SNL: Kanye West, Melissa McCarthy, Taran Killam (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in February 2016.

Melissa McCarthy is one of the most reliable “SNL” hosts of this decade. She always brings her A-game, making herself right at home at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. She has her critics who call her out for playing the same character over and over: brash, over-the-top, and painfully awkward. That can be a problem with a film career (though she usually brings more depth than her critics give her credit for), but in sketch comedy, it can easily be a winning formula. Frequent musical guest Kanye West is also reliable, but his is a reliable unreliability, in which the stage design and sound style will never be the same twice.

I Can’t Make You Love Me – Instead of the umpteenth debate sketch, the leadoff political sketch finds its angle via the electorate. Its take on what appeals to voters about Bernie over Hillary is a little shallow, but that is a small blemish, as that patter is just setup for the main thrust of the sketch: Hillary’s take on Bonnie Raitt. This is Kate McKinnon pulling off the same note of desperation she’s been hitting, but this time she is really complicating the question of whether or not Mrs. Clinton is cool. She tries so hard, which is cool because of the commitment but not cool because of the strain. There is some reference to how support of Hillary or lack thereof affects feminism, but this sketch is more astute about the much less complicated issue of whether or not Hillary is cooler than the drab, depressing Jeb Bush. B

Melissa McCarthy’s Monologue – Studio 8H mainstay Melissa McCarthy announces that this is her fifth show, and any “SNL” buff worth their salt wonders, “How did I not know that she’s joining the 5-Timers Club?” But then we can relax, as it is revealed that she is the one who has miscounted. It is a silly conceit, but it is a fun way to play around the limited options available when a monologue is about how frequently the host appears. The 4 and 1/16 figure comically throws off the rhythm just enough to reflect Melissa’s snafu and get the audience to appreciate the imagination. B-

The Day Beyoncé Turned Black – While “Formation” is perhaps Beyoncé’s most consciously black song yet and hitherto she has had a mostly mainstream appeal, she is hardly vanilla. Thus, the freakouts among her white fans discovering the truth are more over-the-top than clever. The ending that wonders if Taylor Swift is similarly hiding something hints at some head-spinning horror that could have been expanded. C+

The Cul-De-Sac Test Screening – This tale of Dottie (McCarthy), perhaps the person most viscerally affected by a horror movie ever, demonstrates a steady comic rhythm of building exaggeration. But it is dogged by a thorough lack of sense. Dottie’s array of spilling internal fluids and involuntarily assaulting her fellow moviegoers cannot possibly be unexpected to her the way that it appears to be in the post-screening release session. That is not necessarily a criticism of the humor (McCarthy excels at these absurd physical bits), but it would be more satisfying if the scene had unimpeachable internal consistency. B-

Movie Night – It is the third movie-related sketch in a row, and since the original “Terminator” is basically a slasher flick, they are all horror-themed, and this is the most terrifying of them all. A domestic scene is an ideal setting for Pete Davidson to utilize his manchild awkwardness, while Melissa easily slides into overbearing mom mode. But it is Bobby Moynihan as Dad who shines the brightest, with his internal monologues delightfully all over the place. From believing that pointing out Linda Hamilton’s nipple color is a good way to break the tension to the relatively tame secret of a Mr. Skin account all the way to the Farmer’s Insurance theme implanting itself as an earworm, he is just full of surprises. B

Kanye West featuring Young Thug, The-Dream, Kelly Price, and El Debarge – “High Lights” – The prevalence of Auto-Tune signals a connection between the upcoming Life of Pablo and the downtempo and offbeat (at the time) 808s & Heartbreak. Kanye’s newest release is arriving amidst impossible anticipation, name changes of indeterminate significance, and everything else Kanye-related. This performance, overwhelmed by (admittedly solid) guest stars, does not do much to dispel any confusion. The attention to production is, as usual, unassailable, but overall the predominant feeling is weirdness. Perhaps it is a new sound that just needs to be gotten used to, but this does not quite strike with the same power as his previous leadoff singles. B

