SNL: Reese Witherspoon, Florence Welch, Taran Killam (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in May 2015.

Reese Witherspoon’s first “SNL” hosting stint was also the first show to air after 9/11. While she did have a few memorable performances then, that appearance was mostly marked by nerves. Freed from any overwhelming existential uncertainty about the place of comedy, Reese was able to demonstrate that she is a natural next to the “SNL” cast, happy to play along in roles that took advantage of her sunny personality. This episode also continued the tradition of dedicating the Mother’s Day weekend show to the holiday, taking that trend about as far as it could possibly go.

Southern Republican Leadership Conference – The conventional wisdom says that Jeb Bush is going to be the next Republican presidential nomination, even though he has not even announced his candidacy. But the conventional wisdom does not always work out. 24 years ago, “SNL” built an entire sketch around the received intelligence that all the Democrats were just fighting to be the one to lose to George Bush. So good call making the joke that all these Republicans are going to lose to the latest Bush the punchline instead of the premise. As for the actual meat of this opening, it was more fun than funny, but still a nice change of pace. It effectively hid the fact that this cast does not really have any impressions of these candidates ready and did it all in a Jock Jams-style scene that was randomly stuck in the 90’s. Perhaps that was the joke, insofar as the GOP is the party of being stuck in the past. B-

Reese Witherspoon’s Monologue (BEST OF THE NIGHT) – Perhaps it was a scheduling issue that prevented Taran, Leslie, Colin, and Michael’s moms from making it to the show, but considering how long this “monologue” ran, their absences stuck out. Despite those oversights, this concept was absolutely delightful. “SNL” was rightly confident that there was something special here, and the decision to double the typical monologue length paid off. The apologies to Mom succeeded on the strength of their variety and their sincerity, while the home movies (and “Mighty Ducks” footage) were peeks into the origins of entertainers that comedy nerds appreciate. A-

be scene in L.A. – Kudos to the latest talk show sketch for breaking the mold of the typical limitations of live TV, with its premise centered around off-screen dialogue. Its content did not match its format’s originality though. Insecure, image-obsessed Angelenos are not that common a source of ridicule on “SNL,” but the jokes laid upon them were still the expected ones. Kenan added a bit of flavor as the incompetent, but concerned producer (“Sweetheart”). C+

Picture Perfect – The game show parody is so tried and true a formula for “SNL” that the ones that manage to hit tend not to focus the comedy on the gameplay. In that vein, what made Picture Perfect work so well was that its inception did not seem like it answered the question, “What if a game show were like this?” but instead, “What if someone were forced to draw something forbidden?” The reveal of Muhammad as the topic was timed perfectly, the stakes were raised absurdly but in a tension-maximizing way, and as soon as this scene’s point was made, it took a bow. A-

Mr. Westerberg – This short’s comedy instincts were right, turning as it did on a twist that brought a jarring tonal shift. But the laughs produced were due in no small part to nervousness. The inclusion of sexual abuse among the litany of typical boss complaints was treated about as respectfully as it could have been in just a few minutes, which is to say: not as respectfully as possible, but with more than a modicum of concern. It was a weird, uncomfortable mix that could have led to so much danger. It was probably a wise decision to stop short, but it did stilt the comedy a bit. B-

Florence + the Machine – “Ship to Wreck” – Florence Welch has some impressive vocal control in her live performances, perhaps the best in the business. She remained seated throughout this relatively low-key number, but she still had plenty of opportunities to wail and trill on those high notes. After all, “low-key” for Florence + the Machine means a driving, steady backbeat. B+

