SNL Promo: Taran Killam, Ariana Grande (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in March 2016.

Musical guests may have limited range compared to most “SNL” hosts, but they are still entertainers. On top of that, Ariana Grande is also a veteran of Nickelodeon, which – while excessively hacky – tends to make professionals out of its kid stars. If Grande is given good material, she will know how to hit her marks. So it should not be considered shocking that her hosting debut is mostly a success. But who would have guessed that in the pantheon of great “SNL” hosts, she would be most similar to Kevin Spacey?

CNN America’s Choice 2016 – Once again, the cold opening is a political catchall, but this one works better than most thanks to a more streamlined focus, with only the best impressions of the season (sans Hillary, though her moment comes later). Darrell Hammond and Jay Pharoah have sufficiently creepy chemistry as Trump and Carson, but the real twist is Larry David’s latest Bern-ing cameo. He rants delightfully on and on about the latest foibles of the primary, reserving special disdain for superdelegates (“I’ve met some of these superdelegates. They’re not that super”). B

Ariana Grande’s Monologue – Kenan Thompson joins Ariana onstage, and it looks like her monologue will be a commiseration between former Nickelodeon stars (for a minute, it even looks like Kel Mitchell will actually make an appearance), but instead he is just there for a quick joke about how people still recognize him mainly for “All That,” even though he has been on “SNL” longer than just about anybody. But Ms. Grande is a singer, so of course she sings in her monologue. This number is about her desire to have a real grown-up scandal, notwithstanding her donut licking, which, while immature, was rather inconsequential. The premise is sound, and she commits fully to it, but there is a level of artifice wherein it is clear that she does not really want to be another cautionary tale that prevents a full catharsis. B

A Message From Hillary Clinton – One of the most – if not the most – prominent characteristics of Kate McKinnon’s Hillary is her naked desperation to appeal to young voters. Now, thanks to her primary opponent, she has the perfect template to follow. It may be surprising that a seventysomething white guy is appealing so heavily to millennials, and it is even more bizarre to see Hillary completely absorb both his message and his image. She simultaneously misses the point of Bernie’s appeal and understands it exactly. B+

Kids’ Choice Awards Pre-Show (BEST OF THE NIGHT) – A host like Ariana Grande, coming from a different entertainment field than most “SNL” hosts, prompts preteen-baiting sketches like this one that are useful for breaking the mold. Usually, that is all they are good for, but this particular example gets really weird, as Taran Killam, Vanessa Bayer, and Grande’s “orange carpet” hosts enter a purgatory in which it proves impossible to get the actual show started. The desperation on their faces with each close-up is palpable. The panic is frightening. The sudden happy ending prevents it from reaching the dizzying heights of the similar 90’s Will Ferrell-starring “Wake Up and Smile,” but it is intense while it lasts. Bonus points to Bobby Moynihan for one of his classic walk-on utility roles. B+

This Is Not a Feminist Song – When it comes to the biggest social justice issues, full inclusivity is tricky to pull off, even for the most well-meaning folks. So the “SNL” ladies’ decision to punt on this attempt is sort of admirable. At the very least, it is understandable, and it is hard to complain when they utilize their conflicted feelings to craft yet another memorable song. B

True Tales from the Sea – Here is a sketch that could get really ugly real fast. Aesthetically, it is ugly right from the start, and it threatens to get ugly in sexist terms as well. But in the delicate hands of Kate McKinnon, her blobfish-style mermaid maintains her dignity. It helps that she realizes that her anatomy and mating habits are more than a little unwieldy for Beck Bennett’s sailor and that they basically meet each other in the middle, thus affording them the freedom to get as grimy as they want. B

Ariana Grande – “Dangerous Woman” – Ariana recovers in time from a fit of giggles over Larry David’s botched introduction to nail her feisty new single. “Dangerous Woman” is a little more stripped-down for her than usual, but ultimately the whole performance plays to her strengths. She starts with mid-range notes that build to the killer high ones, there are no hitches to her singing or physicality, and the style choice of a jacket hanging loose from one arm is on point. B+

