SNL Recap May 16, 2015: Louis C.K./Rihanna

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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+

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SNL Recap May 9, 2015: Reese Witherspoon/Florence + the Machine

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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-

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SNL Recap May 2, 2015: Scarlett Johansson/Wiz Khalifa

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SNL: Wiz Khalifa, Scarlett Johansson, Cecily Strong (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in May 2015.

In the time between her last and this (her fourth) hosting stint, Scarlett Johansson has had quite the career bump, carving out a niche of otherworldly, occasionally robotic, often kickass heroines. Still, she has never been that strong a fit for the demands of “SNL.” With this episode, she was more confident than ever, though not especially accomplished. But the cast and the concepts were better-than-average, with some routine-busting sketches providing the highlights.

Mayweather/Pacquiao Fight – The biggest match in decades has revealed the surprising number of people who are legitimate boxing fans. “SNL” cleverly latched onto that widespread fanaticism with this sketch that playfully conceded the show’s relevance on this particular night. Normally, admitting your own shortcomings is inadvisable, but that was overridden by such a strong commitment to the second-rate aesthetic. The narration acknowledging the obvious artifice here made the sketch fluid in a way unusual for “SNL.” B

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SNL Recap April 11, 2015: Taraji P. Henson/Mumford & Sons

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SNL: Kenan Thompson, Taraji P. Henson, Mumford & Sons (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in April 2015.

With her breakout role as Cookie on “Empire,” Taraji P. Henson has been showcasing her commitment, confidence, and charisma to her biggest audience yet.  These are the qualities that great “SNL” hosts are made of, and in her first appearance at Studio 8H, she had to show them off, both because she was given plenty of roles that required a strong presence and because many of the sketches were running low on premise and thus necessitated strong performances across the board.

Hillary Clinton (BEST OF THE NIGHT) – It has been a delight watching Kate McKinnon develop her Hillary Clinton impression from “promising” to “ready for the big leagues.”  With the real Clinton finally on the verge of announcing her long-presumed 2016 presidential candidacy, her current “SNL” counterpart has made it clear that she will be as much a force to be reckoned with as Ana Gasteyer and Amy Poehler were before her.  This edition wisely went with a domestic setting, as this is a public figure we all know so well that a glimpse into her private sphere is in no way jarring.  Darrell Hammond’s cameo felt a little dated, as there is not as much of a sense of Bill butting in on his wife’s moment as there used to be, but it did effectively inform McKinnon’s wound-up performance. B+

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SNL Recap April 4, 2015: Michael Keaton/Carly Rae Jepsen

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SNL: Carly Rae Jepsen, Michael Keaton (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in April 2015.

Michael Keaton’s innate charm was on full display during this past awards season.  That was not as present in his third “SNL” hosting stint (and first in over 20 years).  Instead, he reminded viewers of his dark side.  While he never actually suited up as Batman or Beetlejuice during the episode, his roles did seem to be inspired by that portion of his career.  The result was a surplus of oddly severe sketches, some of which were praiseworthy in their boldness, but others which were cringeworthy in their difficulty to watch.

Final Four Postgame – “SNL” was operating right down to the wire here, as the Wisconsin-Kentucky game ended only about 15 minutes before the start of the show.  That was no big deal, as the actual result did not heavily factor into this sketch, though there could have been a problem if the game had gone into overtime and lasted past 11:30.  Anyway, this sketch was really about the eternal conflict between the two sides of the student-athlete identity.  The alternate reality presented here – in which a star player like Duke’s Jahlil Okafor would miss the championship because of a biology test – was appreciably silly, but also way too obvious.  This would have been much more reliable if it had just focused on the announcing crew.  It would have been inconsequential, sure, but the latest gambling misadventures of Kenan’s Charles Barkley (now he’s got to eat a basketball) have more energy than a crack about Coach K’s $10 million salary. C+

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SNL Recap March 28, 2015: Dwayne Johnson/George Ezra

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SNL: George Ezra, Dwayne Johnson, Aidy Bryant (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in March 2015.

“If you don’t have a boner right now, you should just kill yourself.”

As he noted in his monologue, Dwayne Johnson is known for joining established film franchises and giving them a successful shot in the arm.  Accordingly, his fourth “SNL” hosting stint heavily favored sketches that commented on the host’s reputation and familiar pop culture entities in general.  Many of this season’s hosts, even the most capable ones, have been relegated to mostly utility roles.  But Johnson was effectively given plenty of opportunities to shine, as he was allowed to play to his strengths, and the result was an episode that overall also played to its strengths.

The Rock Obama – While Dwayne Johnson is now unequivocally credited by his birth name, he has no qualms breaking out his wrestling moniker for a particular “SNL” sketch.  He first broke out his hulked-out alter ego of the president the last time he hosted back in March 2009, only a few months into Obama’s first term.  He brought it back in a cameo appearance later that year, and that was enough for it to reach iconic status.  In its current iteration, it was formulaic, but still vibrant enough to be worthwhile.  Michelle She-Hulking out as well provided a welcome addition, so it was nice that Leslie Jones was around to play the part.  Bobby Moynihan went above the call of duty by putting together his weaselly impression of Ted Cruz. B

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SNL Recap March 7, 2015: Chris Hemsworth/Zac Brown Band

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SNL: Chris Hemsworth March 2015 Monologue (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in March 2015.

