A Review by "HelloStuart," Amateur Critic and Winner of the 2012 Fiesta Bowl
In the past 12 years, I have not missed a single broadcast of SNL. If I wasn't home, I'd record it either on VHS or DVR. In the eyes of my friends and peers at TV.com, my fanship of the show defines me whether I like it or not. So imagine my astonishment when our DVR failed to record the show last Saturday. I was irked at first, but I took solace knowing that I could watch the show on Hulu, a novelty that didn't exist in 1999. One sketch didn't make the Hulu cut for copyright reasons, so I fished around for that segment on YouTube just before it was inevitably blocked. In spite of all these obstacles I was able to write my usual midseason recap, though writing this obviously took much longer than planned.
There is reason to be wary when an athlete hosts; it goes without saying that their willingness to leap outside of their element is normally a doomed venture, and SNL has a history of dragging the likes of Lance Armstrong and Michael Phelps into Studio 8H to see if they're self-deprecating. One of the rare survivors of this exercise is NBA Hall of Famer/TV analyst Charles Barkley, who is making his third (!) appearance as host tonight. The musical guest is Kelly Clarkson, the winner of the inaugural season of American Idol ten years ago (also !) that has transcended into a "safe," reliable pop star.
Without further delay, here is the sketch-by-sketch analysis:
COLD OPENING: As much as I loathe Rick Santorum, he makes for good satire fodder. In the wake of the Iowa caucus deadlock, the GOP front-runner du jour (AS) acknowledges avoiding "Mormon trickery" in his virtual tie with Mitt Romney and exaggerates his grass roots, Christian conservative agenda. Oh yes, and the obligatory gay slur. It bothers me how the topical humor on SNL tends to pull punches, especially an easy target like the clearly unelectable Santorum; I would've loved to have seen more scathing caricature and less speechifying.
MONOLOGUE: While acknowledging his recent weight loss, the former Round Mound of Rebound takes swipes at Muggsy Bouges, Scottie Pippen, and his old nemesis Michael Jordan. If your idea of a monologue is monkeying a Comedy Central roast, I won't get in your way.
"Chantix": A medication that helps cut down on smoking has a long, scary disclaimer that peeves an otherwise unassuming couple (KW, BH). Kristen has done wacky faces a gazillion times over the past 6 years, yet it can still be delightful under the right circumstances.
"Inside The NBA": A mild exaggeration of the usual TNT hoops coverage, with Barkley (KT) calling out newbie Shaquille O'Neal (Charles) of mumbling, lacking energy, and not adding anything to the discussion. The obligatory TV show parody of the night was fine enough, though non-sports fans would've been totally baffled by this.
"White People Problems": Tonight on Investigation Discovery (a real cable channel, believe it or not), Sir Charles and others shake their heads at the concerns of socially upward Caucasians. On a show where black cast members very seldom unite and take their share of the spotlight, this was a rarity and a delight; what could've been a transparent parody of a Twitter meme became a sharp "post-racist" pasquinade.
"ESPN Bowl Madness": The increasingly absurd number of meaningless bowl games --and it's equally preposterous reliance on disparate and obscure sponsors-- gets the parody treatment in this ad spoof voiced by Andy.
"Joann's Announcement": An assuming woman (Charles) announces that she's gay to her astonished friends. The intent of the sketch was to find comedy within the drama, or watching an NBA legend wander around in drag if you're not into subtext. What bothered me however was the stilted dialogue, which was more likely to evoke "The Room" than Douglas Sirk.
"Charles Barkley Postgame Translator": TNT's brashest commentator "translates" the various non-answers that coaches and players spew out in post-game interviews and other sit-down conversations. Unlike the one earlier sports-centric sketch, this has a more universal appeal, and it benefits from Chuck basically being himself.
MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: Not to be too candid but I have nothing but love for big girls, and if Kelly Clarkson wants to look like Texas' answer to Adele, so be it. Her current single "Stronger" follows in the footsteps of Demi Lovato, Katy Perry and others in paint-by-numbers female empowerment via high-note anthem.
