A Review by "HelloStuart," Amateur Critic and Raspy Chansonnier
I'm fully aware that this column is for the sole purpose of reviewing live broadcasts of SNL, but the big news these past few weeks have been on the fringe of the show's radar. Two weeks ago Conan O'Brien ended his triumphant 16-year run in New York (20 if you include writing for Saturday Night) to take over "The Tonight Show" in Los Angeles, passing the Late Night baton to ex-cast member Jimmy Fallon. Fallon was far from anybody's first choice and he's been shaky so far, but we really can't judge him as a talk show host until he finds his groove (or lack thereof). He needs to work on his interview skills, though.
This week's host is Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, a two-time previous host that has made a surprisingly smooth transition from pro wrestling to Disney movies. The musical guest is Ray LaMontagne… who I don't really know much about. For all my music geekery, he's just a bit off my radar. I vaguely recall listening to the album he released two years ago, but other than that he's an open book. Seems like a folk-rock type, though.
COLD OPENING: Embattled Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner (WF) pinpoints excessive bank lending –and not the current administration's enormous bailouts- for the economy's latest rock bottom point. With little else to say in his defense, Geithner suggests a $420 billion jackpot to anyone with a plan that works (or $210 billion apiece for two people with the same idea, and so forth). One person calls the hotline to propose eliminating the bad loans, a second caller completely disagrees but has no ideas of his own, and somewhere along the way a Nigerian prince (KT) calls in promising an alleged inheritance. As hit-and-miss as this sketch might've been, it was an overdue jab at one of President Obama's more in-over-his-head cabinet appointees.
MONOLOGUE: In the wake of two disappointing shows from legends like Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, The Rock points out that he's now tied for 36th on the all-time hosting list.* When accused of watering down his tough-guy image, Dwayne launches into a song-and-dance routine about his masculinity… or that he's in touch with his feminine side, take your pick.
"MacGruber": Is this penance for that ungainly Pepsi triptych? Trapped in a toxic oil refinery, our hero (WF) clashes with MacGyver (Richard Dean Anderson) before realizing they're father and son. A clever usage of flashbacks, and hey, no product placement!
"The Rock Obama": Rahm Emanuel (AS) imagines President Obama (FA) turning into The Rock! How did nobody else think of utilizing the host in this manner? How clever, capricious, and original! *shakes head* Moving on…
"MacGruber": Stuck in the boiler room of a smuggler's compound, MacGyver and son are getting along famously until MacGruber learns (via flashbacks, again) how and why Mac abandoned his young family.
"Activia Yogurt": A rehash of the Jamie Lee Curtis (KW) sketch from last season, but with a testimonial from a young lady (AE) who can't keep it regular, a director (JS) that shouldn't be eating that yogurt to begin with, and a string of bowel movement jokes that was far from subtle.
"Hawaiians": In the first funny non-MacGruber sketch of the night, two natives (Rock, FA) complain about their dreary lives while entertaining mainland tourists inside a Honolulu hotel bar. More acid than a tangerine and just as tart.
"MacGruber": With their relationship irreversibly strained, MacGruber and MacGyver bicker inside a hijacked cocaine tanker. Suddenly, the piece fast forwards to 2040, where Mac and his female companion (KW) flush his dad's ashes down the toilet. I love how these pre-taped "episodes" thrown in as much plot as possible yet never forgets it original point. You are forgiven, MacGruber.
MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: As it turns out, I've heard "You Are the Best Thing" a few times on the local progressive-rock station here in Chicago. As much as I adore a strong horn section, this one nearly drowned out the man on center stage.
WEEKEND UPDATE: Even with the economy in the dumpster, Seth finds a way to accentuate the positive- Citigroup stock is now on McDonald's dollar menu! RNC chairman Michael Steele (KT) pops up to clarify his criticism of Rush Limbaugh, but an electrode planted into his skull keeps him from stating how he really feels. Comic strip character Cathy (AS) drops in to address finishing last in some sexiest cartoon character contest; her many layers of neuroses somehow make her husband Irving (Justin Timberlake!) amorous, at least until Jessica Rabbit (Jessica Biel!) walks by. Maybe this was slapped together for the sake of shoehorning a handful of celebrity cameos during sweeps or maybe it wasn't put together that way, but it certainly made this reheated commentary from last season more enjoyable. It almost made me forget an indisputably pointless second appearance by Jon Bovi (WF, JS) and their "opposite" music.
"Game Time with Dave and Gary": A generic sports talk show where one co-host (BH) is an alleged alien that never ages. People call in to point out his various quirks, but Dave (Rock) shrugs them off as mere eccentricities or takes no notice of the telltale signs. Hader almost never carries a sketch unless he's pretending to speak Italian or doing a middling Vincent Price impression, so the change of pace was refreshing on several levels.
"NBC Promos": The Donald (DH) and several of his "Celebrity Apprentice" cohorts turn a quickie promo shoot into a typically trying affair. A topical sketch like this one is guaranteed a short shelf life in terms of relevance, which makes it an unlikely candidate to hold up in repeats. Still, watching Trump stroke his ego as the likes of Tom Green (FA) and Dennis Rodman (Rock) run amuck felt like a circus without a ringmaster holding things down.
MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: The folksy, yearning "Trouble" was the leadoff track from Ray's first album, which was released almost five years ago. (Yeah, I looked it up.) What's the deal with all these older songs lately?
"Lighthouse Date": A handsome bachelor (Rock) with some unique real estate woos his date (KW) with booze and double entendres, but his faulty surroundings prove catastrophic for several beached sailors (AS, WF, BM, BH) and some guy on a jet-ski (JS). Another fun sketch, partially because of the exaggerated pirate/sailor outfits of the marooned but also because of Dwayne's awkward sexual advances.
This really turned out to be a fun show, and Johnson was an equally gracious and exuberant host. I vaguely recall that his first two hosting stints were held down somewhat by Dwayne's wrestling persona, so seeing him almost completely divorced from his WWE days unleashed a side of Dwayne most of us had never seen before. Also of note was Will Forte, who appeared in nearly every sketch and proved why he's so underappreciated in the SNL fan community. (Kenan Thompson- not so much.) As for "MacGruber," I'll give it a passing grade this time simply because they weren't shilling for soda, though I hope the writers and producers have learned their lesson from the Pepsi backlash. This was a rare show where the best moments were either midway through or near the end of the broadcast, and hopefully this well-rounded effort will positively influence the last five shows of the season.
Segments That Will Probably Be Removed in Repeats: "Activia Yogurt," "Celebrity Apprentice Promos," "Trouble," and the Jon Bovi commentary on Update.
Next Week: Speaking of SNL alumni, Tracy Morgan hosts with musical guest Kelly Clarkson.
"HelloStuart" is nearing the end of his sixth season writing episode reviews of SNL. If you have any comments, feel free to send him a PM or e-mail Stu at firstname.lastname@example.org. *He's not kidding- 56 different actors and musicians have been on SNL at least three times. It doesn't seem like that many, though.