A Review by "HelloStuart," Amateur Critic and Frugalista
Yeah, yeah, I'm still here. For those of you who miss my reviews, I'm still commenting and moderating in the forum adjacent to this episode guide. With 2010-11 now halfway over, I felt obligated to roll out my emeritus status once more and whip out my annual midseason review (see below).
One of my favorite SNL season finales ever was in 1996, when Jim Carrey hosted with musical guest Soundgarden. The fact that Carrey auditioned to be a cast member in his own right -at age 18, during the Doumanian season- was not lost on the SNL diehards, but the regular fans didn't seem to care because it was a damn funny show. What puzzled me for years afterward was why Carrey wasn't booked again, at least not within a year or two of his initial live TV triumph. Nearly 15 years later, Ace Ventura is back and better now than never.
Tonight's musical guest is The Black Keys, the Ohio-based acid blues/DIY punk duo behind one of 2010's best rock albums, Brothers. I'm not sure how strong they are as a live act, but I'm cranking up the volume regardless.
Without further ado, the sketch-by-sketch analysis:
COLD OPENING: For a show that is fully ingrained in the sights and sounds of New York City, they seldom cover the local political beat. Stranger yet, until this point SNL has never spoofed Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who succeeded Rudy Giuliani nearly a decade ago. In a tempered and mediated response to the blizzard from two weeks ago, Fred plays the multi-millionaire media magnate/mayor as a cross between his David Paterson and Barack Obama impression: personality-driven, pragmatic, and a quintessential Knickerbocker. The questions he fields in regard to the snowfall are petty and insipid, and not only does Bloomberg sympathize with the irresolute elitists, he caters to their whims. His defending of drunken, hapless city workers earned sharper jabs from Fallon and Letterman, though in this instance it was icing on the cake.
MONOLOGUE: When was the last time SNL had an audience participation monologue? Not necessarily one of those staged Q&A segments with James Downey et al, but real people interacting with the host? It felt like a '70s-era monologue, and rest assured that's no complaint.
"Bosley Hair Restoration": Already on its third airing, the comedic shock value of transplanted pubic hair has dissipated. The ad parodies are often the most scatological sketches SNL has to offer, and often they're funny, though constant repeats don't exactly help the cause. However, as is this the first time I've reviewed this per se, I definitely enjoyed it the first time around.
"Black Swan": A parody of the likely Oscar contender pits virginal, childlike Nina (NP) against the sensuous, immoral Lily (Jim) for the lead role in "Swan Lake." Where Lily/Natalie Portman plays it straight, Nina/Mila Kunis sprawls all over the stage with goofy abandon. This is not so much a spoof but an opportunity to showcase a great physical comedian still in prime form, a sketch that aimed for crowd-pleasing first and pointed lampoon second.
"Finding Your Power": A goateed therapist (JS) that encourages healthy confrontation finds anything but closure with his three patients: a frustrated working stiff (AS), a lonely singleton with sister issues (VB), and a cuckolded husband (Jim). In short, this was a decent set-up with a great payoff.
"Grady Wilson's Tantric n' Tasty": As long as middle-aged couples scramble to find spice in the bedroom, Grady (KT) will set up a tripod, bounce around in his underwear, and sell the results. This time around, he's joined by shaman poseur Lee Licious (Jim), a self-proclaimed expert of Eastern lovemaking who's just as clueless as Grady. Once again, the writers expect Jim to get physical and he runs away with the ball.
"The Worst of Soul Train": If 120 hours of old footage isn't enough, claims Smokey Robinson's sad half-brother (BM), than let's watch what the producers never intended you to see. The acts in themselves were funny, but lest we forget that 90% of Soul Train's soundtrack was performed by black artists, and SNL has only two cast members of color. Would they've booked an act like Triangle Sally (KW)? Probably. Bro-Botix (PB, TK)? No. The end result is a period piece that will likely remind music geeks more of "American Bandstand" and "Solid Gold" than Don Cornelius, making this both a strong ensemble sketch and a blown opportunity.
MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: "Howlin' for You" is gritty acid blues, equally yearning and menacing. I loved that Patrick Carney's drum kit had a more prominent part on the stage than a rhythm section normally would; it was almost like a percussion clinic.
