivered her lines competently, but this was just a series of Photoshop gags that did not even require a guest segment.  That menorah visual was something else, though. C

Jeremy’s Brain – This peak into some dude’s headspace for the sake of clearing room to create a new memory was a clever idea, and it admirably plumbed the depths of nineties and early 2000’s pop culture, but the individual elements were too disconnected from one another for this sketch to cohere into something greater than the sum of its parts.  But it was worth it to witness Kyle Mooney do the “Bye Bye Bye” dance, Bobby Moynihan dressed as Judge Lance Ito, and Taran Killam sing Savage Garden and deliver a Billy Zane line from “Titanic.” B-

Tad Rankin (BEST OF THE NIGHT) – Here we have the best, most thoroughly realized sketch of the night, taking place in a bizarro world where a four-year-old has been elected mayor, with James Franco relishing the role of the manchild who was defeated.  His insistence of how much better he is than Mayor Tommy was deliriously undercut by his supreme and plentiful immaturity. A-

Nicki Minaj – “All Things Go” – Nicki pushed even harder on the introspection with her second number, with a song that she clearly felt very personal about as well as strong enough to deliver her feelings with conviction.  While settling down her typical rapid-fire delivery, she still managed to make as strong an impression as ever. A-

Sunseeker Yachts – The ex-porn stars should have hawked an aquatic product sooner, as the seaside setting provided plenty of delightfully naughty nautical puns: Real Housewives of Atlantis, “standing in front of a ship and getting blasted in the face,” Titanus, “We’re gonna need a bigger throat,” Black Pearl Necklace.  James and Seth fit right in as Captain Jack Swallow and James Franco, respectively, but they were maybe a little too eager.  B+

Some Bullet Points:
-“SNL” finally had an explanation for why the chubby Kenan Thompson continues to play the currently svelte Al Sharpton: the lack of grand jury indictments have upset him so much that he has gained 100 pounds in three days.
-“It’s your boy Yeezus, and I’m baby Jesus.”
-The news according to Anthony Crispino:
There was a tree lighting hosted by The Rock and Old Yeller, with a big musical performance by Drew Carey, but he messed up and forgot whose line it was anyway.
Space prostitutes (“star whores”) locked themselves in a trailer and said they won’t come out for a year.
Sherman Helmsley was named Sexiest Manatee Alive.
Bing Crosby was revealed to be a rappist.
-“I haven’t crapped my pants all year!”