Coming as it did at the end of a day that was supposed to be the world’s last, the season finale of Saturday Night Live felt particularly well-timed, and delivered precisely what the show's name promises: something totally alive. We were in the capable hands of returning host extraordinaire Justin Timberlake -- very relaxed and very “on” -- and musical guest Lady Gaga, who, not surprisingly, revealed herself to be every bit the ham.
The show wasn’t taking any chances, with all but one sketch having been mounted before. That one original sketch was risky, ceding the cold open duties to the inspired pairing of Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah. They played Rikers Island inmates who flanked Dominique Strauss-Kahn (a mute Taran Killam), then subverted expectations by knowing just about everything there is to know about European economics. The premise may not have been particularly clever, maybe even racist, but I loved Pharoah and Thompson in this sketch. Too bad they chose to end on a prison rape joke.
Timberlake took the stage for the opening monologue, and things felt extraordinarily right. Here’s what I kept thinking about watching him command that crowd: The guy is the reincarnation of Frank Sinatra. That might be heresy to Chairman of the Board fans, but I think the comparison is totally apt. In fact, I’d be damned if JT isn’t patterning his career after Sinatra’s -- hence the strong push towards an acting career. The monologue, which was a song about not singing on the show, was a tour-de-force despite Timberlake barely breaking a sweat. (Contrast that to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “Make ‘em Laugh” from last season, in which the Inception star was literally bouncing off the walls. Exhausting.)
Any pleasures derived from the return of that nameless R&B; duo -- the ones who broke big big with a song about packaging one’s package--were mostly nostalgic. Their latest single, which featured the boys as New Jack Swingers and Lady Gaga as their third, wasn’t quite as funny as their previous songs. Still, “3-Way: The Golden Rule,” with its ridiculous color-blocked overalls and its Alizé references, was impossible to resist.
The return of Timberlake’s “bring it on down” costumed street wrangler immediately felt like well-tread territory, even with newly minted movie star Kristen Wiig playing “straight teabag” to his BevMo-pimping beer bottle. This sketch didn’t really work for me, as it just seemed to devolve into a bunch of singing and mugging. Kudos to the costumer who put Gaga in that wine goddess outfit, though. Her pair of bulbous glasses and cork headpiece were pure, boozy imagination (and something I could see her wearing to an awards show).
One of the night’s strongest sketches was “What’s That Name?” which trotted out a Timberlake groupie (Abby Elliott, who's grown tremendously this season) and then pineapple-headed former bandmate, Chris Kirkpatrick -- both of whose names he couldn’t recall. Gaga, meanwhile, earned a big laugh when she instantly identified some random schlub (Fred Armisen) who hangs out at her stage door -- but then squandered the good will by going way too big for the rest of the sketch. Still, with Hader on fire as the host and Timberlake nailing every blank, mortified look, this one was a winner.
The final sketch of the night reunited Timberlake with Jimmy Fallon for the “Barry Gibb Talk Show.” Timberlake plays Robin Gibb, the mostly mute sidekick to Fallon’s temperamental, falsetto-prone Barry, and as such robbed the host of a strong closer. Still, it was nice to see the boys back, if only to hear Fallon say, “We suckled at the same teet,” over and over again.
We were treated to a longer, season-ending round of goodbyes, replete with bonus angles and a smiley Bradley Cooper (and not a single member of Chris Brown’s 800-person entourage, which is always nice). After Pharoah’s strong opener, I’m feeling more optimistic that my favorite underdog will be asked back next year. Things are not looking too good for Paul Brittain, though, whose only sustained screen time this week was here, applauding under the credit roll. He seems the lowest-hanging of the featured player fruit. Don’t sweat it, Paul. If Casey Wilson taught us anything, it’s that sometimes life really does provide Happy Endings, after all.