WEEKEND UPDATE: Seth Meyers is still as steady as he goes as anchor, so I'll save my analysis for the guest commentaries. The swan song for Kristen's Michelle Bachmann impression was not unlike Santorum earlier overly safe, with a physical gag about blinking that grew more labored as it went on. Nicholas Fehn (FA) drops by for the first time in about two years, and rest assured he still can't get his point across. The highlight of tonight's Update, however was the return of Drunk Uncle (BM), a clueless and prejudiced wreck of an old man that first appeared about a month ago. As the world keep turning Drunk Uncle hides in his liquored-up shell, fanning the flames of his suppressed hostility.
"Lord Wyndemere": Foppish Cecil (PB) and his yearning for candy interrupt a football party, though the 16th-century fop and his lute player Turlington (BH) don't seem to bother red-blooded Greg (JS). The sketch seems to have one joke that exhausts itself, but the selling point for me is the fractured relationship between Greg and his long-suffering son Steven (AS). I'm curious to see how this study in slow burn plays out in the future.
"The 17th Annual Adult Video Awards": Ron Jeremy (BM) and "ingnue" Crystal Butt (AE) introduce an "In Memorium" montage that has to been so to be truly appreciated. Fun Fact: that is Taran's real tattoo.
DIGITAL SHORT: A faux CD commercial remember those thingies? for Convoluted Larry, a white R&B singer whose lyrics are either contradictory or border on nonsense. With Akiva and Jorma no longer on the show, the responsibility of writing shorts has fallen to a committee of the damned, and while it has produced a handful of solid pieces recently this particular effort was a total throwaway.
MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: Clarkson's late 2011 hit "Mr. Know-It-All" may have the title of an obscure jazz tune, but the radio-friendly gloss says Top 40 pop. Not a terrible song, though.
"The Mayan Calendar": Sometime in the 5th century, a group of Mayan tribesmen bicker birthdays and semantics as their local think tank (FA) introduces the calendar and its big, finite flaw. Paul's epilogue as the round slab itself was the saving grace of an otherwise boring concept sketch.
There is clearly something Lorne and the other producers see in Charles Barkley that the rest of the population doesn't understand. Though Barkley has steadily improved as a host which each passing stint on SNL, he has only worked his way up from "mediocre" to "passable." Sir Charles had a leading role in nearly every sketch, hogging the ball (so to speak) but never quite stumbling on his feet; I'm just happy he finally loosened up. The episode overall had fleeting moments of brilliance, though the hit-to-miss ratio was a tad higher compared to other shows from Year 37.
Sketches/Segments That Will Likely Be Edited From the 60-Minute Edit: "Joann's Announcement," "Lord Wyndemere," "Convoluted Larry," Kelly's second song, and "The Mayan Calendar."
Next Week: The boy who lived, Daniel Radcliffe hosts with musical guest, indie poseur Lana Del Rey.
And now, a quick recap of the first half of Season 37:
With hardly any cast changes from last year, the status quo more or less just kept chugging along in what been essentially Season 36, Part 2. The only significant difference is that the oligarchical stranglehold of old vets Fred, Kenan, Kristen, Suds, and Andy has loosened up just enough to let the so-called "Class of 2010" shine. This may an indicator that 2011-12 will be the transitional year that 2010-11 wasn't, though it still doesn't bode well for neither Nasim or Abby, nor the swollen and increasingly anonymous writing staff.
Best Host: Melissa McCarthy
Runner-Up: Jimmy Fallon
Worst Host: Anna Faris
Best Musical Guest: The Black Keys
Worst Musical Guest: Michael Buble
Midseason MVP: Bill Hader. This was a toss-up considering all the cast members that have been here six years or longer, but Hader gets the edge if only for his uncanny impressions and subtly wacky character work. Plus, I'm sure you'd give me BS if I suggested Kristen again.
Best Overall Episode: Jimmy Fallon/Michael Buble (you guys pressured me)
Runner-Up: Melissa McCarthy/Lady Antebellum
Worst Overall Episode: Anna Faris/Drake
Questions or comments? PM "HelloStuart" right here at TV.com, or find him on Twitter at @heystu818.