A Review by "HelloStuart," the Amateur Critic of Madison Avenue
I'm beginning to wonder if I was too harsh in criticizing Governor Palin's cameo last week. Granted, I don't agree with her hard-right stance on the issues, but I tried to be politically impartial last week and I still found a way to screw up. If anything, the concept of political figures spoofing themselves has changed dramatically since Stephen Colbert's infamous speech at the White House Correspondents' Dinner three years ago. If not for Colbert practically criticizing President Bush to his face, Palin's guest appearance would've been just as fawning as John McCain's hosting stint in 2002 or anything preceding it. Alec Baldwin's trashing of Palin in last week's cold opening was actually a lot more daring than I gave it credit for, and the hockey mom simply rolled off the punch.
As for this week's show- tonight's host is Jon Hamm, the veteran character actor who rose to prominence with his Emmy-nominated portrayal of emotionally maladroit ad executive Don Draper on the AMC series "Mad Men." Making their third appearance as musical guest is Coldplay, who are promoting their best-selling album "Viva la Vida."
And now, the sketch-by-sketch analysis:
COLD OPENING: Somewhere in Pennsylvania, Senator Biden (JS) and Rep. John Murtha (DH) make an endless and embarrassing stream of comments that could easily blow the election for Senator Obama. Both fail to restrain each other from making comments that border on the prophetic, but maybe the point was to demonstrate the egotism of public figures in high-pressure situations. Either that, or SNL is taking an overdue and now-irrelevant jab at the seemingly unprepared Obama.
MONOLOGUE: In a desperate bid to entice viewers, Jon lies about the premise of "Mad Men." There's not much else to this.
"Pedophile Trick-or-Treater": A 43-year-old convicted sex offender (WF) makes an awkward and horrific first impression on his new neighbor (Jon) while make his court-ordered rounds. Palpable tension makes for good comedy, and Will carried the sketch with gusto, but Jon made his straight-man character even stiffer than he was intended to be.
DIGITAL SHORT: College freshman "Ras-Trent" (AS) sings the praises of being Rastafarian even though he's a complete poseur and wouldn't touch, much less smoke a reefer for his dear life. Having known people like this when I was in school, I can tell you that this was a worthy comeuppance, not to mention pretty catchy.
"Two A-Holes on Mad Men": …or an ad agency in the 1960s, but that's a mouthful. The sketch plays out like above-average fan fiction; our two favorite pricks (JS, KW) pitch a hula hoop with straps to the executives at Sterling Cooper (played by some of the actors from the series itself). Jon/Don goes on a soliloquy in which the suspended hula hoop becomes a metaphor for suspending reality, but it doesn't go anywhere.
"The Barack Obama Variety Half-Hour": Maya Rudolph as Michelle Obama- whodathunkit? That's not sarcasm, I'm probably just happy to see Maya again after a year-long absence; the role of the senator's wife was hers for the taking. Parodying the 30-minute infomercial airing on Fox next week, Obama (FA) and his Democratic cronies sing and make bad jokes akin to a '70s variety series. The sketch has a slapped together but it's not entirely a bust; Bill Clinton's (DH) butting on a dramatic sequence between Obama and "the spirit of the party" (Jon as JFK) speaks volumes about Bubba's perceived narcissism.
"Don Draper's Guide to Picking Up Women": Another "Mad Men" sketch? The SNL must be die-hard fans. In this filmed piece, Jon/Don gives advice for sexual dalliances- be silent, make vague references to your past, have a great name, and more or less "be" Don Draper. To anyone who doesn't watch the show, this will be a confusing in-joke, but I'm not sure if "Mad Men" viewers will be amused by the gag either.
MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: The title track from "Viva la Vida" was all over the radio four months ago, but that doesn't hinder Chris Martin and company from playing the song one last time. Interesting use of percussions, though.
WEEKEND UPDATE: Holy crap, Amy went into labor! Will Seth's solo venture (the segment's first since May 2000) be a sign of things to come? For something that happened at the last minute, Seth did decent but he's too workmanlike to carry the segment by himself, especially for an extended period of time. Of the three guest commentaries, only one clicked; "Robo-Call" (WF) and his anti-Obama slanders were weighed down by his drinking problem (oil in a flask- get it?). An editorial by Ralph Nader (BH) dragged, and I don't think I need to explain the latest appearance by Nicholas Fehn (FA). The segment ended with Maya and Kenan singing "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" in honor of Amy's baby, a rare poignant moment and de facto tribute to the departing cast member and one of the show's all-time great female repertory players.
"Vincent Price's Halloween Special": Absence makes the heart grow fonder… or scarier? The first sketch of its kind in 2 ½ years is a typical study in slow burn for the ghoulish B-movie great (BH) as he deals with an over-the-top Gloria Swanson (KW), a drunken James Mason (Jon), a clueless Liberace (FA), and a series of technical gaffes.
"Jon Hamm's John Ham": Remember that "Peter Sarsgaard SARS-Guard" sketch from three years ago? It's basically the same idea, except that the product is slices of pork on a toilet paper roll. I should count my blessings that this didn't drag on for five minutes or more.
MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: "Lost" finds Chris Martin doing his epileptic piano-playing shtick, though the song sounds like the #1 nightclub hit of 1347 AD.
"Pat Finger": A city council candidate from the unfortunately named hamlet of Butts, NY promises to fill holes (in the street) and lick cracks (on the sidewalk). Somewhere, a 14-year-old boy is busting a gut from all these tired double-entendres. I'm beginning to wonder if the scribes are looking to justify their laziness/writers' block by simply ending sketches --much like this one-- by pointing out that this is the type of thing that surfaces on YouTube.
MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: Taking advantage of their reputation as a powerhouse live act, Coldplay whips up a third song, their 2000 hit "Yellow."
I should note that after this unexpected and delightful third performance, Coldplay nearly gave us a fourth serving but was cut off due to time constraints. Those Studio 8H audience members should be so lucky…
Overall, tonight's broadcast was probably the most uneven of the season thus far. The minor gems of the first 45 minutes gave way to an awkward Weekend Update, and two of the last three sketches of the evening were undisputedly awful. It's tough to say how much the birth of Amy's child affected tonight's broadcast, but her presence was and will be missed. Coldplay was ready and willing to pick up the slack, tearing the roof off the dump to prevent the audience at home from sitting through even more terrible sketches. Jon Hamm was an adequate host, willing to mock the role that made him famous yet straining to prove that he could do more than just play Don Draper.
Sketches/Segments That Will Probably Be Removed in Repeats: Weekend Update, "Jon Hamm's John Ham," "Lost," and "Pat Finger."
Next Week: SNL's Ironman-like run of ten live shows in eight weeks concludes with Ben Affleck returning to host with musical guest David Cook.
"HelloStuart" is a radio station employee and free-lance writer based in Downers Grove, Illinois. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.