SNL: Alicia Keys, Brie Larson, Taran Killam (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in May 2016.

“SNL” has a tendency to book recently anointed Oscar winners and nominees as hosts. Last year, it was J.K. Simmons a few weeks before the ceremony, and Michael Keaton a couple months after. This season, it is Brie Larson’s turn, with the holiday serving as a tie-in to her award-winning role. It is a sound strategy, as that Academy recognition generally guarantees that these people can act. They do not necessarily have to be funny, so long as they fulfill their roles just as the writing asks them to. Brie proves herself perfectly capable, and the writing lives up to her level.

Church Chat – As Trump Judgment Day has finally come to pass, the cold opening for this episode would of course be political. But it is not the normal cable news parody. In a fit of inspiration, and a wink to the past, Dana Carvey drops by to revive his most prolific and iconic (solo) character. Church Lady’s tsk-tsking of the Donald makes perfect sense (she’s done it before), but her hectoring of Ted Cruz feels a little like kicking an ally while he’s down. Not that Enid Strict wouldn’t do that – it is just a slightly different mode for her. Anyway, it is nice to see an old favorite, but it is tricky for her to find some really good putdowns, as Trump is too cartoonish and Cruz is too pathetic. Not all is lost, though, as Trump’s mangling of Bible facts is chuckle-worthy (though standard issue) and Cruz’s resurrection as a demon – though it may not hit as hard as it might like – is a worthwhile experiment. B-

Brie Larson’s Monologue – First off: did Brie Larson’s mom have her when she was 15? Or 5? Anyway, this is less a comedy routine, and more an occasion to find the good vibes inherent in reminding everyone that this weekend is in fact Mother’s Day. It gets a little saucy when Beck pretends to his mom that Brie is his girlfriend, but besides that, this is just a series of thanking moms and letting them say hello. You can get away with that sort of thing in a monologue, which is often about establishing personality, and this fits the ever-gracious Brie Larson. B-

President Barbie – Now here is a sketch that knows not to be worried about underlining its point. This special edition of the classic doll is obviously part of a rebranding effort to make Hillary Clinton more accessible to younger ladies, but she is never mentioned by name, as that would be overkill. There would be a danger of this commercial trying too hard, just as Clinton appears to be. The point stands clear enough on its own without any accoutrements. B+

American Medical Association Interview – This sequel to the Alien Abduction scene from the Ryan Gosling episode raises some interesting questions about the nature of the fictional worlds of sketch comedy. Most recurring bit give some sense a timeline, while there a few that are basically complete do-overs each time. This one is not exactly the latter, but it is a little odd, and a little astounding, that Ms. Rafferty (Kate McKinnon) and Sharon (Cecily Strong) have been both alien abductees and victims of near-death experiences. While the lack of comment on such a coincidence is a bit of a missed opportunity, this sketch is a conceptual winner, despite its repeated format. Rarely has a guardian angel ever been this prosaic. And wouldn’t you know it, Kate McKinnon is happy to tell us about it, as well she should be. B+

Baby Shower – “SNL” has long had a penchant for mining laughs out of maternal stereotypes. Who remembers Mom Jeans? Everyone, that’s who. This time, the target is the mom haircut: obviously done up but quite messy. The physical descriptions of this signature style as well as the backstories that lead to adopting it are plenty amusing on their own, but what takes this sketch to the next level is the tension that arises when Brie Larson’s expectant mother resists the pull of this Stepford-y cabal. There is even a dash of dystopian (posing as utopian) sci-fi thrown into this sea of conformity. B+

Alicia Keys – “In Common” – Alicia Keys has the technical polish of an old pro, but the swagger of someone forever cutting loose. There is not a single bum note in this performance, so she commands plenty of awe, while also – with that smoky beat and breathy vocals – attracting attention of a more intimate variety. B+

Weekend Update – Of course Michael and Colin are going to use their deepest dive this week to cover Trump’s primary victory. But since that is what everyone else is talking about, and so much has been said already, they focus on the bric-a-brac. The fact that this apparent presidential candidate has two bobbleheads of himself alongside a fake Oscar is telling, and it is about time someone pointed it out. Michael and Colin’s Grade: B+
Weekend Update: Newscaster of Tomorrow Laura Parsons – It is funny how some “SNL” characters start out in sketches but find their true home as Weekend Update correspondents. Vanessa Bayer’s precocious child actor had already established her niche, but now she has a second forte behind the desk. Her hook has always been the juxtaposition of juvenile performance and adult themes; that approach is much more graphic in this context than it ever was on the stage. (When will she and WikiBear have a battle royale?) Ultimately, she lives or dies by her ability to string together endearing phrases like “old man Kronkite.” B
Weekend Update: Sasheer Zamata – Sasheer is in a goofy mood, which helps to soften one of the most sensitive subjects ever. She does not add much to the conversation – she is mainly there to present a reminder that some things have not changed, and that some things should not change. She also mines laughs out of the weird exhilaration of actually experiencing the most thoroughly stereotypical example of racism. Overall, it is a breezy discussion of a topic that is otherwise inherently uncomfortable, and that is something of an accomplishment. B
Weekend Update: Pete Davidson – “SNL’s” resident mama’s boy uses his regular Update gig to just praise his old lady and help her find love. It is even more earnest than usual, from a guy known for his earnestness. Generally, he has a socially conscious comedic point to go along with his anecdotes, but this time, he seems to be saying that since it is Mother’s Day, he is just going to tell funny stories that also demonstrate how cool Mom is. B-

