SNL: George Ezra, Dwayne Johnson, Aidy Bryant (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in March 2015.

“If you don’t have a boner right now, you should just kill yourself.”

As he noted in his monologue, Dwayne Johnson is known for joining established film franchises and giving them a successful shot in the arm.  Accordingly, his fourth “SNL” hosting stint heavily favored sketches that commented on the host’s reputation and familiar pop culture entities in general.  Many of this season’s hosts, even the most capable ones, have been relegated to mostly utility roles.  But Johnson was effectively given plenty of opportunities to shine, as he was allowed to play to his strengths, and the result was an episode that overall also played to its strengths.

The Rock Obama – While Dwayne Johnson is now unequivocally credited by his birth name, he has no qualms breaking out his wrestling moniker for a particular “SNL” sketch.  He first broke out his hulked-out alter ego of the president the last time he hosted back in March 2009, only a few months into Obama’s first term.  He brought it back in a cameo appearance later that year, and that was enough for it to reach iconic status.  In its current iteration, it was formulaic, but still vibrant enough to be worthwhile.  Michelle She-Hulking out as well provided a welcome addition, so it was nice that Leslie Jones was around to play the part.  Bobby Moynihan went above the call of duty by putting together his weaselly impression of Ted Cruz. B

Dwayne Johnson’s Monologue – This is how to do a musical monologue right: jump right into it without giving people a chance to worry that it is going to be the same old, same old.  Also it helps to make the premise fit the performer.  Dwayne Johnson really has earned a reputation as a sequel resuscitator, so he could get away with calling himself “Franchise Viagra” and dispensing the subsequent phallic quips more than anyone else possibly could. B

Pep Boys – Starbucks’ “RaceTogether” campaign certainly was a misguided idea, insofar as it was a complicated issue trying to be simple, which means it is perfect for comedy!  The blue-collar Pep Boys location of this commercial parody was certainly ill-equipped to present “Genderflect,” but there was an earnestness here that made the attempt charming.  The target of the joke here was the concept of a forced discussion, so it helped that both the customers and the employees, each in their own ways, were trying to get through with this thorny topic, despite not knowing all the relevant information. B+

Wrestlemania Promo – This was almost a sketch that showed its full hand too early, but Cocoa Watchout’s (Johnson) very personal takedowns of Trashyard Mutt (Bobby Moynihan) managed to become gradually more surprising and twisted.  At first, this seemed like a misunderstanding of how intense the insults could be, but then it eventually became clear that Cocoa had actually been rather psychotic in breaking down his opponent.  The punchline that revealed “Oldboy” as an inspiration freakishly underscored that point. B+

Bambi – The latest “SNL” parody movie trailer (a recent successful formula for the show) made the incredible discovery that the interspecies friends of “Bambi” are not so different from the interracial crew of the Fast and Furious movies.  The camaraderie of that action franchise fit beautifully within the style of Disney’s revisionist takes on its own classics, with some “Die Hard”-style quips thrown in for good measure (“Never heard of a deer in headlights?”).  What was most amusing about this iteration of Bambi was not how ridiculous it was but how good a full-length version of this could be. A-

Anniversary Dinner (BEST OF THE NIGHT) – One of Cecily Strong’s biggest strengths is her ability to commit to the point of unrecognizability.  But this can also be dangerous, as in the case of her white trash character Cathy Anne, who always seems to inhabit a completely different planet than everyone else.  As the ditzy Brit Gemma, Strong was just as much of an alien, but this time the sketch worked overall because her committed presence was matched by Dwayne Johnson’s aggressive greaseball.  While those two were giving the performances of their careers (filled with onion rings, bananas, and boners), Vanessa Bayer and Kenan Thompson were giving them the perfect responses to bounce all their insanity off of.  An off-the-wall classic. A-

Escape From Jungle Island – If this sketch had been pitched on “SNL” 15 years ago, it might have unfortunately been about how hilarious it was that two guys were getting so up close and personal with each other.  Instead, it played more like the infamous Bird Family sketch, in which the shock value was in the explicitness.  What was shocking here was not that it was two boys – no, that was just how it happened to be.  Instead, it was the fact that Dwayne Johnson’s pants could be pulled down on television.  This sketch could have gone too hard too quick, but then it saved the miming of double fellatio as the ending.  Meanwhile, Kate McKinnon was reacting to it all with an array of goofy desperate exclamations. B

