SNL: Kenan Thompson, Taraji P. Henson, Mumford & Sons (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in April 2015.

With her breakout role as Cookie on “Empire,” Taraji P. Henson has been showcasing her commitment, confidence, and charisma to her biggest audience yet.  These are the qualities that great “SNL” hosts are made of, and in her first appearance at Studio 8H, she had to show them off, both because she was given plenty of roles that required a strong presence and because many of the sketches were running low on premise and thus necessitated strong performances across the board.

Hillary Clinton (BEST OF THE NIGHT) – It has been a delight watching Kate McKinnon develop her Hillary Clinton impression from “promising” to “ready for the big leagues.”  With the real Clinton finally on the verge of announcing her long-presumed 2016 presidential candidacy, her current “SNL” counterpart has made it clear that she will be as much a force to be reckoned with as Ana Gasteyer and Amy Poehler were before her.  This edition wisely went with a domestic setting, as this is a public figure we all know so well that a glimpse into her private sphere is in no way jarring.  Darrell Hammond’s cameo felt a little dated, as there is not as much of a sense of Bill butting in on his wife’s moment as there used to be, but it did effectively inform McKinnon’s wound-up performance. B+

Taraji P. Henson’s Monologue – Taraji managed to justify yet another musical monologue with some powerful, confident pipes and a commanding stage presence.  The success of this routine was thanks pretty much completely to her charisma.  It had to be, as the concept of “making it” has been seen plenty of times, on “SNL” monologues or otherwise.  There was a sense of control here, in which the cast was at Henson’s beck-and-call, instead of the usual dynamic, in which they drop in to support the host. B

Depend Legends – It was no “Oops! I Crapped My Pants,” but this bit did prove that there is room enough for more than one adult diaper commercial parody.  It may have relied a little too much on “old people acting gross” shtick, but dancing around pantsless in Depends is outrageous enough for anyone of any age willing to commit to make it work. B

Hot for Teacher: The Janet Johnson-Luna Civil Trial – For a courtroom scene, this sketch played out with alarmingly little-to-no conflict.  As it went along, apparently everybody (student, teacher, judge, both attorneys, dad) except the mom was okay with the statutory rape.  As this is comedy, it is okay that it did not delve too deeply into the thorny legal and ethical matters of this issue.  But it would have been nice if it got beyond the typical wish fulfillment perspective, though the nicknames bestowed on the student in question were admittedly creative.  Cecily Strong made an interesting acting choice as the teacher smitten by her student’s romantic dorkiness. B-

Dreamworks Sneak Peek: Home 2 – This was basically no more than an opportunity for the “SNL” cast to show off its hip-hop impressions, justified merely by the observation that Jim Parsons and Rihanna made for an unusual pair of guest stars in “Home.”  Each of the impressions was decent, but not particularly noteworthy.  That is, except for the utterly bizarre South African duo Die Antwoord, whose portrayal by Pete Davidson and Kate McKinnon did not require any words to pull of the full creep factor. B-

QVC – Kate McKinnon did her best to save this sketch about a poncho that actually cannot be worn as many ways as advertised.  No amount of enthusiasm could have saved this most limited of premises, though.  But Kate’s dotty fashion designer, with her confusion of callers’ names and knack for mailing her dog in a delivery box, had a goofy enough characterization to garner some laughs. C+

Game of Thrones South Centros – For a mashup parody to work, it must find a way to actually combine the two separate elements.  The South Central tropes here were not incorporated into the world of “Game of Thrones” so much as they just happened to be taking place in Westeros.  There was no commentary, or insight into how these two seemingly different worlds might intersect.  At least Kenan put some effort into a decent Ice Cube impression. C-

Mumford & Sons – “The Wolf” – The reigning kings of folk rock have gone a little more electronic with their current album, but they are still pounding away at their strings as energetically as ever.  If it is enough to get Marcus Mumford red in the face, as it was here, then it is worth doing. B+