Weekend Update – Colin and Michael’s best jokes were both about nicknames, and both revisited topics they had killed on previous outings. Colin returned to paternal abandonment by referring to a distant galaxy as “Dad,” while Michael astutely assigned Ben Carson the mythical moniker “some of my best friends.” Their showcase piece featured the jokes that their moms sent them, making up for their absences in the monologue. This should have been a moment for natural conversation between the two, but instead their chemistry was as awkward as ever. Individually, they’re fine now, but those moments when they have to interact can be painful. Michael and Colin’s Grade: B
Weekend Update: Leslie Jones – Leslie continued her knack for bringing out the best in Colin, and she actually managed to stay on topic this time. She was introduced to discuss couples breaking up because of their social media behavior, and she proceeded to demonstrate behavior detrimental to a relationship. But she wove her own particular brand of catharsis, coming to a defiant conclusion about how she can break the cycle. B
Weekend Update: Two Girls You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With At a Party – This latest appearance from The Girl… was unusually truncated, odd considering that it had to make room for her best friend McKenzie. Reese Witherspoon was willing and mostly able to provide a complementary extra ditz, but her relative shortcomings showed why Cecily Strong is the master. Reese played to the audience, while Cecily was focused on living within her character. They had equally strong material, but it is that key performance difference that takes something to the next level. B
Weekend Update: Willie – Kenan’s ironically optimistic neighbor must be able to look on the bright side because all the awful things that have happened to him are so fascinatingly unusual that the only reasonable reaction to them is laughter. Sure, bad speakers have been pelted with items thrown on stage, but on what planet are those items batteries at a high school graduation? Comedy is successful when it is surprising, and Willie has yet to lack in that department. B

Woodbridge Theatre Showcase – The latest performance from the Woodbridge High School crew continued the tradition of overly reductive, but goofily poetic, pop sociology. Adding race relations to this often maddening mix can take it to the next level, and such was the case here, with the “bang” scene punctuated by the explanation, “And guess what? We were black.” The crowd reactions in sketches like this one tend to over-explain the joke, but in this case, Leslie Jones provided a useful counterpoint, making for a tasty mix of controversy and earnestness. B+

Wine Ladies – “SNL” has a mini-tradition of sketches about friends gathered around seemingly just to hang out that end in non-sequiturs, revealing that they are actually together for much darker purposes. This scene of wining ladies made its darkness clear pretty quickly and kept laying it on, with tales of possessed TV’s, cigar box-a-day habits, and a sperm bank’s practical joking, but the reveal that this scene was actually a robbery still felt like it came out of nowhere. Each strange anecdote worked on its own, but overall this sketch could have been more effective if there was one weird story sticking out from the rest or if the reveals had been more protracted. B-

Water Park – Whereas Picture Perfect’s quick ending made perfect sense because it got its comedic point out efficiently, this sketch’s abrupt stop was problematic because it did not yet have a chance to coalesce into a fully formed concept. A longer running time might not have helped anyway, as there was hardly even a shadow of a concept. Kyle and Beck killed it with their typical slacker personae and established decent chemistry with a sufficiently peppy Reese Witherspoon, but as to what purpose that was all for is anyone’s guess. C-

Florence + the Machine – “What Kind of Man” – This bluesy, rip-roaring, throat-pulsing, soul-baring stomper might just be the best song of 2015 and of Florence + the Machine’s career, and they played it as impenetrably as it deserved to be. A-

Whiskers R’ We – With its third appearance, Whiskers R’ We has firmly settled into a formula, but it is such a delightfully idiosyncratic one that it is not worth complaining too much. Kate McKinnon continued to demonstrate her endless supply of imagined feline backstories, and Reese Witherspoon was as willing as Charlize Theron and Amy Adams before her to play the overeager partner/lover. B

Notes & Quotes:
-After writing most of this review, I stumbled upon the reason that Florence Welch was seated for both of her performances: a broken foot. This should not have been too much of a cause for concern in the first place, as she is not known for moving around a whole lot in her shows, but it was still impressive that she managed to be intense as she was with that lack of mobility.
-Rand Paul is anti-abortion, except in cases when the fetus harshes his buzz.
-“Hi, Mom. It’s Kyle.”
-Everyone is wondering now, how did 13-year-old Cecily Strong kick her cocaine habit?
-On Picture Perfect, the prophet Muhammad is categorized under “Trendsetters.”
-“I’ll be your Tom Brady and deflate your balls all day.”
-The new royal baby is named after her grandmother, great-grandmother, and, of course, the 1992 Charlotte Hornets.
-“And what, we’re gonna put body cameras on cops now? Oh, like we don’t we watch enough TV already.”
-“If you C-section, say something.”
-The Woodbridge Theatre performance is dedicated to John Lennon and Shonda Rhimes.
-Cat Middleton is “good at producing hairs.” “Plus, her sister has a better butt.”