Weekend Update – Neither Michael nor Colin goes especially in depth on any topic, but both have a moment in which their feelings come through especially powerfully. The former directs his outrage at outrage itself, noting that the backlash Beyoncé has faced hardly amounts to anything, while the other guy goes even more matter-of-fact, letting a scroll do the talking about Hillary Clinton’s need for honesty herself in the wake of her campaign calling out others for the same. Michael and Colin’s Grade: B
Weekend Update: Rachel from Friends – Vanessa Bayer debuts her impression of a 90’s sitcom character, in a sort of anti-commentary. She does not have a unique take on Rachel, unless her constant tone of surprise is meant to convey that she is a barely functioning human being. The “Friends”-style dissolves are there less to make any comic point and more just to disorient Colin. B-
Weekend Update: Von Miller – Super Bowl MVP Miller stops by to discuss the recent discovery of gravitational waves resulting from the crash of black holes, ostensibly elucidating how that relates to his football experience. But there is hardly any amusing heft, so this basically just amounts to further evidence of all the cool places you get to hang out at if you are the star player on the winning team of a major sporting event. C
Weekend Update: Leslie Jones – The full reveal of Leslie Jones’ ideal man has surely been an inevitability, and like most of her commentaries, she provides a lot of color, but no clear big picture. She is all over the place, such that every time she manages a genuinely clever moment, she immediately veers into yelling about one thing over and over, like dead flowers. It is valuable, but hard to fully embrace. C+

The Art of the Pickup – Melissa McCarthy’s “SNL” characters are typically of the “too awkward or too manic to handle stressful situations” variety. That appears to be case here at first, as she plays Rhonda, a graduating member of a class on seduction. But it quickly becomes clear that she is not a bad student so much as a psychopath. While the shock of this realization does wear off a bit, McCarthy’s skill at weaving insane hypotheticals (e.g., going to an execution to see if the prisoners really poop on the slab) is a thing of beauty. B

Rap Battle (BEST OF THE NIGHT) – In many of the Kyle Mooney-centric shorts, Kyle plays a character who does not buy into a typical definition of defeat. That delusion can be dangerous, but he usually looks pretty happy. This time, he plays himself and thus sets himself him up for even greater embarrassment. (While it is fictionalized, it feels real.) Most judges would declare Kanye the winner of this showdown, but Kyle is operating on a plane of entertainment that nobody, probably not even Kyle himself, knows the rules of. A-

Bus Ride – Leslie Jones takes a seat next to Melissa McCarthy, playing an unbelievably insensitive gabber. This could be a one-joke premise, save for the second joke, wherein McCarthy is also one of those people who is absolutely terrible at remembering movie titles. (Oddly enough, she can remember people’s names well enough to make a joke about looking for Questlove in “Roots” the miniseries.) It feels right to call this a “scene” instead of a “sketch,” with several funny lines, but not much in the way of originality. The “Speed”-style twist is mostly pointless, only serving to provide an ending that this scene could survive without. B-

Kanye West featuring The-Dream, Kelly Price, Chance the Rapper, and Kirk Franklin – “Ultra Light Beams” – If you thought Yeezus was experimental, then The Life of Pablo might just be unfathomable, if these two performances are anything to go by. On this number, the melodious grunting and flat Hallelujah’s stand out. But while Kanye’s choices are a little obtuse, he lets his cavalcade of guest players take up much of the song anyway, with Chance the Rapper (last seen on this stage just a couple of months ago) shining brightest. B

Whiskers R We – The one recurring sketch of the night (sans politics) comes in the timeslot that is seemingly the least conducive to returning characters, except that the last episode had the same setup, and it is hardly an aberration the past few seasons. This is the fourth appearance of the pun-happy cat vendors, and somewhat surprisingly the first with Melissa McCarthy (to be fair, the last time she hosted was before the original Whiskers R We). As usual, the feline origin stories are stronger than the lesbian canoodling, which is not insulting but limited comedically. B-

Notes & Quotes:
-Darrell Hammond appears as Bill Clinton to (pretend to) play piano while Hillary sings. When he re-joined the show as the announcer, the plan was to mostly keep him out of sketches, but with two of his most legendary impressions relevant in this election cycle, it seems silly not to call on him.}
-Beyoncé was white in “The Pink Panther.”
-Michael channels Norm MacDonald to go after a Mr. Simpson: The doctor who discovered CTE believes that O.J. developed the disease “due to repeated injuries he suffered while committing double murder.”
-“Here I am: a kid … moonwalking!”
-“It’s like, when people see me, they see, oh, he’s this nerdy, sort of a heartthrob, on the rise maybe.”
-Here is one of the “United Colors of Benetton” ads referred to in the Bus Ride sketch.
-“We call this cat O.J., because he’s orange like the juice, and a murderer like the athlete.”