SNL Recap February 13, 2016: Melissa McCarthy/Kanye West

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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

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SNL Recap February 6, 2016: Larry David/The 1975

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SNL: Larry David, The 1975, Kate McKinnon

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in February 2016.

If you want to enjoy life, it is best to keep complaining to a minimum. But if you want to put on a good comedy show, you’re going to want to have some complaints. That is why Larry David is an ideal “SNL” host, even though he is the type of guy who hates hosting anything. That tension of constantly being bothered by the things that he is best at is the stuff that dreams, and memorable television, are made of. The fact that he also looks and sounds exactly like one of the major presidential candidates is just a bonus.

A Message from Ted Cruz – The show kicks off with “SNL” showing perhaps its strongest bite yet in this election cycle, with Taran Killam pulling no punches in his portrayal of Ted Cruz as the most odious human being ever. While this is admirably fearless, it is not the freshest angle. It kind of writes itself, honestly, what with his daughter refusing to hug him and tricking voters into believing that an opponent has dropped out of the race. Framing the greatest challenge of his campaign as overcoming the handicap of “Being Ted Cruz” is a neat enough trick, making for a cold opening that is more clever than surprising. B-

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SNL Recap January 23, 2016: Ronda Rousey/Selena Gomez

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SNL: Selena Gomez, Ronda Rousey, Cecily Strong (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in January 2016.

With a few exceptions, athletes tend to be rather limited in their usefulness on “SNL.” Just having the host play him or herself or some variation in every sketch can solve this problem. But Ronda Rousey and/or the writers concede this point and give her very little to do throughout the night. Thus, she does not really affect the overall quality of the episode one way or the other. There are a few great sketches, a few okay ones, and some recurring sketches that seem to be hiding their recurring status.

Trump Rally – With Sarah Palin’s typically loopy endorsement of the Donald dominating this week’s election coverage, it felt like a no-brainer to bring Tina Fey back home (so long as she could make it through the snow). Back in 2008, there was the sketch parodying the Katie Couric interview of Palin, which was basically just a recreation of the original. The same approach could have easily been employed again this time around, but it ends up just being the jumping off point; she mentions the “bitter clinging” and adds some new rhymes and free associations (“Mom, 2 Broke Girls, and Three Men and a Baby” is a highlight). In addition, the asides from Trump serve as an astute, though not especially deep, commentary. B

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SNL Recap January 16, 2016: Adam Driver/Chris Stapleton

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SNL: Chris Stapleton, Adam Driver, Aidy Bryant

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in January 2016.

If “SNL” is going to book Adam Driver, then he is going to be called upon to do two things (assuming the writers are not suffering from temporary insanity): reference “Star Wars” and utilize his famous intensity. Surprisingly enough, the former is used sparingly; meanwhile, the latter is taken advantage of throughout the episode (which, depending on your opinion of the “SNL” team’s mental state, is either very much expected or totally shocking). This is the right decision. “Star Wars” is bigger than Driver (or any one person), and reliance upon intergalactic material could have been a distraction, but the character conviction he brings is comedy dynamite if deployed properly.

6th Republican Debate – The standard clown car jokes about the GOP field have mostly exhausted themselves, and Darrell Hammond’s legacy Trump impression is really the only performance here that has a strong enough default mode to run on autopilot. Thankfully, Ted Cruz gifted the comedy world a notorious moment with his “New York City values” comment. Instead of just repeating that jibe (which this sketch could very easily have gotten away with), Taran Killam’s Ted makes it just a little bit absurd by pairing it with “Seinfeld” references. Nothing groundbreaking, but enough to get by. B-

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SNL Recap December 19, 2015: Tina Fey and Amy Poehler/Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band

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SNL: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in December 2015.

