Well, that was weird. Last week's episode was pretty dire and I attributed a lot of that to the safe choice of host in Amy Poehler stopping the SNL writers from doing anything too original. But this week was an improvement in a lot of ways, except for nearly every sketch that strongly featured host Bryan Cranston. That's not a slight to Cranston, who did his best, but I was disappointed to see such an original choice of host wasted on characters like "pervy gym coach" and "pervy game show host" and "shitty lounge singer."
The first time Jon Hamm hosted two years ago, it was a revelation because he was so funny. But we know that fellow AMC star Cranston is funny from Malcolm in the Middle and Seinfeld and so on. But SNL didn't seem to know how to exploit that manic energy in most sketches and had him in button-downed roles. And they didn't even do a Breaking Bad skit! Sure, it's a show with small viewership, but they did like three Mad Men sketches for Jon Hamm's first go-around.
The cold open was actually pretty funny, especially considering it was an Obama sketch. Fred Armisen mercifully had very little to do (his impression tries so hard to get the President's cadence right, he forgets to be interesting) and the gag of Rahm Emmanuel passing his Chief of Staff job to the queasy-looking Pete Rouse felt like an oldie but a goodie. I'm sure in real life Rouse is a consummate political operator but I have to admit I got the same impression of him that the SNL writers did when I read about him, since he's middle-aged, unmarried and lives with his cats.
Cranston's monologue played on the fact that he's more of an unknown than SNL's usual hosts (and I liked his line about New York still having "good old-fashioned crack" rather than crystal meth), with a barbershop quartet mistaking him for Bill Paxton. It's just too bad he didn't get to do anything to change that reputation here.
Case in point: after the monologue were two pretty good sketches. New girl Vanessa Bayer got a showcase for her dead-on Miley Cyrus impression (Cranston was fitfully amusing in the background as creepy Billy Ray) and new guy Paul Brittan did a great job as her guest star Johnny Depp (who is working with Tim Burton on "a haunting adaptation of Goodnight Moon"). Then there was the season's first "What's Up With That," a very tired bit that was enlivened by the stony, unamused face of Morgan Freeman next to the absolutely delighted-to-be-here "93-year-old sex machine" Ernest Borgnine.
I was getting kinda excited. We'd had a sketch that starred basically no original cast members and was funny (I'm particularly excited to see Brittan do more stuff) and they'd managed to get me to crack a smile at "What's Up With That." But then we were subjected to The Kristen Wiig routine where she's sexy and then she's gross. It was everything that sucks about SNL: it was interminably long, the jokes got lamer as the sketch went on rather than building up, Cranston got nothing to do (nobody could have made that closing line work) and Wiig doing a breathy Marilyn Monroe voice doesn't equal a character, nor is it funny.
That pattern continued for the rest of the show. The stuff Cranston wasn't in was good-to-great. I loved the digital short, which was packed with the kind of visual gags the show can't do anywhere else (the various ads Samberg gets on his iPhone, and then the multiple emails he starts getting from friends, the appearance of Helen Mirren in the Rescue Dogs trailer) and enjoyed Weekend Update for the most part. The highlight there was Samberg, who had a lot to do this week after mostly sitting the premiere out, as Cathy, shouting comic strip visual aids like "tiny hearts tiny hearts tiny hearts!" I especially liked the acknowledgement that they'd done the sketch a couple times before, both a nod to its slight unoriginality and its non-legendary status.
And the stuff Cranston got to star in? Okay, so apparently Kit Smartz was spoofing a real, very creepy-looking game show but Cranston didn't get to do enough with the character before Kenan Thompson charged him. Just look how much creepier the real dude is! Then he was onstage with Armisen as a shitty double act singing about sparkling apple juice. I don't know how many times SNL thinks it can do gags about shitty singers in fright wigs but they are never, ever funny. Cranston's was probably the kind of role Will Forte would be playing, and I don't mean that kindly. And I really have nothing to say about him punching Nasim Perdad repeatedly in the face. The sight gag was good the first time but that sketch was obviously just running out the clock.
Oh well. Kanye West, especially his second number, was the highlight of the whole thing. Why doesn't he just get to host too?
Billy Ray to Miley: "You are hi-larious! You're like a pretty little George Lopez!"
The only line I liked in the Wiig sketch was Cranston insisting, "She did the best she could in a weird situation!" about her shit-eating story.
Bobby Moynihan as Anthony Crispino, the overheard-news guy, wasn't bad. "This preacher down in Florida is gonna burn a bunch of Koreans!"
The two fake ads were so-so: Pepto-Bismol Ice was basically a one-laugh idea that they thankfully didn't drag out for very long, and the "Black Noise" thing did have the great "muffled Tyler Perry sitcoms" sound effect.
Oh, and what was up with those creepy bumper photos of Cranston and West that MOVED? To quote Cathy, ack!