SNL: J.K. Simmons Monologue (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in December 2015.

J.K. Simmons is the presumptive Oscar favorite this year for Best Supporting Actor.  It is appropriate that he is in the Supporting field, considering that he has spent a few decades as a character actor, elevating the quality of his projects, no matter what the size of his role.  Interestingly, though, his role in “Whiplash” is prominent enough that it could be considered a Lead.   He certainly has the talent and charisma to be a star, but this episode mostly kept him confined to the supporting roles that he is used to.  He was perfectly fine in them, but he could have done more.  And in the few moments when he was given the chance to do more, he really shone.  Meanwhile, this show continued Season 40’s heavy focus on original material, with the only recurring characters appearing on Weekend Update.  That originality was a little inconsistent, but very welcome when the proceedings got weird late in the night.

Super Bowl Shutdown – “SNL” once again proved that it has been paying attention to the major stories of the week.  Richard Sherman and Marshawn Lynch have been flipping the script on Super Bowl coverage, and this cold opening … acknowledged that.  Lynch’s propensity to repeat the same stock answer is amusing, but it proved difficult to build a sketch around.  The talk show format, while a tired one, was helpful here, as it masked some of the holes in the premise. B-

J.K. Simmons’ Monologue – J.K. going into Terence Fletcher mode was fairly predictable, but considering that “Whiplash” has grossed less than $10 million, this monologue probably served as an introduction for a lot of “SNL” viewers.  Sensibly, this went beyond Simmons repeating his terrifying dialogue (“dragging,” “rushing,” “not my tempo”), as he was actually able to lay into the cast in ways that really stung.  The thing is, whether you love ‘em or hate ’em, the likes of Kyle Mooney, Pete Davidson, and Fred Armisen do offer plenty to rip into.  It kind of inappropriately fizzled out at the end, though.  Fred’s drum solo wasn’t that tremendous. B

Totino’s Super Bowl Activity Pack – The fact that a comedy sketch was even portraying a scene with regressive gender roles initially felt very regressive itself, even though it was definitely aiming to be satirical.  But then its target was clarified: there are a fair amount of real commercials that feature wives dutifully taking care of their men as they sit in front of the TV.  Just from a formal perspective, this sketch was interesting.  What happens in those moments usually left unexplored by these ads?  This bit showed that they are not only insulting, but also existentially terrifying. B

Miss Trash 2015 – It is always a strange beast when the first post-monologue sketch is so short and unambitious.  This anti-beauty pageant felt like it belonged after Weekend Update.  Regardless of show placement, it was short and sweet (or short and saucy, as it were), making its point and quickly finding a reasonable conclusion.  It could have been mean-spirited, but J.K. Simmons’ emcee was in too celebratory a mood, and the girls were all reveling in their trashiness.  It was Miss Vermont, the least outwardly trashy, who actually ended up looking the worst. B-

Cinema Classics – In this alternate version of Rick’s send-off of Ilsa in “Casablanaca,” it was never clear what the joke was.  J.K. Simmons did a perfectly decent Bogart, but Kate McKinnon never sounded like she was trying to be Ingrid Bergman, or anyone specific at all.  The hook was apparently that Ilsa actually was eager to get on the plane and that Rick just wasn’t listening to her.  But the idea that he was holding her back just didn’t track.  So this sketch had to live or die upon McKinnon acting frantically, which proved to be rather thin despite a few laughs.  The intense worry over concentration camps was fairly amusing, though. C

Teachers Snow Day – The thing that separates the post-Lonely Island music video shorts from those by Andy Samberg and his cohorts is that the hooks of the current batch are fairly straightforward, whereas there was usually a striking surprise to those branded “An SNL Digital Short.”  “Teachers behaving badly” was just too obvious a subversion to make a lasting impression.  Everyone’s performance here was committed, and the lyrics flowed well, but there just was not anything powerful enough to shift the paradigm. C+

