Sometimes SNL can be its own worst enemy when it comes to momentum. This week’s episode had some funny moments, but they were sandwiched between some truly dire material, with host Christina Applegate rarely getting a chance to shine. The whole episode just never got off the ground for me, although it finally debuted a political sketch that had some real energy to it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the scene did not feature an Obama impression, as it spoofed this week’s vice presidential debate.
The sketch had the vibe of the best Sarah Palin sketches from 2008—it stuck to the format of the debate closely, but then let its performers have fun with the environment. Spoofing Palin was much more based on one-liners, since she was such a one-liner politician, so the Biden-Ryan debate had less laugh-out-loud moments, but Jason Sudeikis was such a confident, ridiculous Biden, and Taran Killam so perfectly creepy as Ryan, it just didn’t matter. Even Kate McKinnon’s Martha Raddatz had a couple great moments (especially her sharp left turn into a personal question about abortion). The whole thing was almost ruined by the appearance of Usain Bolt, which felt like too stale a reference (would have worked in the first week back, maybe), but it felt like a strong start, especially since the political cold opens are usually the opposite of strong.
But then I wasn’t too thrilled with Applegate’s monologue, as much as I enjoy her comedic presence. I’ll admit I’m biased against the opening musical number, but especially one with as vague and silly a concept as this one (she likes the weeks of fall before any holidays have started). Sure, the knock-off Muppets were kind of a cute reveal, and Sudeikis’ Dane Cook impression (their version of the Swedish Chef) killed, but I don’t think this was an idea worth running with.
Then my heart really sank when The Californians arrived. Here’s a sketch that was funny once, tolerable in its second appearance, and is an absolute bore at this point. Yeah, Bill Hader makes a funny face, and it’s obviously a sketch that tickles the cast, but there’s nowhere to go with it at this point. Since every character is already ridiculous, you can’t add a new one who really raises the stakes—it’s just the same thing over and over, and since it’s always a loooong sketch that doesn’t build to anything already, it is a bummer to watch. Also, I think this is one that should have been retired with the departure of Kristen Wiig. She was always the best at it.
Then we had a skit with a funny concept—a “Tech Talk” show where snarky iPhone bloggers are faced with the Chinese factory workers who make the product they like to nitpick. But everyone’s Asian accents were immediately uncomfortable, and despite a few good lines—Fred Armisen at one point asks “Let’s see, what does America make. Does diabetes count as a product?”—the concept never got anywhere. There was a laugh when the concept of the sketch was revealed, but that was the last big joke, and there were still four minutes to go.
All of these sketchers were broken up by genuinely funny video shorts. The Gillette ad that aped the existing commercial to a T—just adding Jerry Sandusky into the mix without any further comment—was inspired and creepy in just the right way (tough subject to mock, but every Sandusky joke they’ve tried this year has landed). The spoof of Taken 2 and The Expendables 2 was terrific, filled with impressions you’d figure they’d nail (Killam’s Liam Neeson was perfect) and ones you didn’t see coming (Bobby Moynihan’s Steven Seagal needs to show up somewhere else).
But every time the action returned to the studio, things slowed down again. Weekend Update only had two panelists, Nasim Pedrad’s Arianna Huffington and the return of Kenan Thompson’s French Def Jam comic Jean K Jean (who is amusing, but always outstays his welcome a little bit). Pedrad’s Huffington is a solid impression, and her piece about the abortion debate had some genuinely on-target lines, but the whole thing was torpedoed for me by just how annoying I find that Arianna Huffington voice. Not that Pedrad isn’t getting it right, but anything that requires her to speak at length quickly begins to grate for me.
We wrapped up with three sketches that were a little more consistent, but two of them felt half-finished. I very much enjoyed The Aegean Sea even though I can’t believe it got on the air. A spoof of the Odyssey featuring unfashionable lady-sung hits of the 1990s? This felt like a weird, episode-ending sketch, but it came right after Update, which wasn’t too surprising considering the sketches that followed really felt half-finished. But Sudeikis (who was the night’s MVP, in my opinion) really made the whole thing work with his manic energy.
The return of Booker T. Washington High and Jay Pharoah’s phlegmatic principal didn’t get off the ground, although it did feature the detail that two students had been expelled for “fornicating inside a Mufasa costume,” which understandably made Pharoah break. Applegate also did her best work of the night as the librarian here, but that speaks more to how little she was used overall. Her biggest showcase was the final sketch, which felt like a holdover from the Kristen Wiig era (of course, if Wiig was playing this exuberant jazz teacher, it probably would have led off the night).
A month into SNL’s latest season and I can’t believe the Seth Macfarlane episode remains my favorite, but we live in a crazy world. Now, I don’t know if it’s so crazy to think that Bruno Mars (ugh) as host and musical guest will actually do a good job. Somehow I doubt it. But weirder things have happened.
- Joe Biden’s hatred of his hometown resurfaces. “You know that show The Walking Dead? It would make a good tourism ad for Scranton.”
- I loved Pedrad’s “traditional sarcastic dance.”
- “I have a very particular set of skills. Like fighting and growling. And I speak un poco Spanish.”
- Denzel Washington knows how to shoot the breeze. “Are you a shark or a turtle? It’s a simple question, are you a porpoise or a narwhal!”
- Huffington has Paul Ryan dead to rights. “If you’ve seen any Lifetime movie, you just know he’s gonna kill you.”
- Thompson also had a good night. I liked his appearance at the high school. “This white lady dressed up like a slutty Jedi for you!”