SNL: Dakota Johnson, Alabama Shakes, Kenan Thompson (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in March 2015.

“SNL” returned to its regularly scheduled time slot after its 40th anniversary and … this episode did not feel like the comedown show after a big special so much as it felt like the type of episode that follow the ones that preceded it.  Fresh off the record-breaking box-office of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” Dakota Johnson stopped by to host for the first time, on a series that is still strongly favoring original material, and at its best when that material gets weird (which usually happens with the pre-recorded shorts).  Johnson brought a surprising and surprisingly effective mellow charm that made her disappear into a lot of her roles, making an impression in how much she did not make an impression.  Meanwhile, Alabama Shakes made their case for why they should be the musical guest every week.

Giuliani, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance – What started as a fairly standard current affairs cold opening surprised and delighted by turning into a pastiche of this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner.  Portraying Rudy Giuliani’s comments about the president as a hubristic comeback attempt a la Riggan Thomson in “Birdman” was not a comparison that a lot of people have been making.  Taran Killam really bit into the opportunity (quite literally, what with all that jowl movement) to do the double impression of Giuliani-as-Michael Keaton.  There were not really any laugh-out-loud moments, but this bit still absolutely killed, as it captured the energy and original spirit of the source material. B+

Dakota Johnson’s Monologue – After making it past the de rigeur “Fifty Shades” reference in the tired question-and-answer format, this monologue took a refreshingly low-key approach.  It was essentially just Dakota Johnson introducing herself by way of her familial history with “SNL.”  Her math was a little off, though (but just by a couple weeks): her mom hosted on December 17, 1988, while she was born on October 4, 1989.  Just relating where she stood in relation to her parents with outsized personalities gave a solid preamble of what course this episode might take.  B

ISIS – This was a simple commercial parody with a simple punchline: a thorough imitation of the Toyota Super Bowl ad about a dad dropping off his daughter at the airport as she starts the next chapter in her life.  But this time, instead of joining her own country’s armed forces, she hooks up with an international jihadist group.  It was a potently absurd kicker, although apparently it was based on a real thing? B-

Cinderella – Sometimes “SNL” characters don’t quite click on their first appearances.  Most of them never get to see the light of day again, but a select few are experimented with in a new context.  How Cecily Strong’s proudly uncouth Kathy Ann ended up as one of the latter is beyond explanation.  Originally introduced as the temporary roommate of a troll played by James Franco, here she was a close friend and moral support for Cinderella as played by Dakota Johnson, but her presence was still just as inexplicable. C

Say What You Wanna Say – This short film looked like it was targeting the stereotypical politeness expected of women by society, but it wisely dug deeper and took a more unpredictable approach.  The first few conflicts played out understandably, though they were a bit too petty.  But then Cecily Strong demanded the whole cookie, and this short was no longer so easy to peg.  By the time Aidy Bryant was smashing a laptop, all bets were off.  The unpredictable vibe was also thanks a great deal to the irregular stopping and starting of Sara Bareilles. B+

Fifty Shades of Grey Press Junket – Kyle Mooney playing a pre-teen interviewing the star of an erotic movie could’ve been played really awkward, but it was never too awkward.  Having him be an expert on the source material could have been played as really inappropriate, but it was never too inappropriate.  The backstory with his dad who is not always around could have added a lot of emotion, but it never got too emotional.  It somehow all added up to Kyle, as Peter Scott Finley, being in full control of the interview, which was a defensible tactic, though it was not always clear that that was what was going on. B-

Internship – This sketch about 21st century slang enthusiasts whose exaggerations fly in the face of someone who actually literally cannot was a fairly limited premise, but Bobby Moynihan, Cecily Strong, and Dakota Johnson were all perfect as unbelievably incessant whiners.  They were almost too good, in fact.  With their ridiculous proclamations, they were certainly more entertaining than Margo and her two broken arms, making for a sketch that was amusing, but slightly miscalibrated. B-

Alabama Shakes – “Don’t Wanna Fight” – Guitarist Heath Fogg and bassist Zac Cockrell were so workmanlike in their playing that they appeared to be bored out of their minds.  Luckily, this was in mighty contrast to force-of-nature frontwoman Brittany Howard, who is always thrillingly free of vanity in her performances.  “Don’t Wanna Fight” served as an ideal song for these opposite but complementary elements, with a steady beat allowing Brittany’s voice to do its thing without going completely out of control. A-

