Saturday Night Live: "Justin Timberlake/Lady Gaga"
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Saturday Night Live: "Justin Timberlake/Lady Gaga"

As I step in for David to cover this week’s finale, I figure I should say up front that I do not envy him this particular gig.

I wrote about Saturday Night Live elsewhere last season, and I found the experience very strange when compared to covering other series. Without any sort of clear arc to follow (as we saw in 2008, the last time the show was close to being culturally relevant outside of a few viral success stories), it’s just an uneven set of comedy sketches that has more or less the same problems week in and week out.

Normally, when reviewing a show, it’s nice to be able to chart its progress, to look at how it has evolved, based on new storylines or new characters. SNL doesn’t have new storylines, instead relying heavily on recurring sketches that are consistently being run into the ground, and charting the progress of new cast members only draws attention to the show’s continued reliance on the same tired performers/sketches and the marginalization of most everyone else (thus relegating Jay Pharoah to the sidelines, despite some strong sketches early in the year, although more on that later). The second you start to think about Saturday Night Live as a collective season (which, for me, is embedded in the general review process), you find yourself wondering why you’re spending 90 minutes of your week watching it; in other words, covering the show made enjoying the show considerably more difficult.

However, dropping in on this episode had everything that a reviewer could want: a popular and charismatic host, a buzz-worthy musical guest, and the potential that the season finale might be a good excuse for Saturday Night Live to pull off something truly spectacular. This is also the time of year where we’re supposed to start thinking about which of this year’s featured players might get updated to the main cast or dumped entirely, the time when the show can’t help but put the entire season into perspective. This is no more clear than when Seth Meyers signs off of “Weekend Update” by walking off into the night with Stefon—to visit a beach covered in jellyfish where a sunburned man braids your hair—in an ode to Casablanca: It’s the show acknowledging that Stefon was the closest thing they had to a breakout figure this year, whilst ignoring the fact that nothing else came even half as close.

Outside of that single moment, though, the finale does not attempt to provide any sort of overview of the season as a whole. Instead, it goes out on spectacle and with a renewed focus on making both the host and the musical guest integral parts of the episode. In a way, it’s remarkably effective: Considering how often the hosts are barely used on this show and how rarely musical guests take part in sketches, seeing Timberlake in every sketch but the cold open and seeing Gaga pop up thrice outside of her two performances made an impact.

In the case of Timberlake, he’s done this often enough that he has his own recurring sketches, his own series of Digital Shorts, and his own tropes that can be played off of in his monologue. There’s a fine line between recurring and repetitive, and to be honest, I think we’re reaching it: “3-Way (The Golden Rule)” was considerably less clever than either “Motherlover” or “Dick in a Box,” while “Liquorville” and “Barry Gibb Talk Show” felt like the show ticking off boxes to meet audience expectations.

Of course, I was one of those audience members and got legitimately excited at the prospect of “Barry Gibb Talk Show” (which was foreshadowed on Jimmy Fallon’s Twitter account earlier in the show) and sang along to the “Crazy Cool Medallions” line like a crazy person. And while it’s the same skit over and over again, “Liquorville” made me laugh, and “3-Way” had its moments, even if it didn't live up to the originals.

Were my responses to these sketches equal to what they were when they first premiered? No. However, my responses were still dominated by a pleasant sort of nostalgia, a fond memory of previous appearances that is awakened by both the recurring sketches and the consistent enthusiasm with which Timberlake attacks this material. Dressing him up in a mascot costume is just as repetitive as every other recurring SNL sketch that is starting to grate on my nerves, but his sheer enthusiasm wins the day. It’s the same reason that “What’s Up With That,” a skit that should have been dead to me by now, remains a highlight of each episode in which it appears. While we are reaching the point where Timberlake’s appearances are becoming too predictable, there’s still something thrilling about a host with his own recurring sketches. It’s something that you know will only appear once a season at most and something that might disappear for two years or more. They’re sketches that you won’t see without Timberlake and, thus, sketches that make this episode stand out among the rest of the season.

Mind you, it also creates high expectations. Yes, as I note above, I do think “3-Way” proves the rule of diminishing returns; it was much more of a step down from “Motherlover” than “Motherlover” was a step down from “Dick in a Box.” The video just didn’t feel as involved, seeming as repetitive as the song itself and lacking the novelty of “Dick in a Box” and the “Susan Sarandon and Patricia Clarkson committing entirely” factor of “Motherlover” (although the cameo was appreciated).