Brogaine – With this spot’s prominent casting of Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney and its targeting of fratboy culture (a favorite topic of those two), it seemed like the first Good Neighbor video to air pre-Update.  Since there was a GN video later in its traditional spot, this was probably written by a different team, who just happened to believe that Beck and Kyle were the right men for the job.  And that was indeed the right call, because there are not too many people who can read a list of “chemicals” like creatine, Vicodin, and Bud Heavy as convincingly as Kyle Mooney. B+

George Ezra – “Budapest” – George Ezra is a perfectly pleasant folk-pop singer-songwriter.  He displayed that pleasantness by constantly smiling to someone off-screen during this performance.  He may have been smiling to the audience in general, so it was a nice trick that he made it seem like it he was focused on one specific person. B-

Weekend Update – Colin and Michael attempted some challenging, and potentially rewarding, breaks in format during this outing, and the results were appreciated, but not exactly encouraging.  Their Starbucks-inspired conversation on race had a nice kernel of an idea but only skimmed the surface (and besides, this episode covered this topic well enough with the Pep Boys ad).  The extended gag on the music of “The Jinx” had the right idea, but Colin just did not have the right instincts for letting the joke land without appearing frustrated by it. Michael and Colin’s Grade: B-
Weekend Update: Olya Povlatsky – Russian villager Olya Povlatsky is now in the same league of other Update guests like Drunk Uncle or The Girl You Wish… in terms of being a series of quotes loosely connected by a character theme.  Kate McKinnon does not really have anything legitimate to say about Russia here, but that does not really matter when she manages to turn common sayings and pop culture ephemera into puns about destitution (hounded by actual hounds, toes are like One Direction). B
Weekend Update: Willy – The concept of Willy may be obvious: his sunny tone of voice and facial expression cannot conceal the fact that he seems to have only ever had terrible life experiences.  So it is incredible that Kenan Thompson managed to sell the surprise with his revelation of tales like looking for Easter goodies in kitty litter and his mother sleeping with Mickey Mantle.  It is like they always say, indeed. B

Cooking with Paul – A sketch about a sex offender hosting a cooking show could have been uncomfortable, but this just ended up being inconsequential.  That had more to do with the pointlessness of the execution than to any strength or weakness with the concept.  There were never really any stakes involved, so it was all rather silly.  Thus, the only notable laugh came during the silliest moment, when Kenan showed off his hand acting, haphazardly throwing chives into a bowl and typing away randomly on his laptop. C

Robert Durst Improv – Was this the first half of a sketch?  That is asked in complete seriousness.  “SNL” has never been known for great conclusions, often quite the opposite, so abrupt endings have often prompted jokes (or actual criticism) that asked, “Was this an incomplete sketch?”  But in this case, it very much felt like the premise had only just been established before the cut to commercial.  The improv scenes based on Robert Durst’s life obviously had a ton of potential directions to go in.  But instead, there was next to nothing in that regard.  The setup certainly was amusing enough on its own – Kate McKinnon had Durst’s inimitable creepiness down pat and Kyle Mooney killed it as the faux-outrageous member of Prince Charmin.  But the fact that this felt like a sketch that was unceremoniously cut in half inevitably resulted in existentially profound disappointment. B-

George Ezra – “Blame it on Me” – George Ezra’s second performance had about equal appeal as his first, in terms of both level and type of quality.  The chorus guitar riff had a looping quality that tickled the ears. B-

Interrogation – This presentation of an overly verbose and theatrical police officer played to Dwayne Johnson’s charismatic strengths, but it was not quite enough to cover up the fact that this was not a fully-formed idea.  This was not a subversion of the good cop, bad cop scenario (or any typical interrogation scenario) so much as it was just odd. C+

The Circus with Kyle – Appearing for the second time on “SNL” (not counting the one that was cut from the 40th Anniversary special), Kyle Mooney’s interview videos are now very much a thing that have aired on national television.  Heading to a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey performance, Kyle finally focused his attention on the one group of people even more awkward than himself: young children.  Almost all of his subjects were ten years or younger, which gave him the opportunity to decry the lack of professionalism among those who would not be expected to have any.  This edition really emphasized the sense of both sides of the microphone as alien species trying to figure each other out. A-

Notes & Quotes:
-“If you don’t have a boner right now, you should kill yourself.”
-“You guys ever heard of onion rings?”
-This section would be filled with quotes from “The Circus with Kyle,” except for the fact that they are so hard to transcribe.
-Did “SNL” have multiple bananas in its pocket or was it just happy to see us after a three-week break?