Weekend Update – Jost and Che finally displayed some chemistry, or anti-chemistry as it were, with the latter seemingly expressing genuine contempt while calling the former’s ADD gag “so dumb.”  They both had plenty of energy to start out this edition, with Jost’s gag about Donald Trump’s “interviewer” being his bag boy and Che’s comment about the response of the black dudes in jail for marijuana both having real bite.  They petered out a bit as they went along, but that will happen when you’ve got three guest segments and two less-than-polished anchors. Michael and Colin’s Grade: B-
Weekend Update: Ruth Bader Ginsburg – Kenan Thompson’s Jean K. Jean was envisioned as the French version of a Def Jam comedian.  Apparently Kate McKinnon’s impression of the oldest justice in the highest U.S. court was envisioned as the Supreme Court version of a Def Jam comedian, which is even better. B
Weekend Update: Kanye West – Kanye has never been Jay Pharoah’s strongest role.  Yeezy has a complicated personality that defies being pinned by the exaggeration typical of an impression.  But the real Kanye and Jay-as-Kanye can both effectively express themselves in music, and this routine really got going once there were raps about apologies that were, by Kanye’s description, on the level of Jesus. B-
Weekend Update: Riblet – The second appearance of Michael Che’s old friend Riblet (only two episodes after his introduction) truly derailed Update.  Granted, that was the point, but by virtue of repeating the same beats over and over, he did not take the fake newsreading forward in the way that he promised to.  Luckily, he mixed things up by the end, what with the suit and the microphone delivery.  Update really could benefit from Riblet appearing every time, but he would need to expand his vocabulary so that “jorb” isn’t his every other word. B-

Surgery – Kenan Thompson committed admirably to a role that profoundly made no sense.  The idea that a surgeon would not have time to remove his Worf makeup after hastily leaving a “Star Trek” convention was enough of a silly idea, but the fact that he was going to the con to impress his Trekkie wife, and that his wife barely spoke any English just piled on an unbearable amount of concept.  It also did not help that a consistent tone was never established.  It was so atonal, such that Kenan and Dakota Johnson’s giggles could have been corpsing or their characters’ actual responses to what was going on.  With the bumper dedication to Leonard Nimoy (who cameoed on “SNL” alongside Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto in 2009), it became clear why this was such a mess: this was surely a hastily assembled dedication to Mr. Spock, which did not justify the sketch’s shortcomings, but did make them easier to forgive. C+

Net Effect – “SNL’s” targeting of Internet culture is often a little facile, so while this roundtable discussion on net neutrality featured amusing introductions (“It’s really good to be out of the house,” “does Instagram,” “self-employed CEO,” “first”), it did not have much significant to say as it went along.  But as is often the case, Bobby Moynihan (as the self-employed CEO) took a simple role and did just about everything he could with it (“who am I, Bill Jobs?”). C+

Alabama Shakes – “Gimme All Your Love” – Most rock bands tend to use solos as their most intense moments.  But when you have got, as Alabama Shakes does, a singer like Brittany Howard, it makes sense to do just the opposite.  This counterintuitive approach worked as well in practice as it could have possibly worked in theory. A-

Mr. Riot Films (BEST OF THE NIGHT) – Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett finally, after a seven-episode drought, debuted their latest Good Neighbor short.  (Although, they did produce one short that was supposed to air during the 40th anniversary special – make sure to watch it if you haven’t already.)  Their take on social experiment hidden camera shows starring a couple of overzealous, socially conscious punks was typically off-kilter, with their obvious routines and ridiculous costumes clearly giving themselves away.  By targeting real people, the comedy worked doubly, with Beck and Kyle as themselves and as the Mr. Riot guys confounding civilians for the sake of comedy and revolutionizing, respectively. A-

Notes & Quotes:
-Taran Killam had a big night, with three major roles before Weekend Update (Giuliani, the dad in the ISIS commercial, and the prince in Cinderella) and supporting roles in almost every other sketch.  Kyle Mooney also appeared in nearly every sketch, with star turns in the “Fifty Shades of Grey” press junket and, of course, the Good Neighbor video.
-The Prince had a good point that Cinderella could have said her name several times in the time it was taking her to leave, though it was odd how that moment had nothing to do with the rest of the sketch or just about any other version of this story.
-“I haven’t eaten in, like, a month.”
-Ruth Bader Ginsburg does her P90X routine  – peeing ninety times – every day.
-“I actually have something very awareness to tell you, ma’am. I’m not a dog.” “I know you’re not a dog.”