SNL: Rihanna, Louis C.K., Leslie Jones (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in May 2015.

In recent “SNL” history, the season finale has been reserved for familiar faces. Year 40 was no different, with Louis C.K. hosting for the third time in as many seasons and Rihanna making her fifth appearance as musical guest. Finales often have a celebratory air, with an overabundance of cameos, or an ode to the upcoming summer, or a farewell to departing talent, but there was not much of that this time. Instead, this was a fairly standard Season 40 episode, with a focus on original material that was best when it got weird. Unfortunately, it did not go weird often enough, and what resulted was a show that did not succeed too much as either a finale or as any old episode, especially disappointing considering the talent involved.

It’s Summer (BEST OF THE NIGHT) – The musical monologue is well-known to all, but a lesser-known, but just as durable tradition, is the musical season-ending cold opening. The former often indicates malaise, while the latter is usually a fun bit of form-breaking. This edition took it a step further, with another “SNL” standby – the Clintons – crashing the party. A long-term “SNL” narrative is taking shape here with the Democratic frontrunner leading up to the 2016 election, and it is simultaneously consistent and variegated. B+

Louis C.K.’s Monologue – Offhandedly admitting that he may be prepared for this to be his last episode yet, Louie brought some of his riskiest material to a discussion of the how the 70’s were different. The mild racism bit danced right on the right edge of dangerous, with the hooded teenager punchline going just slightly, significantly, different than expected. The examination of the psyche of a child molester was likely too intense for some viewers to handle, but it showed a striking amount of empathy – a quality necessary for good comedy. B+

The Shoemaker and the Elves – This fractured fairy tale committed two cardinal sins of sketch comedy right away: it completely gave away its premise, and it shocked for shock’s sake, without actually being that shocking. The reveal that the cobbler was actually into the BDSM and was only pretending not to be so to hide it from his wife provided a little boost of energy. Then the Choose Your Own Adventure texting gambit really took it to another level. Still, it was one and a half great quick moments following way too much obvious repetition. C

Sprint Store – “SNL” frequently takes on some hacky premises. Usually, the show does not go beyond the simplistic foundation. But occasionally, with a guest like Louis C.K. – who also takes on hacky premises but really explores them for all they are worth – these sketches can manage some surprises. C.K. is a student of human character, so his grasp on slang comes with conviction, which is why he was the perfect choice to pull off fronting for five whole years. Rarely has Leslie Jones’ energy been matched and challenged – who knew Louie would be the one to do it? B

Messages From the Woodworkers Association of America – “SNL” rarely makes time for one-minute-or-less bits, so when they do appear, they are more alarming than surprising. The joke here was clear, though absurd, but it also felt like it could have been the introduction to a longer piece. Ultimately, that was what it was, with the second edition later in the show, which was not as strong as the first, as the death of physical books joke is staler compared to toothpick jokes. B/C+

Rihanna – “Bitch Better Have My Money” – Sometimes you hear a song and witness a performance that is just completely incomprehensible, even though it comes from a familiar source. This may be the case for many with the latest, most-in-your-face single yet from Rihanna, who is often spicy but also usually sweet. Like, who is this bitch who has her money? How is this even an issue for her? The staging read a little bit as weird for weird’s sake, but it was so detailed that it transcended that categorization. Maybe somebody understands what this routine was all about, but certainly not everybody. B-

