SNL: Sia, Kevin Hart, Kate McKinnon (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in January 2015.

The recurring sketch-lite Season 40 had its most original episode yet for the first show of 2015, with not a single repeat bit or character, save for Kate McKinnon’s Justin Bieber impression.  The best seasons tend to have a decent mix of recurring and original material, so while it is nice to see the “SNL” team coming up with plenty of fresh ideas, they might be wearing themselves too much.  Luckily, Kevin Hart was on hand to host for the second time, and there are not too many other comedians who can keep the energy level up like he can, and he did not disappoint in that department.  Meanwhile, Sia provided the music, and as is her m.o., she brought out some guest accompaniment while she kept her face covered.

Martin Luther King – This visit from a ghostly MLK was a clever idea for running down how decades of progress or lack thereof may not have been exactly what the civil rights leader envisioned.  Unfortunately, Kenan Thompson’s portrayal was not exactly as inspirational as the person he was playing.  It is hard to say if a different actor could have pulled this off much better, as the problems lay mainly in the writing.  This Dr. King, unlike the real deal, was not very imaginative about how the future might be different from his time.  He could have been any random black guy from the 60’s.  Pointing out how times have changed is usually good for a few solid chuckles, as this was, but it could have been more specific. B-

Kevin Hart’s Monologue – Kevin Hart usually does not convey a lot of sympathy for the people he talks about in his stand-up, but he avoids coming off as mean-spirited, mainly because he is also so hard on himself.  This routine about wild animals in the suburbs and scary un-lit driveways brought the unexpected terrors of his family life to surreal, vivid life.  He had trouble winning the audience over with his confession that he might not be able to stay with his wife should she be attacked by a mountain lion, but his examples of the problems borne by having only one shoulder offered some solid observational humor. B

Justin Bieber for Calvin Klein – The goofy posturing stretched to cartoonish proportions of Kate McKinnon’s Justin Bieber impression found its best utilization yet in this series of parody ads for Calvin Klein.  The purpose of McKinnon’s take is trying to look macho while coming off as very dorky, which is hard to put to full use in the confines of a typical sketch, but it was the perfect fit in the expressionistic environ of a fragrance commercial. B+

Why’d You Post That? – After some weird technical glitches (in an unusually technically challenging scene) that lasted uncomfortably long, this sketch about Instagram do’s and don’t’s got moving at a speed befitting Kevin Hart’s typical energy.  The first two guests did not necessarily deserve all the vitriol from host Darnell Pepper.  Poorly focused landmark shots and gross toes may offend some sensibilities, but they did not quite attain the level of satire that was reached with the last guest’s glamour shot for Charlie Hebdo solidarity. B-

Bushwick – This digital short featuring a rundown of all the elements of gentrification typical to 2015 Brooklyn as embodied by an unlikely set of characters hit just the right tone.  The street corner denizens played by Hart, Kenan Thompson, and Jay Pharoah had an edge that belied their hipster-friendly interests, but they were interests that they genuinely loved and supported each other over, and that made all the difference.  The twist ending did put a cap on the scene, but it was too predictable.  It was also unnecessary, as this could have been a slice of life segment without the need for a true ending. B

James Brown – What a bizarre sketch that claimed to be making fun of the behavior of an actual person but was more about bouts of nonsense piling on top of each other.  The increasingly silly questions that were bandied about among James Brown and his band and the discord they sowed did not feel like anywhere near something that could have actually happened at a James Brown concert, though this was somewhat amusing for how indescribably weird it was. C+

Nancy – This talk show featuring the cast of fictional daytime soap “Fairwood Manor” was the second sketch in a row that seemed like it was parodying something specific and real but probably wasn’t.  The gag of Vanessa Bayer’s character being stuck with the fart music was obvious right away, but luckily it was not just repeated incessantly but instead fleshed out, with Kevin Hart’s sound technician’s alarmingly bullshit excuse that he could speak English but not understand it.  The fact that the host and co-stars literally could not tell the difference between the musical cues could have been explained more, though; ultimately they seemed rather insane, which did not seem intentional. B-

Justin Bieber for Calvin Klein II

Sia – “Elastic Heart” – Sia’s music videos featuring 12-year-old Maddie Ziegler achieve a cinematic quality through the control of their framing and their editing.  This performance, featuring Ziegler dance-fighting against an older bewigged Sia doppelganger (who kind of looked like Jim Carrey) instead of Shia LaBeouf, could not quite match that feeling on the “SNL” stage.  Still, Sia remains as compelling as ever while singing with her face masked or otherwise obscured. B+

Weekend Update – This edition of Update was the rare recent example featuring only one guest commentary.  Perhaps the length of the first set of post-monologue sketches forced some cuts later in the show.  Likely because of that time crunch, Jost and Che’s chemistry was even more nonexistent than usual.  However, they have made progress on their individual styles, as evidenced by Colin’s deadpan jokes about Mitt Romney and Michael’s in-depth look at how diversity is a bit of a double-edged sword regarding the Oscars.  And the joke about the escaped rhinos “starring Kevin James” was a hell of an ending. Michael and Colin’s Grade: B-
Weekend Update – Mrs. Santini – Kate McKinnon made another addition to her crazy lady (often ethnic) wheelhouse, with this passive-aggressive letter-writing neighbor of Colin’s.  As usual, the success of this character lay in the bizarre unexpected details, such as wondering if the family that she calls elephants due to their stomping has a “Jumanji” in their apartment.  The comparison between Dunkin’ Donuts throwing out day-old donuts and the vet’s office throwing out animal skeletons will not soon be forgotten. B

Medieval Singing – In jabbing at the tendency of certain musicals to make the procession of their action interminable, this sketch ended up being rather interminable itself.  The point was made, and then the same point was made over and over.  It would have helped if there had been some gradual building of tension to spur the action along, such as if the dragon had been gradually encroaching upon the castle.  Ultimately the funniest part here was the randomness of Kevin Hart’s little pants having nothing to do with anything else that was going on. C

Kevin Hart Backstage – It is commonly acknowledged in the discourse of “SNL” that Jay Pharoah is a great impressionist but that skill is rarely put to good use in sketches.  This time, though, he had the good fortune of having a decent take on this episode’s host.  “SNL” has had plenty of success in the past with its guests confronting their impressionists, and this time, being Pharoah’s debut of his take on Hart, benefited from the element of surprise.  He had the quirks of Hart’s speaking – “listen,” “first of all,” “this is what happened,” finger snaps and claps – down to a perfectly natural rhythm such that it was a little uncanny. B

Sia – “Chandelier” – Sia’s slowed-down take on the biggest hit of her career featured accompaniment not from Maddie Ziegler, but from a mime who appeared to be translating the lyrics into sign language.  This gimmick was more fascinating as an experiment than it was straightforwardly successful, though it could be that its brazenness made it difficult to appreciate fully upon a first viewing. B

Release Party (BEST OF THE NIGHT) – With the reveal that Jamil was changing his name to “Chocolate Dropper,” it seemed that this sketch’s humor was going to be scatologically based, but that moment was wisely left in isolation and unremarked upon.  Then Kevin Hart committed very hard to a cheaply produced track, with his gun sounds and revelations of his friends’ secrets combining for a potent mix of hilarity. B+

Some Bullet Points:
-“Were you thrown from the building when you took the picture?”
-“Incidentally, ‘Run Mitt’ is also how you boot up Romney’s operating system.”
-“A woman in China was arrested after she cut off her husband’s penis, then later went to the hospital where it had been re-attached and cut it off a second time.  You see, that kind of work ethic is exactly why China is beating the U.S.”