WEEKEND UPDATE: Now in his fifth year behind the Update desk, Seth is still solid and consistent even when the commentaries mostly falter. A series of decent chuckles in regard to the 112th Congress and Governor Jerry Brown gave way to a paper-thin "debate" between outgoing Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (KW) and her successor John Boehner (BH), two one-note impressions that barely click. Another visit from the comically under-informed Anthony Crispino (BM) wasn't really necessary in spite of a clever jab at Brett Favre. Last and most certainly least, a commentary by "Cameron the Red-Winged Blackbird" (AS), his buddy "Everett the Fish" (TK), and their respective species' pending apocalypse merely dragged along without much rhyme or reason.
"Merryville Trolley Ride": In an amusement park ride, a man (KT) is taunted and harassed by a trio (Jim, TK, BH) of creepy animatronic musicians. Kenan has quite possibly the most expressive face in the cast, and watching him play the hapless straight man in a sketch was a sweet respite from the stereotype-pushing parts he'll normally play.
"Alan Musche": A disabled psychic medium (Jim) with questionable hygiene is revealed to be a master of impressions. Granted, Jim goes coo-coo and the cast simply reacts, but that description is too cut-and-dry to give the sketch justice. For all his movie work Carrey has been forced to put his celebrity mimicry in the backburner, and giving him a moment to whip out his Billie Holliday and Alan Thicke impressions was fair enough.
MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: "Tighten Up," the breakout hit from Brothers, is a series of quirks and twitches that join together for an incredibly catchy song. Between the whistling, the android-like drum fills, and Dan Auerbach's jangly guitar, I wouldn't remove a thing.
"A Taste of New York": In the Cosmopolitan Lounge at the New York City Marriott, a group of naïve tourists are treated to band of vagrants (Jim, FA, KW) performing a song about their woeful, bottom-feeding lives. It's a fun juxtaposition, though at times the point of the sketch was lost on me.
I half-expected a more physical show than usual, and even though my assumption wasn't met I wasn't disappointed, either. Jim Carrey was a fun host and then some; in an 11-episode span of mild surprises, he not only played to his strengths but made everyone around him sharper, more dynamic, and all-around funnier. No one benefitted more than Kenan, a team player who has been regulated to mostly stock "black guy" roles for much of the past five years and broke out of the monotony (if only briefly) under Jim's guidance.
Sketches/Segments That Will Probably Be Removed from the 60-Minute Edit: "Bosley," the bird/fish commentary on Update, "Alan Musche," "Tighten Up," and "A Taste of New York."
Next Week: After a nine-year hiatus, Gwyneth Paltrow hosts with musical guest Cee-Lo Green. Five dollars says there will be a duet.
And now, a quick recap of the first half of Season 36:
The biggest surprise this season –at least for me, anyway- was how the cast and writers have regrouped and soldiered on so seamlessly without Will Forte. Typically when a go-to cast member departs, like Phil Hartman in 1994 or Will Ferrell in 2002, there's an awkward period of transition where the creative talent scrambles to recast certain roles within the show's dynamic. It lasts anywhere from a few episodes to an entire season. As much as I loved Forte, there hasn't been a moment in the season so far where I thought, "Will would've killed in this sketch" or "This is the type of role Will would've eaten up." On one hand, Will wrote or co-wrote so much of his own material that he was almost a show unto himself. Plus, bringing in a small army of new featured players doesn't hurt either.
Best Host: Anne Hathaway
Runner-Up: Scarlett Johansson
Worst Host: Robert DeNiro
Best Musical Guest: Kayne West
Runner-Up: Paul McCartney
Worst Musical Guest: Diddy Dirty Money
Midseason MVP: Bill Hader has been an underappreciated clutch hitter for some time now, and in 2010-11 he's been an anchor in sketches that would otherwise float or drift away. You've come a long way, baby.
Midseason Rookie of the Year: Vanessa Bayer. I give her a narrow edge over Jay if only because she's running away with the alpha-female parts that Kristen can do in her sleep and anything else that just isn't fit for Abby or Nasim.
Best Overall Episode: Anne Hathaway/Florence + The Machine
Runner-Up: Paul Rudd/Paul McCartney
Worst Overall Episode: Jane Lynch/Bruno Mars
"HelloStuart" has spent most of the last 18 months as the middle third of a human centipede. In his spare time, he's been a contributor to TV.com since the site's 2005 inception.