“SNL’s” Christmas episodes often have a homecoming feel, insofar as good vibes are easier to come by than usual, and visits from old friends are part of the deal. Usually sports teams designate a winnable game as homecoming, because nobody wants to lose homecoming. So it only makes sense when the “SNL” Christmas lineup features as co-hosts two of the show’s most famous alums who have developed quite the comedic partnership, and as musical guest one of the most iconic rock stars of all time who has a beloved Christmas song in his arsenal. It would take a lot of effort to screw this one up.

Republican Presidential Debate – The GOP primary circus is a bit of a boon but also a formidable challenge for “SNL’s” political machine. The endless supply of candidates ensures plenty of buffoonery but makes for material that is by definition unfocused. Sketches that cruise through a menagerie of characters are reliable for a few laughs, but they are rarely classics. The best political moments have one or two star impressions. Who is the star of this sketch? Is it Darrell Hammond dropping in for his iconic Trump, Beck Bennett as a wimpy Jeb Bush, or is the star the lack of a true star? The best impression is probably Jay Pharoah’s Ben Carson, but he does not have the screen time to show for it. This is all to say, there is plenty of quality here, but it’s all just crowding each other out. B-

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SNL Recap December 12, 2015: Chris Hemsworth/Chance the Rapper

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SNL: Chance the Rapper, Chris Hemsworth, Bobby Moynihan

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in December 2015.

When Chris Hemsworth first hosted “SNL,” almost every sketch featured the theme “Let’s Ogle Chris Hemsworth’s Body.” Perhaps because of that prurience, the show could not wait even a year to have him back, and his physique is once again a major part of the material. He does not even bother to plug his current movie, except to obliquely reference it in a way that underscores how huge he looks even when having lost weight for a role. Elsewhere, this episode finds plenty of room to address Donald Trump’s call to ban all Muslims, driving the political material to tip-top shape.

Announcement from George W. Bush – Some time last decade, there was a Doonesbury cartoon recounting how terrible the George H.W. Bush presidency seemed at the time, but now, compared to his son, he looked prudent and reasonable. Somehow, everyone in the current Republican field is either ridiculous or feckless enough to grant W. a similarly favorable reevaluation. Will Ferrell is welcomed back with cheers partly because it is one of the best impressions in “SNL” history, but also because the guy he is playing really would be preferable to this notorious lineup. He certainly provides some perspective. As fodder for comedy, the 2016 candidates may be buffoons, but they are also depressing. None of them are so playfully silly that they could conceivably wonder what happened to all the leprechauns. B+

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SNL Recap December 5, 2015: Ryan Gosling/Leon Bridges

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SNL: Leon Bridges, Ryan Gosling, Taran Killam

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in December 2015.

Ryan Gosling is not exactly known for comedy, but lack of an established funny bone has not stopped other folks from becoming iconic “SNL” hosts. Gosling is an affable enough fellow, so it is not surprising that he might want to garner some yuks, but his trademark of soulfully staring off into the distance is not a great fit for a show that usually requires going big. Thus, he appears out of his element throughout this episode, with multiple flubs and bits of cracking up. But that only makes him even more charming. As for the show itself, it is a little more out-there than usual.

A Christmas Message from Donald and Melania Trump – The greetings to America from this bizarrely potential First Couple are a reliable enough recurring cold opening for as long the Donald’s campaign lasts. Taran Killam improves his impression by underplaying, since his the guy he’s playing is already ridiculous enough. But the real star here is Cecily Strong as his wife, whose ditzy rhetorical questions somehow make her sound sensible, at least when sitting next to the guy she’s with. C+

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SNL Recap November 21, 2015: Matthew McConaughey/Adele

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SNL: Adele, Matthew McConaughey, Cecily Strong (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in November 2015.