D’Angelo – “Really Love” – D’Angelo busted out his Man with No Name outfit, somewhat inexplicably, for the most romantic track off his current album, Black Messiah.  Sartorial choices aside (which, for the record, were memorable, but essentially separate from the music), he sounded as enrapturing as possible.  He made a convincing argument for the value of being in love.  Not that being in love was not already awesome – he just made it sound even better. B+

Weekend Update – It can perhaps be officially said now that Michael and Colin are perfectly comfortable behind the Update desk (Michael’s opening stumble aside).  They are still hardly even bothering to develop any chemistry, though, which kind of just needs to be accepted at this point.  Both of them displayed reliable punchline deliveries, and Michael really went in interesting directions in his rant on Black History stamps, finding surprising poignancy in Maury Povich. Michael and Colin’s Grade: B-
Weekend Update: One-Dimensional Female Character From a Male-Driven Comedy – Cecily Strong’s take on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl or something like it is so striking because of how thorough she is in her deconstruction.  In the movie that she has stepped out of, other characters include “Fat Jerry,” “Horny One,” and “Sassy Gay Friend.”  Because in this form of reality, names and personalities do no matter, but rather, only semblances of names and personality. B
Weekend Update: Jebediah Atkinson – Taran Killam’s old-timey critic/insult comic was such a surprising delight when he first appeared.  Now, his hatred of everything makes him a little too predictable.  He can still bust out a viciously clever dig, like how the Beatles ruined Yoko or how there were too many lifeboats on the Titanic, but he does not go in any directions he has not already explored. B-

Office Assistant (BEST OF THE NIGHT) – Bobby Moynihan gave a delightful, and surprisingly deep, performance as Microsoft Word helper Pushie, the “little red bastard” who hijacked J.K. Simmons’ letter.  This joyful sort of chaos was perfect for lifting the spirits of anyone who likes fun fonts, Birthday Cake Man borders, or pictures of Olivia Munn.  Add the tension of someone who was just trying to wish a friend happy birthday, and you have a winning comedy sketch. B+

The Jay-Z Story – The latest short from Mike O’Brien avoided the typical white boy rapper gags by being so matter-of-fact about how O’Brien was playing Shawn Carter.  He took all the details about the hip-hop great’s life and then enacted them wildly literally.  Jason Sudeikis made a welcome cameo as Kanye West, capturing Yeezy’s swag style while otherwise keeping it low-key.  The thing about O’Brien’s take on this story is that it was accurate, in both letter and spirit, just filtered through an alternative form of thinking. B+

D’Angelo – “The Charade” – Capping it off with some black power fists, D’Angelo’s second song was the funkiest plea for social justice in years, possibly decades.  His outfit – hoodie and leather jacket – was much more pointed than his poncho and hat.  The design of this number – the wardrobe, the dancing, the chalk outline on the floor – may have been confrontational, but the groovy licks were so inviting. A-

Career Day – J.K. Simmons finally got a chance to shine in the last sketch of the night, as a “Japanese messy boy,” that is, a muscular, older, American man who sloppily eats food for the pleasure of certain rich and powerful Japanese women.  It takes a certain daring to commit so hard to the definition of a completely made-up concept, and that was on impressive display in the writing of the sketch (unless Japanese messy boys are an actual thing).  Such a subversive concept requires an equally committed performance, and Simmons had no trouble rising to the occasion. B+

Some Bullet Points:
-For the second week in a row, the show appeared to be short a few minutes of material, with the “SNL” band vamping a bit more than usual and the goodnights sequence lasting a relative eternity.
-“Knock knock.” “No comment.” “It’s Helmets.” “No.” “Helmets you think we’re gonna win by tomorrow?”
-Judging by the reaction on Twitter, I was not alone in having my mind blown about J.K. Simmons being the voice of the Yellow M&M.
-“I think all hair is ridiculous.”
-Miss Trash Delaware is deaf…initely not wearing underwear.
-“Just today, my gynecologist told me I was accepted to UTI.”
-“That’s why I got this tattoo.  It says ‘believe’ in Chinese.” “It says ‘butt’ in English.”
-“But what about a stamp for Crispus Attucks’ mother, the first black woman to name her son Crispus?”
-“Hall & Oates! The most talented member of that group is the &.”