It might just be pointlessly quixotic to ascribe a thesis statement to an episode of “SNL.”  Any detectable patterns may have just been accidental.  When the host and musical guest do not bring in a whole lot of baggage, that truth becomes emphasized.  Chris Hemsworth was host two months before the release of the next “Avengers” movie.  Zac Brown Band have new music, but they are not dominating the mainstream conversation.  This was certainly an episode that happened.  There were highlights, there were lowlights, and it will lead to a multiplicity of opinions.  Here’s one: it was cray-cray.

A Message From Hillary Clinton – Kate McKinnon made it clear that should Hillary Clinton run for president, she will not back down from the challenge of taking on this legendary impression.  This sketch was essentially a character piece, when it could have focused on sharper satire about whether or not Clinton’s e-mail correspondence is a legitimate controversy.  But as a character piece, it was encouraging, managing to imbue the tired “old person e-mail gag” with specific personality. B

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SNL Recap February 28, 2015: Dakota Johnson/Alabama Shakes

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SNL: Dakota Johnson, Alabama Shakes, Kenan Thompson (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in March 2015.

“SNL” returned to its regularly scheduled time slot after its 40th anniversary and … this episode did not feel like the comedown show after a big special so much as it felt like the type of episode that follow the ones that preceded it.  Fresh off the record-breaking box-office of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” Dakota Johnson stopped by to host for the first time, on a series that is still strongly favoring original material, and at its best when that material gets weird (which usually happens with the pre-recorded shorts).  Johnson brought a surprising and surprisingly effective mellow charm that made her disappear into a lot of her roles, making an impression in how much she did not make an impression.  Meanwhile, Alabama Shakes made their case for why they should be the musical guest every week.

Giuliani, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance – What started as a fairly standard current affairs cold opening surprised and delighted by turning into a pastiche of this year’s Best Picture Oscar winner.  Portraying Rudy Giuliani’s comments about the president as a hubristic comeback attempt a la Riggan Thomson in “Birdman” was not a comparison that a lot of people have been making.  Taran Killam really bit into the opportunity (quite literally, what with all that jowl movement) to do the double impression of Giuliani-as-Michael Keaton.  There were not really any laugh-out-loud moments, but this bit still absolutely killed, as it captured the energy and original spirit of the source material. B+

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SNL Recap January 31, 2015: J.K. Simmons/D’Angelo

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SNL: J.K. Simmons Monologue (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in December 2015.

J.K. Simmons is the presumptive Oscar favorite this year for Best Supporting Actor.  It is appropriate that he is in the Supporting field, considering that he has spent a few decades as a character actor, elevating the quality of his projects, no matter what the size of his role.  Interestingly, though, his role in “Whiplash” is prominent enough that it could be considered a Lead.   He certainly has the talent and charisma to be a star, but this episode mostly kept him confined to the supporting roles that he is used to.  He was perfectly fine in them, but he could have done more.  And in the few moments when he was given the chance to do more, he really shone.  Meanwhile, this show continued Season 40’s heavy focus on original material, with the only recurring characters appearing on Weekend Update.  That originality was a little inconsistent, but very welcome when the proceedings got weird late in the night.

Super Bowl Shutdown – “SNL” once again proved that it has been paying attention to the major stories of the week.  Richard Sherman and Marshawn Lynch have been flipping the script on Super Bowl coverage, and this cold opening … acknowledged that.  Lynch’s propensity to repeat the same stock answer is amusing, but it proved difficult to build a sketch around.  The talk show format, while a tired one, was helpful here, as it masked some of the holes in the premise. B-

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SNL Recap January 24, 2015: Blake Shelton

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SNL: Blake Shelton, Cecily Strong (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in January 2015.

The last time a male country music star hosted “SNL,” the results were a lot more interesting.  The thing is, Tim McGraw has much more acting experience than Blake Shelton, and thus he was a lot more comfortable branching out home from his country persona than Shelton was in this episode.  “The Voice” judge mostly stuck to variations of himself or generic roles.  This was fine for ensuring a show that ran smoothly, but it also prevented his appearance from being a truly memorable one.

Inside the NFL – This take on the New England Patriots deflated ball scandal made the weird decision of focusing on a whiny Tom Brady.  Brady is sometimes criticized for being an arrogant pretty boy, which is basically the antithesis of what Taran Killam was playing him as.  The idea may have been that in playing dumb, he was being someone he clearly wasn’t, but that didn’t really stick as comedy.  Luckily, Bobby Moynihan saved the day as Dougie Spoons, one of his classic hype men characters.  The “A Few Good Men”  parody was unexpected, but more or less successful. C+

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