Weekend Update – Michael and Colin could still stand to work on the strength of their points of view, but they are now as confident as they have ever been, and that goes a long way.  Michael is not shying away from the racially sensitive material, but he is often going for the obvious perspective.  This is fine when it comes to social awareness, but comedy is about surprise.  Which is why Colin’s perfectly bland “Hey” in response to Michael mentioning how whites riot without consequences was such a blessing. Michael and Colin’s Grade: B
Weekend Update: Cecilia Gimenez – When Kate first appeared as infamous art restorer Cecilia Gimenez, she tapped into a cartoonishly insane explanation of how her work on the “Ecce Homo” painting could possibly be considered accurate.  It was a commentary that demanded to happen.  But her defense of the creepy Lucille Ball statue was simply not something she was as intimately connected to.  This is a fun character, and the golem-like statues of other celebrities were interesting, but Cecilia did not quite seem like the person who should have been erecting those monstrosities. B-
Weekend Update: Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy – Most recurring Weekend Update guests have fairly structured routines, Jacob even more than most.  So with nearly 10 appearances in five years, there kind of had to be some way of breaking out of that routine.  An appearance by his oft-referenced but rarely seen father was a fine idea.  Having him played by a classic Jewish comedian (and “SNL” alum) like Billy Crystal was fair enough.  But making him identical to his son in both nervousness and mannerisms did not make much comic sense.  The joke of Jacob is that he is an awkward teenage boy who has absolutely no idea how to break from his script.  But why would his father, a successful podiatrist, have those same issues? C+
Hollywood Game Night – This episode already had an impression showcase with the “Home 2” sneak peek, which was stronger in that regard because at least those impressions were thematically linked.  That lack of connection here would have been fine if the impressions had been stronger, but none of them offered any particular insight into the celebrities on the couches.  That would not have been too much of a problem if the sketch itself had been amusing, but instead it was an aggressively mean-spirited take on a show that whoever wrote this clearly hates.  That aggression felt so misplaced, considering how innocuous “Hollywood Game Night” is. C-

How 2 Dance with Janelle – This was not the most promising sketch to recur, as “teenage girl dancing on webcam does not realize how sexy she is” is not the deepest of premises.  But Kyle Mooney, as the friend overwhelmed by his crush on the oblivious Janelle, is the true star here.  He was living out a classic male fantasy while the girl he liked and her mom grinded on either side of him, but all he could do in response was faint.  The dynamic between Janelle and Teddy has plenty worth exploring; should this sketch return, it ought to drop the pervy gags and focus on that psychological blizzard. C+

Sesame Street – The (former) Children’s Television Workshop was nice enough to loan “SNL” the actual “Sesame Street” puppets and what appeared to be the actual sets.  It would have been nice if they had been utilized more thoroughly, though.  Cookie joining Cookie Monster and the rest of the gang was a stronger mashup than “Game of Thrones South Centros,” but the execution felt rather slapdash.  There were a few solid gags, with Cookie wearing an Elmo fur coat a solid moment of darkness, but the rest was mostly just scenes of talking without any clear gags. B-

Cinema Classics – The introduction of race in this knockoff of “A League of Their Own” brought to light an interesting new avenue.  There was a well-reasoned take here on the unfairness of focusing on one persecuted group at a time, but this was not an issue that could be fully examined in four minutes.  But in that time, Kate McKinnon did manage to deliver the now-immortal line, “While our husbands are away, we’re the racists.” B-

Mumford & Sons – “Believe” – M&S’s second song did not grab the ears as forcefully as “The Wolf,” but it had a steady, controlled style, with a solid amount of soloing and other rewarding sonic exploration. B

Connectatron – With an unusually short amount of sketches last week, “SNL” overcorrected on this show, resulting in some thin premises and short running times, with the pinnacle (or nadir, as it were) being this riff on cheesy actions kids shows.  This was goofy enough to fill the last slot of the night, but there was enough backstory implied to fill it into something bigger.  Instead, there was just the hint of a conflict that was rushed to resolution. C

Notes & Quotes:
-Former Hillary impersonator Vanessa Bayer played Clinton’s assistant in the cold open.  Once upon a time, last season, she and Kate McKinnon both played Hillary in the same sketch (as did Miley Cyrus).
-“Aren’t we such a fun, approachable dynasty?”
-Bill Clinton 2: Bigger and Blacker
-Hillary’s vice president will of course be herself.
-“I coulda been the oldest cast member in Good Burger 7.”
-“Why should I be embarrassed? I just went on Miss Bettie Page.”
-“You’re watching QVC, which means you’re a cat whose owner’s at work. Hi, little guy.”
-Billy Crystal as Jacob’s dad was actually a bit of re-casting: Jacob’s first appearance was not on Weekend Update, but in a sketch that took place at his bar mitzvah, with Fred Armisen as his father.
-Kyle Mooney’s shrug when he said “I’m psyched to be here” was, oddly enough, the biggest laugh of the “Hollywood Game Night” sketch.