The bigger problem is that it makes those sketches that don’t have the same goodwill feel that much more lazy. “Secret Word” has never been as deflating as it was here, both because it was the one sketch that seemed solely devoted to Kristen Wiig’s mugging and because it was one of the sketches where Timberlake seemed “plugged in” to a pre-existing concept with no sense of his own identity (the other being “Herb Welch,” who needs to actually die as soon as possible). Were there other sketches that didn’t work? Absolutely—the Strauss-Kahn cold open was a one-joke wonder and a false stab at topicality in an episode that largely avoided it, and the Love Tunnel sketch (which I had not seen in its previous incarnation) was somehow both too weird and not weird enough. But it’s the sketches that seemed to be wasting Timberlake that stood out most, reminding us that the novelty of Timberlake’s recurring bits is not present during most episodes.

The one sketch that managed to bring the two together was the spin on “What’s That Name?” an example of a preexisting skit being turned on its ear (not unlike “What’s Up With That” being upended by Lindsey Buckingham actually appearing last week), based on the people involved. The joke surrounding the name of the most inconspicuous member of *NSYNC wasn’t quite comic genius, but it was a clever way of taking an existing structure and merging it with the host’s personal history. It also helped that it was interactive, creating a storm on Twitter as people admitted to being similarly unable to pull “Chris Kirkpatrick” out of their memories and likely prompting a flood of Google searches as well. It felt like more than just slotting Timberlake into the formula, and instead took advantage of his presence in order to make us laugh (which is something too complicated for the show to figure out sometimes).

The episode was also helped by the fact that they used a similar principle with the musical guest, with Lady Gaga stepping up to take part in multiple skits and acquitting herself quite well in the process. Her roles also felt like parts that distinctly played off of her public persona: While the appearance in “3-Way” was a token cameo, there’s something very fitting about putting her in a mascot costume in “Liquorville” and something very antithetical (and very funny) about having pop music’s new “diva” prove to be an attentive and caring figure in “What’s That Name?” This suggestion might be crazy, and it could easily be a complete failure, but I would argue there’s evidence here to suggest that she could be given a chance to host in the future. I don’t think she’s a brilliant comic actress by any accounts, and she was never really out of her comfort zone, but she seems like she could make it work.

It would also be a smart move given the fact that her musical performances here seemed to suggest that she’s also suffering from a case of diminishing returns. Not only are the songs themselves a step down from the first one-and-a-half albums (at least in my opinion), but something about the performances just doesn’t seem daring anymore. I remember back when she appeared in 2009, standing on the stage in a ridiculous costume made of orbiting rings and then sitting down at the piano to almost casually work through a medley of songs with just her, her piano, and her ridiculous orbiting rings costume. The juxtaposition of the weirdness with the traditional SNL stage made it seem that much more intriguing, painting her as someone who just sort of takes control and disrupts the status quo.

Now, aided by the recent switch to allowing artists to wall in the train station if they so desire, it feels like a production in ways it didn’t before. On the one hand, it’s inevitable: The more she tries to shock America, the less shocking it’s going to be, as it’s going to seem more and more artificial with each new stunt. The egg (seriously labeled Beluga Gagaviar) she emerged from at the start of “Born This Way” has become a running joke more than a meaningful representation of anything in particular, and her glitter birth is more likely to prompt rolled eyes than raised eyebrows. She’s strongest, at least for me, when she lets down some of that performance and seems more human; accordingly, the brief piano take on “The Edge of Glory” was the highlight, and her appearance in the various sketches helped to show a self-aware, playful figure beneath the crazy of it all. She’d be smart to show that off more often, which is part of why I think hosting the show and branching out might be a smart choice for her pop cultural longevity in general (as it proved for Timberlake, who is pretty much just an actor at this point and was technically promoting two separate projects here).

Of course, given that this is the finale of a show with a significant standing cast, we can’t simply focus on Timberlake and Gaga—yes, they were more central to the episode than most hosts and musical guests, but they won’t be there next year as the show comes out of what has been a pretty listless season creatively. While Bill Hader has slowly worked his way into a starring role (albeit often typecast as a game show host, given that he played one twice in one episode here) and Kristen Wiig remains the female lead (despite a reduced workload late in the season due to Bridesmaids press commitments), the rest of the cast is in an interesting (in its uninteresting-ness) space which should make for a lively offseason.

