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 November 7, 2015 Recap: Donald Trump/Sia

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SNL: Sia, Kate McKinnon (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

It is hard to recommend this episode. Some of it was well-written, but Trump’s presence soured just about everything.

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in November 2015.

Donald Trump might be a bigot, or he might just be shamelessly aping the rhetoric of bigots to win over their support. Which is worse? Either way, one would assume he is a terrible fit to host a comedy show that many believe has the responsibility of holding the powerful accountable. Thus, the petitions to reverse the Trump booking or calls to disrupt the episode have made for one of the most controversial episodes in decades before it has even aired. In a way, Trump’s appearance actually turning out to be a funny episode would be troublesome, because of the fear that it could legitimize a rather objectionable person. Politics (or cynically misshapen facsimile of politics) aside, Trump is also a terrible actor. That issue can be overcome with strong writing, which this episode features plenty of, but it is hard to fully embrace it when Trump’s mere presence is so hard to digest.

Democratic Candidates Forum – The latest not-really-a-debate in the 2016 election cycle is used as fodder for a not-really-a-fully-formed-sketch. While it lacks in the inspired premise department, it does allow Kate McKinnon and Larry David plenty of room to mess around with their already beloved Hillary and Bernie impressions. They both find new notes in their expected beats. This is not an all-time high, but there is plenty left worth exploring in these roles. Structurally, good on this sketch for keeping up with the gag of uncomfortable close-ups of black people. B

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SNL October 17, 2015 Recap: Tracy Morgan/Demi Lovato

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SNL: Demi Lovato, Tracy Morgan, Kenan Thompson (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in October 2015.

A little over a year after emerging from a terrible car accident that nearly killed him, Tracy Morgan called up his “co-Obi-Wan Kenobi” Lorne Michaels (whom he loves like his daddy) to let him know that he wanted to come home as soon as he got on his feet. There was legitimate concern that he would have trouble making it through the grind of the whole 90 minutes, or if he could even walk on his own. He acknowledges in his monologue that his mental capacity may not be at 100%, but the truth is, it never has been. This is perhaps the biggest and most successful comeback story in “SNL” history, as the returns of Tracy’s most beloved characters, the show really hitting its stride with its election cycle material, and gratifying trips into the bizarre make for the best episode of the season thus far.

Democratic Presidential Debate – Seven years ago, an emergent political figure bore a striking resemblance to an “SNL” cast member. Tina Fey was no longer on the show, but it still felt inevitable that she would play Sarah Palin. This cycle’s doppelganger did not promise quite the same certainty, as Bernie Sanders’ “SNL” alum twin has a much more contentious history with the show. But sometimes, you just gotta focus on the comedy, with Larry David’s excellent cameo as the Vermont senator perhaps unwittingly committing him to at least a year’s worth of guest appearances. The shoe certainly fits, as Bernie’s propensity to spout percentages and esoteric facts sounds a lot like dialogue from “Seinfeld” or “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Elsewhere, Kate McKinnon continues her superstar turn as Hillary, with her debate version relating to millenials with accuracy but also insanity. And those other guys are a mix of barely present, just happy to be there, and (Alec Baldwin-portrayed) delusional. A-

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