A Review by "HelloStuart," Amateur Critic and Mourning "King of the Hill" Fan
After ten live shows in eight weeks (seven regular broadcasts plus three prime-time specials), the much-hyped and somewhat grueling first phase of SNL's 34th season has drawn to a close. At times it was hard to tell where the show morphed from a sketch comedy program to a self-depreciating paid political announcement; though the last remnants of the show's soul might have been mortgaged for the sake of publicity, the ratings went through the roof and NBC made another mint. Hopefully, SNL will be a bit more low-key and not quite as fawning after the election is over.
This week's host is Ben Affleck, the affable actor-director that has hosted SNL with moderate success three times before. The musical guest is David Cook, the winner of the seventh season of "American Idol" and a burgeoning solo artist in his own right.
And now, the sketch-by-sketch analysis:
COLD OPENING: In the aftermath of last Wednesday's Barack Obama infomercial, John McCain (himself!) and Sarah Palin (TF) buy airtime on QVC because that was the only channel they can afford. This blurring of satire and reality works because Senator McCain can take a joke; much like the real Palin two weeks ago, he stayed true to his political platform but took a few jabs for good measure. The most self-serving jokes could be found in the products the GOP ticket was "obligated" to sell, like "Ayers fresheners" and knifes that slice though theoretical pork barrel spending; those jokes died quick deaths, but I'm sure McCain and his jewelry-model wife were grateful for the right-leaning levity. The "Palin 2012" t-shirts? Not so much.
MONOLOGUE: The man behind "Christmas with the Kranks" admits to a history of supporting losing Democratic candidates, than endorses McCain (wink, wink). At least Ben was more subtle than Josh Brolin…
"Jar Glove": Yep, it's that ad spoof from the season premiere, and it holds up quite nicely.
"The View": Ten years ago, ABC's estrogen-fueled chat-fest was a constant target for the SNL writers, but looking back those sketches haven't aged well, if only because now we're so accustomed to seeing the show's five hosts grabbing each other's throats. On that note, the first "View" sketch in nearly a decade is a sucker-punch for Elizabeth Hasselbeck (KW), the right-leaning pretty little mouthpiece that has become this generation's Debbie Matenopoulos. While Whoopi, Joy, and guest host Jennifer Aniston (KT, FA, CW) try to interview Alec Baldwin (Ben), Thin Lizzie spews off a bunch of Democratic operative conspiracies that she probably printed off spam e-mails, than whines when she can't get a word in edgewise. Chalk this up as another spot-on impression for Kristen, portraying the ex-reality star as the shrill, uninformed bible-thumper that she really is. Casey's Aniston was spot-on as well; too bad she only had three lines in the whole sketch.
"Countdown with Keith Olbermann": One more topical sketch? Sure, why not? Tonight's broadcast hits another early plateau with Affleck's mimicry of another partisan TV personality, the articulate but deeply paranoid MSNBC host. After ranting about allegedly bigoted comments by President Bush and Senator McCain, Keith throws a feeble talking head (FA) into a spur-of-the-moment act of character assassination, than raves about getting nixed by an upper-scale apartment board because they don't allow cats. You may argue that the sketch ran long, but Ben's Olbermann impression was something to savor, simultaneously pompous and breathless, even if he didn't get the voice quite right.
"Target Greatland": Tonight, the Target Lady (KW) is wooed by a skeevy UPS driver (Ben) while she performs her usual bargain-hunting antics. I enjoy the Target sketches because you seldom know what to expect; the character isn't so rigidly written that the same thing happens every time that she appears. For five minutes, the universe revolves around a flaky, minimum-wage cashier and the misfits of society that wander into her check-out lane. How can you hate that?
"The Staten Island Zoo": A rewrite of a ten-to-one sketch from two years ago, except the subject is fire-breathing, vampire giraffes and not horny, braggart sloths. Too bad people stopped watching those chintzy RatherGood.com clips five years ago; otherwise, this time-filler would've been regarded as a hip parody of a popular web site.
MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: "Light On" evokes Nickelback, but with a guitar solo that would put Chad Kroeger to shame.
WEEKEND UPDATE: In his second solo mission, Seth makes a few eleventh-hour election jokes but mostly takes a backseat to three pretty decent commentaries. Senator McCain turns up again (to a mixed reaction from the audience) and announces a change to his strategy for winning the White House. John "the reverse maverick" wants you to think he goes with the flow, but McCain "the sad grandpa" is an annoying also-ran in disguise. (Too bad Bob Dole already used that strategy.) The rest of Update was carried by two relatively safe audience favorites; the Kelly brothers (WF, FA) sang a nonsense song about proper voting procedures, while the always irascible Aunt Linda (KW) tore the Fall TV lineup a new one.
"Night School Musical": A group of middle-aged losers and dropouts sing and dance about their GED –and possibly their own personal redemption- in a spoof of the Disney movie franchise. Sometimes the joke felt too obvious, but the character development was a goldmine for dark comedy and blatant schadenfreude.
"Grady Wilson's Marriage Techniques": A middle-aged entrepreneur (KT) sells a videotape that promises will bolster your sexual prowess; his "advice" consists of him bouncing around in his underwear in the basement with a static camera catching all the action. I'm not used to seeing Kenan doing physical comedy, and though it's not exactly a secret talent, it sure beats another "Mrs. Hastings" sketch.
"Film Pitch": Two brothers (Ben, BH) with a strained creative partnership pitch a movie plot to two executives (JS, AS). Where one Zolesky is straightforward about his family-movie premise, the other has apparently walked out of what one suit calls "some half-remembered gay nightmare." Bill's catatonic scribe is probably the most original and grounded character we've seen in awhile; too bad the execution was flatter than a pancake.
MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: "Declaration" will appease fans of Lifehouse and Our Lady Peace, though David's ability to rock is hindered by the prefabrication of his sound.
"Bierhoff Brothers": Two hip German siblings (Ben, FA) sell an all-purpose –or should I say, no-nonsense- jacket that comes with a miniature rescue flag, pockets for hiding meat by-products, and can be converted into a tent. It's funny because the product actually sounds like something Germans actually do wear.
Tonight's show was a rare instance of a live broadcast without a truly bad sketch; there were two or three pretty good sketches, and there were moments in the show that were largely forgettable, but overall the show was well-rounded. Perhaps what was most amazing about tonight's broadcast was that Senator John McCain stood on the sidelines for most of the show, getting vilified in every other sketch, including the two segments he appeared in, and played along with a willing smile on his face. I had nearly forgotten what a fun host Ben Affleck can be, and I hope he becomes a five-timer. After what might've been the strongest episode yet of Season 34, SNL is back on the hot streak that began after the strike last year, and hopefully this good momentum can be sustained long after the election.
Sketches/Segments That Will Probably Be Removed in Repeats: "Staten Island Zoo," "Grady Wilson," "Declaration," and "Film Pitch."
In Two Weeks: Paul Rudd hosts with musical guest Beyonce.
Contact Stu at email@example.com. This review is dedicated in the memory of James C. Swiglo, 1956-2008.