Coming into the season, Jay Pharoah seemed like the great hope: his impressions alone seemed like they would make him a truly “featured” featured player, and his Denzel Washington was strong enough to recur. And yet he seemed to disappear at some point in the season and appeared only once tonight. I don’t know how true this might be, but I think that appearance shed some light on the reasons for his marginalization, given that he made Kenan Thompson look like a cue card-reading savant. He just doesn’t seem to have acclimated well to performing live outside of the context of his impressions, which might well lead to a parting of ways if he is unable to evolve beyond that basic function.

The rest of the featured players seem to have acclimated more successfully, but I feel like they’re going to be looking for new blood. Whether this means they have to choose between Killam/Brittain (Killam seems the safe bet) and Bayer/Pedrad (I could see them keeping both here) is of course unknown, but the fact that multiple cast members appeared either once or not at all during tonight’s finale would indicate that the cast is more likely to be trimmed than not. There’s probably also some full-on cast members in danger, so we’ll see what kind of shakeup Lorne Michaels approves during the offseason.

On the whole, I’d say that this was the most solidly enjoyable episode of the show this season, but that doesn’t exactly suggest that the show will be strong going into next season, given how much of that was dependent on the host/musical guest combination. Sure, “The Golden Rule” has gone viral by the time you’re reading this, and Lady Gaga’s glitter birth will surely draw a few headlines here or there, but what about the parts of the show that don’t change every week? Is there still a foundation for Saturday Night Live to rely on, or is it just a scattered collection of talented performers who have either been overexposed or unfairly marginalized, propped up by a few charming hosts, a couple of buzz-worthy musical guests, and the one or two YouTube/Hulu clips a season that ensure the show (if not its performers) will remain part of our cultural consciousness? And if that’s all it is, is that even a problem? Has it ever been more than that, or has history simply remembered certain eras as more significant, based on that lovely temptress known as nostalgia?

I don't have the answers, nor am I willing to write the show off entirely. NPR's Linda Holmes noted on Twitter that it's de rigueur to write thinkpieces on the irrelevance of SNL, and she also notes that it's been de rigueur for almost a decade. Rather than criticizing SNL relative to other programming, I personally think it's most valuable to consider SNL in and of itself, focusing on which skits/performers/tropes/trends are holding it back from achieving the heights that it may or may not have hit in the past. A finale like this one demonstrates that the SNL formula, when it is working well, can deliver some fairly memorable entertainment.

Now the trick is managing this more than twice a year.

Stray observations:

  • I am aware that this review could well be confirming my growing reputation for sucking the fun out of simple pleasures, but I honestly enjoyed this particular episode a fair deal.
  • Apparently, there was a nip slip in "Liquorville" for Gaga, but I have to admit that I didn't notice it, and this would have been one of those "How come you didn't talk about the nipple?!" situations had it not been for the afternoon posting. But honestly, are people that desperate to see more of her body? I feel like I've seen 99 percent of it at this point, and I haven't even been trying.
  • I thought the cold open was pretty flat, but “Bitch, you know I got no love for Portugal” made me laugh.
  • I wonder if they actually tried to get Chris Kirkpatrick to appear—to me, that would have made the joke that much more effective, but there may have been issues with scheduling (although what could he be doing that was more important?), some form of grudge, or just a desire to cut down on the guest stars in an already guest star-laden show. Anyone else more up on the current status of Timberlake's relationship with the rest of the group?
  • Speaking of which, Bradley Cooper was quite effective “In the Cage”—a bit like that one is all about rhythms, and he kept things quite natural and light-hearted without outright breaking “character.” That being said, The Hangover Part II really is a mouthful to have to say in its entirety, isn’t it? That “Part” just gets in the way.
  • I still think doing “Really??!!?? with Seth and Amy” with just Seth is wrong.
  • Of the various song parodies in “Liquorville,” I think “Too Much Merlot” to the tune of “Low” was the highlight for me.
  • Timberlake’s monologue was solidly meta and well performed, but I think my favorite part was the guy in the balcony raising the roof behind him as the camera angle changed.
  • I enjoy Jimmy Fallon a great deal and have been watching his show more often as of late, so it’s interesting to see him back in the context of SNL, given the interesting ways that his time on SNL has influenced Late Night (“Let Us Play With Your Look” might as well be an SNL sketch, really).

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