Weekend Update – Colin Jost shone much more brightly than Michael Che on the final outing of their inaugural year together, which was appropriate enough, as a returning favorite upstaged Che yet again. Colin’s specialty is the weird punchline that has a certain poetry in its randomness, and he showed that off more than usual this time. Highlights included George Bush seeking the genie from “Aladdin,” the ISIS opening credits (especially the dog saying “Halliburton”),  “Mad Men” advertising the new Hamburglar, and even “jalapeno business.” Michael and Colin’s Grade: B-
Weekend Update: Tom Brady – Taran Killam’s take on the ignominious football star who is trying to maintain his all-American image hit the expected beats, though it did also manage to come up with some unique phrasing, like “my American children.” Taran furthermore continued his tradition of ad-libbing to cover a flub in an Update guest spot, with a moment that could have undercut his message completely saved with some quick thinking. B-
Weekend Update: Pete Davidson – The youngest “SNL” cast member apparently used his season finale commentary as a platform for making his case to return to the show next year. The joke was that he had not developed or grown very much in the past several months, except, as Colin put it, “just, you know, in terms of the passage of time.” He meandered along, mostly pointlessly, which fit the theme of his message, which was not exactly a good thing, though. C
Weekend Update: Riblet – Amidst all the complaints about Colin and Michael’s tenure behind the desk, Bobby Moynihan’s appearances as Michael’s old friend have been met with praise calling for Riblet to take over Update duties. Now, his is a style that works best in its infrequency, but he has highlighted Che’s weaknesses. He chuckles too often through his own jokes and still does not look fully comfortable. Riblet, meanwhile, is old reliable: necessarily no longer surprising but still quite effective. B

Vacation – This sequel to one of the best sketches of one of the best episodes of this season felt like the worst possible alternate version of the original. The characterization was thinner, the antagonism was ramped up and less logical, and the roles were more miscast. The obliviously aggressive boyfriend to Cecily Strong’s airhead is a part that needs to be played straight, which was why this sketch fit perfectly for Dwayne Johnson and was the exact opposite for Louis C.K., who is only equipped to play these roles ironically. Cecily was just as committed as she usually is to her character work, but the material she was working with was an unimaginative retread. C-

Police Lineup – This mashup of crime and theatre clichés was yet another sketch this episode that gave away its one-joke premise right away. At least this one allowed Taran, Kyle, Beck, and Louie to explore the physical and emotional space in their performances. Kyle especially showed his knack for examining the artifice of acting. C

Rihanna – “American Oxygen” – RiRi’s second song was a much more natural fit for her usual vocal range, but the most striking star of this performance was the series of images of American iconography projected behind her. At first this seemed to be all a matter of aesthetics, but then the more obscure and violent pictures exposed a social consciousness inherent to this song that has been popping up in a fair amount of mainstream music lately. Rihanna has always had an edge about her, and she pulls off that extra oomph when she leans into it. B+

Forgotten TV Gems – On first glance, Reese De’What may seem like any other broadly stroked Kenan Thompson character, but he has a mix of characteristics that bizarrely serve to complement, or even illuminate, the tone-deaf “forgotten” classics he presents. Here, he displayed some expertise as to the problems behind this Sapphic version of “I Love Lucy” (it was written solely by men) while simultaneously betraying his utter bafflement when it comes to anything in his own life involving women. The actual scenes from “Whoops! I Married a Lesbian” were plain and simple, but worked on the strength of Kate McKinnon and Louis C.K.’s highly affected old-timey delivery. B

Notes & Quotes:
-Hillary, using Bill’s advice to reach out to the young male demographic: “In 2 years, I’ll be 69.”
-“I can hear the ocean calling.” “And I can hear the screams of a dying middle class.”
-“I love you, Louie!” “It’s a little early for that.”
-“Everyone liked McDonald’s, it was the 70’s.”
-The mention of the Framily Plan made it a little odd that Kyle did not appear in the Sprint sketch.
-Michael Che’s rant about Deflategate was understandable, but it is also missed the point. People have not been saying “Deflategate” so as to avoid saying “Deflateballs.” Sure, etymologically the “-gate” suffix does not make a whole lot of sense, but that issue has not been exacerbated by this particular scandal.
-Riblet’s best burn: “If we want to treat women as equals, we shouldn’t put them on money. We should pay them an equal amount of money. And Michael Che shouldn’t be paid at all!”
-“Even the show’s creator claimed to have met a lesbian once, but it was actually a wooden drugstore Indian.”