Weekend Update – Michael and Colin take on a tone of “of course” in their rundown of the latest political news, as in of course there was violence at a Trump rally at the most violent city in America, of course that woman who appeared to be doing a Nazi salute looks like that raised hand emoji, and of course Bernie Sanders used a coupon to garner campaign contributions. Che’s Women’s History Month cake zinger is a little rough, but he has earned enough goodwill for the irony to be clear. And once again, the best moment is the apparent ad-lib, with Colin’s claim that heavier women are paid more if Che is at the strip club prompting a “They say black guys don’t tip.” Michael and Colin’s Grade: B
Weekend Update: Drunkest Contestant on The Bachelor – Cecily Strong excels at playing shallow women who lean into damaging stereotypes, and this one is no different. There is plenty to be said about that social aspect, but the strongest part of this performance is actually technical, with her indelible slurring and dopey alcohol-fueled puns continually hitting the mark. Plus, there is Colin’s acknowledgement of Leslie Jones – a satisfying bit of rarely seen Update continuity. B
Weekend Update: Riblet – Bobby Moynihan genuinely broke up the routine in his first couple of appearances as Che’s old friend, but now he is just as susceptible as everyone else to recurring character diminishing returns. So the cut to Riblet from a second location is necessary. When it is revealed that its purpose is an extended “yo mama” joke, it is also immensely satisfying. B

Tidal Systems Check – If you have seen any of Ariana Grande’s impressions on “The Tonight Show,” then this is the sketch you have been waiting for. It is actually a redo of the Pandora sketch from the Bruno Mars episode, and the premise makes as little sense now as it did then. Singing one song while an artist’s entire library goes down on a streaming service is obviously not going to fix the problem. But, whatever. That is not the point. The point is that Ariana Grande can do really good impressions. Like, disturbingly good. Her actual voice is hardly there in her Shakira. Meanwhile, the physicality of her Rihanna brings to the fore just how weird the Barbadian chanteuse is. This Ariana Grande: she’s a real talent. B+

Family Feud Celebrity Edition – Because Ariana has at least one impression that could not fit in the Tidal sketch, “SNL” trots out one of its patented impression showcase sketches. And once again, she is astounding (despite being nearly a foot shorter than Jennifer Lawrence). The premise does not make much sense here either, as the contestants are either too big or too weird to slum it on Family Feud  (except for Kevin Smith). But the aim here is not verisimilitude. Rather, it is to present at least 3 good mimics. On that score, this edition maybe succeeds. Other than Ariana’s J-Law, Jay’s Idris Elba is the only unqualified success, while Kate’s Tilda is not quite as funny as Steve Harvey’s descriptions of her, Taran’s Tarantino looks a lot like his Michael Keaton, and Beck’s sanguine Javier Bardem … just about makes the grade. B

Ariana Grande – “Be Alright” – With production that is reminiscent of the breakdown in Drake and Rihanna’s “Take Care,” Ariana goes a little sultrier in her second performance. With a better fitting outfit, the fashion is still working, though it is not as striking as the loose jacket. But it is the choreography’s turn to be especially on point. One last thing: was the stagehand removing the mic stand supposed to be visible? B+

The Sound of Music – As a premise, a version of “The Sound of Music” in which Maria confronts the other nuns in the abbey for talking smack about her is clever, but somewhat limited. It requires a strong central performance, and on that count, Ariana Grande takes it to the next level, throwing out enough esoteric slang, scary hand claps, and “nun, please’s” to keep everyone on their toes. B

Notes & Quotes:
-So what was the real reason Kel couldn’t stop by 30 Rock? He was at the Kids’ Choice Awards, of course!
-Ben Carson is positively turnt.
-Why has Bernie Sanders spent so much time in Michigan? He get 10 cents for every recycled can!
-What was the deal with the microphone floating in the dark over to Ariana during her monologue?
-“I’m just here to hand Blake Shelton this hat.”
-Ariana Grande’s high-pitched vocalizing could easily take over everything around her, but by placing her to the side and in the background for those few notes she hits at the end of “Not a Feminist Song,” it instead plays as fun punctuation.
-With Larry David doing them both, is this the first time a combo host/musical guest is introduced by the same person for both songs?
-Mitt Romney turned 69, “which for Mormons is a sin.”
-Riblet summons the ghost of ODB with his chant of “Ooh, baby, I got your jorb.”
-“I have a feeling nun of us will miss her.”