A Review by "HelloStuart," Amateur Critic and Candidates 1 through 4
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I guess it was a tease after all. One week after returning from maternity leave, Amy Poehler ends her remarkable 7 ½-year stint on SNL with tonight's broadcast, earning the fond send-off she didn't receive when she gave birth just before the Jon Hamm/Coldplay broadcast. I don't think there's anything I can say that has already been said: Amy was probably the most versatile actress in the show's history –at least until Kristen arrived- but her ability to carry an otherwise mediocre sketch with unlimited energy and pluck is something that cannot be duplicated easily. With the way this season has been going, SNL will not be a stronger show without her, but no less flawed, either.
Tonight's guests are no strangers to Studio 8H. The host is Hugh Laurie, the dry British thespian best known as Dr. Gregory House, here to follow up his strong showing two years ago. The musical guest is Kanye West, the Chicagoan hip-hop artist/raging egomaniac who conquered the stage in two previous season premieres. His new album, "808s and Heartbreaks," is a departure of sorts, a ballad-heavy record written and produced in the wake of West's mother's death and the end of a long-term relationship.
And now, the sketch-by-sketch analysis:
COLD OPENING: In the wake of his criminal complaint, disgraced Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich (JS) addresses the U.S. Senate with a list of extortion-type demands. His profanity-enriched requests mystify the committee, which includes Chris Dodd (DH), Evan Bayh (WF), and the ever-so-ornery Robert Byrd (BH). Starting the show with a riff on Blago was far from surprising; the only suspense in carrying out a sketch like this was finding the right actor to play the governor. Given that, Jason was adequate yet still somewhat miscast; when asked if he was insane or developmentally disabled, Suds/Blago responded with aplomb. Everything else was merely sufficient.
MONOLOGUE: Reunited with "Sweetcheeks," Hugh comments on 2008, how he loves New York City during Christmas, than gives an audience member some Chapstick. The audience (both in the studio and at home) is lethargic until he sings a holiday medley truncated for licensing purposes, the only moment of the sketch that duplicates how Hugh won us over the first time around.
"Bronx Beat": Jodi and Betty (AP, Maya Rudolph) return from a 13-month hiatus to complain about holiday shopping and turn it into another diatribe about how their families take the ladies for granted. Their guest is British butcher shop owner Jeff Billings (Hugh), who gets the usual uninformed, double-entendre grilling that we've all come to anticipate. This last sketch appearance by Amy was no better or worse than any other "Bronx Beat," if not a tad overlong and unfocused.
"Christmas Dinner": A dysfunctional family of five (Hugh, WF, JS, KW, CW) trade sarcastic barbs and chug red wine before they abruptly learn the true meaning of Christmas. The sketch felt stagy, which isn't necessarily a bad thing (I have reason to believe this is an adapted Second City sketch), but the ending was a total cop-out.
"Culhane Wedding": A reception for a newly-married couple (AE, AS) drags on when a parade of weird relatives and well-wishers hog the mike from the exasperated emcee (JS). The most notable of these misfits is Bob Kemp (Hugh), a friend of the bride's father whose toast travels from explaining how he met the family to describing the engine of a car he drove 20-plus years ago. Maybe it was the inflection of the dialogue, especially Kemp's monotone, which kept me laughing through the whole sketch.
MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: "Love Lockdown" puts heavy emphasis on two alien elements to the SNL stage- the 808 drum machine, the trendiest percussion in hip-hop right now, and a giant plasma screen that changes color, a fixture at Kanye's live shows. With all that happening, I almost forgot that there was a song being performed.
WEEKEND UPDATE: It might've been Amy's final night behind the Update desk, but tonight's segment belonged to Gov. David Paterson (FA) and his blunt treatise of the Blagojevich controversy. What could've been a one-note blind joke turned into a tour de force; granted, his swipes at New Jersey were lame but his literal and figurative wandering –especially during Amy's poignant and heartfelt farewell speech- was hysterical.
"City Nick": Inside the titular mom-and-pop furniture shop, three magical lamps (KW, Hugh, AS) come to life, singing and dancing with childlike merriment. However, things take a very bizarre turn when they're caught by the shop owners (FA, MW). Sometimes "Family Guy"-style meta gags don't need to be brought to life, and this was a case example.
"Cat Christmas Letter": Two middle-age marrieds (KW, Hugh) bicker over employing the cutesy persona of their pet feline for their annual holiday missive, even though the cat died earlier in the year. I liked the random "kitty bone morrow transplant" reference, but this might've worked better if it were a tad shorter. Sometimes a tighter sketch is better than one that throws in every funny line you can think of.
DIGITAL SHORT: During a corporate meeting regarding companywide layoffs, one effete exec (FA) is distracted by a complimentary plate of cookies. The Lonely Island can do way better than this; for a trio of comedy prodigies bent on reshaping SNL's brand of comedy, this felt like a one-dimensional dress rehearsal sketch that was filmed when it could've been performed live once and quickly discarded.
MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: "Heartless" is a bipolar, passive-aggressive ballad about a bipolar, passive-aggressive woman breaking up with a man not unlike Kanye. If you didn't like the song, at least you had some cartoons to watch.
I had to think about what sort of rating I would give tonight show for a long while, something that I'm not used to. There were three acutely funny moments in the show, and while there were no bad sketches, the less outstanding moments still felt lacking. With Poehler's departure, this is do-or-die time for the show's three female supporting players. Where Casey and Michaela have at least made a dent in the public's consciousness, Abby's contribution thus far has been roughly one line per sketch, one sketch per night. It didn't seem like anybody except Fred rose to the occasion tonight; than again, it could be another sign of creative burnout.
Segments That Will Probably Be Removed in Repeats: if the entire last half-hour disappeared, I wouldn't notice.
After a one-year hiatus, here's my midseason recap of Season 34:
Best Show So Far: In an eleven-episode span that has been surprisingly top-heavy in entertaining shows, I'll give Anne Hathaway/The Killers a slight edge over Tim McGraw/Ludacris and T-Pain. The condensed, mostly Gen-Y cast that debuted two seasons ago has finally found its rhythm, and there was no better example of that than in the Hathaway show.
Worst Show So Far: Michael Phelps/Lil' Wayne. Tonight's show was more drab than not, but the near-stillborn season premiere still takes the cake. First Half MVP: The no-brainer pick here would be Tina Fey, considering her almost vicious and right-on-the-money mimicry of Gov. Sarah Palin, but she left the show 2 ½ years ago and appeared only as Palin in six sketches during the first two months of the season. If the honor belonged to a current cast member, it would be a toss-up between Fred Armisen and Kristen Wiig. Where Wiigy is nothing short of a comedy android (and I mean that in a good way), Army is a late bloomer, morphing into the show's clutch hitter after six years of being just one of the guys. His Obama impression is flawed but passable, and his regular appearances as a guest commentator on Weekend Update could be best described as not awful.
Fourteen live broadcasts in thirteen weeks? I could use a break, too.
Next Week: A repeat of the sometimes delightful, cameo-heavy Josh Brolin/Adele broadcast.
Contact Stu at firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy holidays, and see you in '09!