Matthew McConaughey has two different, but ultimately complementary reputations. The first is of the ultimately chill dude. Up until about four years, that translated into meaning he would rather play the bongos naked than get down to work. But now, in a post-McConaissance world, he is known more for his commitment to challenging and unusual roles. That mix of mellow and focused is perfect for an “SNL” host, and it may very well be enough to overcome any bad memories from his unforgettable first stint in 2003. (Musical guest Adele, meanwhile, had an excellent “SNL” debut, and the only bad memory is the near-decade it has taken her to return.) Oddly (or predictably) enough, this episode is marked by the Syrian Refugee Crisis, which figures in seemingly every sketch of the night.

Fox & Friends – The latest cold opening with the Fox News morning crew remains relatively focused, perhaps because the conservative fearmongering related to refugees has no limit. The hosts check in once again with Kate McKinnon as no-BS DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who throws in some hack comedy (Florida is where Cubans escape communism, Guatemalans escape the drug trade, and old people escape winter) to mark her territory. Ben Carson also drops in, with Jay Pharoah continuing to pull the faux-enraged shtick, which is still relevant. Overall, this routine of fools is “SNL’s” safest bet, though not its ceiling, for political yuks. B-

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SNL November 14, 2015 Recap: Elizabeth Banks/Disclosure

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SNL: Disclosure, Elizabeth Banks, Leslie Jones, Sam Smith, Lorde (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in November 2015.

“SNL” often responds to its most controversial outings in subsequent episodes, but the Donald Trump spectacle is nary mentioned at all a week later, save for a quick hit on Weekend Update. And this is for the best, because Elizabeth Banks shall not be overshadowed. She has been a deserving host for at least a decade, and in her debut, she puts on a showcase monologue, and then she fades into the ensemble for an episode that is all over the place. Meanwhile, musical guest Disclosure makes it a party by inviting their friends Lorde and Sam Smith.

In lieu of an opening sketch, “SNL” acknowledged the terrorist attack at Paris’ Bataclan Concert Hall with Cecily Strong stating a message of solidarity in both English and French.

Elizabeth Banks’ Monologue (BEST OF THE NIGHT) – “Catching the directing bug” is a simplistic premise, and musical monologues are overdone, but Elizabeth Banks uses the setup to show off her personality – the wisest direction to go when making your “SNL” hosting debut. The flourishes that she adds by taking the reins away from Don Roy King are just weird and edgy enough to start this episode off with some individuality. She is a lady in control, unafraid to demand diversity and make hacky tricks like green screen and star wipes work like gangbusters. B+

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SNL with Donald Trump Postscript

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There were several successful sketches on the latest episode of SNL (read my review here), but it is hard to embrace them, as they came at the expense of giving Donald Trump a platform. Considering that much of the episode played off of his personality and controversy, I am torn, as the good bits may have never even been pitched in the first place if he had not been there. Could the best moments have happened in any other episode? Here is a rundown of the top sketches, listed in order from most reliant to least reliant on Trump’s presence.

1. Weekend Update – Update was probably written independently of Trump’s direct influence, though he did figure in the material. That would have likely been the case anyway, as a matter of the political news cycle, but Trump actually being there probably did light a fire under Michael Che.
2. Toots – The fact that such a non-Top 40 band as Toots and the Maytals was the musical guest the last time Trump hosted was mostly a matter of bizarre randomness. Kenan appearing as Toots was not about Trump so much as it was about something that Trump happened to be present at. This bit could have been utilized in 2 weeks when Matthew McConaughey host if the Maytals had been on when he last hosted in 2003.
3. Drunk Uncle – Bobby Moynihan’s signature character still could have been introduced as “Trump’s #1 Fan” on any other episode.
4. Ex-Porn Stars – The low-rent co-opting of luxury in these sketches works insofar as the brand being advertised isn’t actually present, so Trump’s appearance actually didn’t really make sense.
5. Mr. Crocker – The head of Startraxxx Productions felt like a role designed for Kyle Mooney. It had a blowhard quality that fit Trump, but it needed someone weirder to really work.
6. Hotline Bling – The joke of awkward middle-aged men dancing alongside Drake worked without Trump showing up – he was just slotted in that so that he’d have something to do.

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