Game of Thrones – This parody of the drawn-out nature of Jon Snow’s resurrection feels a little inside baseball. Sure, “Game of Thrones” may be one of the most popular shows right now, but in 2016 TV, “most popular” is a relative term, so this is a rather specific thing to goof on. That is not necessarily a criticism so much as it is taking stock of where we are now. By giving its entire raison d’être right away, it can survive only by variation. In true rake joke style, it succeeds by becoming repetition personified. B

Quiz Whiz 2018 – This game show that definitely takes place in 2018 at first appears to be mocking the forgettability of John Kasich. If the measure of second place is who dropped out last, then you could say he finished number 2 in the primary. And if the joke is that Ted Cruz is not memorable, that is a little unexpected. Poor Teddy’s reputation has hardly been marked by a failure to make an impression. All that confusion does not matter, though, because the digs are sharp (Ted was voted “Top Crap” in high school), and the twist actually works (Brie has been playing Heidi Cruz this whole time). Meanwhile, the constant reminders that it is in fact 2018 and the silly names (“Crichard,” “quizzie-whizzies”) wonderfully break down the artifice of this whole endeavor. B+

Discreet Annihilation – Chris FitzPatrick is back, and uh-oh: he now has some friends to help him inflate his half-baked ideas. Chris, Scott Thurman (Beck Bennett), and C.C. Toxic (Larson) have teamed up as the inimitably named “Discreet Annihilation,” conveying faux-profundity that might graduate to actual profundity should they by some miracle manage to create actual good music. The centerpiece of their insanely unrealistic, undeservedly confident Kickstarter is their film “Johnny Shadow,” a super low-rent “Matrix” ripoff. They lack any sort of polish or self-awareness, but they weirdly honor the Wachowskis by throwing so many disparate elements together in a way that sort of works against all odds. B+

Alicia Keys – “Hallelujah” – Alicia remains crouched at her pianos for both of her performances, but she looks like she is about to burst the whole time, especially in her second number. As she screams for a sign and demands to be let in, she lets it be known that the power of her musical conviction has not been dulled at all. B+

Dead Bopz (BEST OF THE NIGHT) – “SNL” has a lot of sketches that are little more than a series of impressions. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the mimics are usually pretty good, but it can be disappointing when considering that the sketch around them is paper-thin. But in this impression showcase, the premise is killer enough on its own. Hologram technology is advancing so fast that it illuminates the danger of disrespectful people in positions of power. Roy Orbison taking on Justin Bieber, Ethel Merman doing Selena Gomez, and Lesley Gore unironically unleashing her inner Nicki Minaj are all delightful, but also highly disturbing. This compilation, one hopes, is the stuff of 4 AM coke-fueled nightmares, not standard record industry decisions. But one can never be too sure… A-

Notes & Quotes:
-Taran has really been working on the physicality of his Ted Cruz. Those facial expressions are on point.
-It may be Mother’s Day, but Mrs. McKinnon wins the Dad Joke Award of the Night: “Who doesn’t like a good Brie (bris)?”
-So what is the preferred term for running around in a shirt but no pants? “Porky Pigging,” or “Donald Duck-ing”?
-Ms. Rafferty finds herself in Dog Heaven fighting off a gaggle of cold snouts around her drainer and stainer: “Look, at least somebody’s interested, right?”
-“There are only 7 bags in this entire county.”
-Colin tells perhaps the most Christian joke ever: “A Philadelphia man who carries a cross and calls himself Jesus was arrested for trespassing. The man pled not guilty to trespassing and also forgave those who trespassed against him.”
-“Paul Robeson of ‘Porgy and Bess’ fame was one of the great singers and civil rights leaders of his day. We used a computer to make him sing ‘Trap Queen.’”}
-“Quick, somebody give that hologram a Holo-Grammy. Not my joke, guys, I’m just laser beams.”