A Review by "HelloStuart," Amateur Critic and Handsome Quasi-Journalist
It looks like we dodged a bullet… for now. A work stoppage by the Writers' Guild of America, the first such sweeping strike since 1988, hasn't quite gone into effect yet but at least it didn't cancel tonight's broadcast. I was a wee lad during the last strike, but I know that its aftershock lingered for a long time; after all, seven live broadcasts were cancelled in Year 6, two were scratched in Year 10, and another seven were wiped out in Year 13. If this is the last new SNL we'll see for several months, we may as well savor it.
This week's host is Brian Williams, the respected network news anchor, and as it seems a closeted comedy buff. It may seem like an odd choice, but this isn't his first foray into comedy, much less his first appearance on SNL. Some of you may recall his deliciously awkward stare-down with Seth Meyers in last year's season premiere, or the dry, charming wit that he exuded in several interviews around the time that he replaced Tom Brokaw three years ago. Either way, I'm waiting to see how this develops; this could be a diamond in the rough, or it could just as unfortunate and forgettable as the first three episodes of this season.
The musical guest is Leslie Feist, the Canadian singer-songwriter behind the cute, stuck-in-your-head crossover hit "1-2-3-4." I don't really have much to say about her, except that I really enjoyed her album "The Reminder" the one time I listened to it.
And now, the sketch-by-sketch analysis:
COLD OPENING: A Halloween party at the Clintons' (DH, AP) house brings out all their major opponents, including Gov. Bill Richardson (Horatio Sanz), noted "Milk Duds" collector Mike Gravel (FA) and Sen. Barack Obama as himself. This was more of a fawning who's-who list than a real sketch, but I'll admit that dressing Slick Willie as that pick-up artist guy was pretty clever.
MONOLOGUE: Brian tries to break away from his reputation as a stiff, serious newsman, but it proves to be easier said than done. Oh well, points for trying.
"Maybelline for Men": Dudes in women's makeup. Need I say more?
"Bronx Beat": This time around, Betty and Jodi (AP, MR) fawn over a mustachioed firefighter Paul Dooley (Brian) while complaining about Halloween costumes and masturbating husbands. Ultimately, Jodi's irritable bowels force the hosts to bow out early, leaving a skittish Paulie to promote Fire Safety Week by himself.
"Reilly's Way": The three stars of "the best high school drama in the history of The CW" find the taping of their final episode marred by the neurotic ramblings of their much older co-star (Brian). If this was Brian's purest attempt at bona-fide acting in the show, then he got a passing grade in the most literal sense. His pathetic attempts at maintaining his post-show career (and constant allusions to "Quantum Leap") were delightfully winsome.
"Publisher's Clearinghouse": This year's winner (Brian) doesn't seem terribly enthusiastic about winning $15 million, despite the representative's (KW) sunny attempts at coaching him. Brian's blatant cue-card reading was almost justified by his capable deadpan delivery, but I couldn't help but feel that this sketch ran longer than it should have.
DIGITAL SHORT: "A Day in the Life of Brian Williams" is just that, an exercise in constant ego-stroking and maintaining his wooden demeanor. This was may more predictable than it could've been, right down to the "I love you" voicemail.
MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: Surprise, surprise: she performed "1-2-3-4."
WEEKEND UPDATE: The Update desk has been awfully underwhelming so far this season, but tonight was a pleasant change in direction. Not only was the return of Barbara Birmingham (KT) bearable, but I actually chuckled a few times. Seth brought out his "real" self in an amusing ad-lib, as Amy fiddled with his mussed tie. However, the real highlight was a commentary by studio exec Roger A. Travanti (FA), who provided a unique and unabashed point of view on the pending WGA strike by admitting that he can't afford to lose his meager $20 million salary and all its perks.
"Larry King Live": A chat with JK Rowling (AP) results in the showing of several cutting-room floor clips that emphasize Dumbledore's (BH) status as a spurned gay lover. The preceding clips demonstrate what few gay stereotypes SNL has never touched upon, and though they may not be as blatantly sexual as past alternative-lifestyle sketches, it still feels tired and banal.
"iPhone": A guy (FA) brags gleefully about his limber French Canadian mistress in a spoof of those ubiquitous man-on-the-street ads. So funny, I didn't even feel any sympathy towards the jerk's wife.
"Before the Debate": Last Tuesday, Brian Williams apparently told the other Democratic presidential candidates that the media wants Hillary on the ballot, and her opponents made an abortive attempt to thwart her candidacy at any cost. Even though he's been removed from the show by 18 months, I had forgotten that Horatio was a passable straight man (he played Governor Richardson again), but my short-term memory was clear enough to recall Fred's lunatic Mike Gravel impression. By the way, did anyone else find it odd that two different actors (Hader and DH) played Chris Dodd tonight?
MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: Guitar-strumming and piano-banging dominates the album cut "I Feel It All."
"Dunham & Kirk": A quintet of merry minstrels (FA, WF, MR, AS, KW) fail to come up with a satisfactory new theme song for the NBC Nightly News, but Brian's spy movie-themed intro proved to be a great be-all end-all. After all, that is how he rolls.
Following the Bon Jovi mess, SNL came back rip-roaring for the fourth episode of the season. Fred Armisen was a one-man wrecking crew; not only was he the dominant sketch presence of the night, but he was also the funniest. His two Mike Gravel impressions and hilarious commentary on Weekend Update are more than enough to remind anyone of what an underestimated comedic actor he can be. On top of that, the writers put up their best overall effort since last season; they even found a way to make the usually obnoxious Horatio Sanz look tolerable. It almost makes me wish they were threatening to strike every week. Brian Williams spent most of the evening reading off cue cards and trying mightily to emit some form of emotion, but unlike past line-flubbers like Lance Armstrong and Annette Bening it was clear that he was having a lot of fun. As expected, Leslie Feist was a pleasant distraction.
Sketches/Segments That Will Probably Be Removed in the 60-Minute Edit: "Maybelline for Men," "Larry King Live," Feist's second performance, and "Dunham & Kirk."
Next Week: Barring a miracle or two, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnston hosts for the third time, with musical guest/tabloid caricature Amy Winehouse.
Feel free to write "HelloStuart" at firstname.lastname@example.org. During the strike, Stu will be spending his time at beautiful Illinois State University, where he'll be forcing himself to write several ten-page essays while trying to hold back the symptoms of senioritis, and than waste his time at TV.com to avoid the inevitable responsibilities that will probably consume him for the rest of his life.