A Review by "HelloStuart," Amateur Critic and Mysterious Underwater Creature
I've been doing this for six years already?
These last four months have brought us the single most intense and most boring off-season in SNL history. The biggest news amounted to nothing; Amy Poehler will leave the show at some point midway through the season, depending upon her unborn child and the status of her prime-time vehicle with "The Office" producer Greg Daniels. With the exception of newcomer Bobby Moynihan, last year's cast is more or less still intact. Because of the writers' strike, Season 34 will launch with four straight live shows and two more episodes than usual. The cast has three cast members with established impersonations of presidential and vice-presidential hopefuls- Darrell Hammond as Senator McCain, Fred Armisen as Senator Obama, and Jason Sudeikis as Senator Biden. I can only assume that Kristen Wiig will be the lucky lady that prods and imitates Governor Palin, if only by default; I doubt Tina Fey would come back on a regular basis just to play one character.
This week's host is Michael Phelps, American Olympic hero and the latest in a string of overexposed athletes on SNL. The media has been making cute jokes about this for weeks ("will Michael remember to keep his shirt on?" and so forth) but they overlook the fact that athlete-hosts rarely if ever bring the funny, if only because so few of them are willing to be self-depreciating (Peyton Manning being the exception). Early speculation suggests this will be a "cast night," a show where the host takes a backseat to SNL's regular ensemble. The musical guest is Lil' Wayne, the successful and acclaimed rapper behind the best-selling album "Tha Carter III."
And now, the sketch-by-sketch analysis:
COLD OPENING: A non-partisan joint statement by Senator Hillary Clinton (AP) and Governor Sarah Palin (Tina Fey, natch) does little to address the apparent chauvinistic undertones of the election. As Hillary rants about an opportunity squandered, Sarah makes love to the cameras like the oblivious neophyte most liberals perceive her to be. As a topical sketch, the one-liners are sometimes obvious but it really never lags.
OPENING CREDITS: It's the same credits as last year, but with a little more color. Did Don sound a little hoarse?
MONOLOGUE: While Michael tries to reign the audience in, his mother (AP) proves to be overzealous and distracting in her support. In discussing his post-Olympic plans, Will suggests a kid-friendly meth lab while William Shatner interrupts to shill for Priceline.
"Quiz Bowl": A game show sketch where three average high-schoolers (KT, CW, BM) are pitted against three home-schooled barn-raisers (WF, AP, Phelps) in this jumbled commentary on renegade polygamist sects and our failing education system.
"Jar Glove": An introductory question takes on a life of its own in this left-of-center send-up of late night kitchen toy commercials. Chalk this up as another sketch for the Kristen Wiig highlight reel.
"Swim Team Pep Talk": In a rehash of a funny sketch from the Peyton Manning show from eighteen months ago, a frustrated swim coach (WF) jigs to "Dancing Plants" to his players' befuddlement.
"Homely Children": While her parents (BH, AP) entertain guests, the awkward oddity that is Stacia (KW) returns with her equally maladroit cousin Craig (Phelps) in tow. Like "Pep Talk" before it, it's a carbon copy of a funny sketch that didn't necessitate an encore performance.
MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: With a little assistance from Mack Maine, Lil' Wayne rolls though his current single "Got Money." WEEKEND UPDATE: When an episode like this gets into a slump, you have to hope that Update and its take on current events will give things a jolt. Tonight, they partially succeeded; mountain man Alaska Pete (WF) begs his friends in the lower 48 to lay off his governor, but the key points to his defense belie his own personal abnormalities. Where Pete was somewhat inspired, incoherent comedian Nicholas Fehn (FA) proved that you can only reheat the same one-note character before it turns into flavorless mush. Amy and Seth's recreation of a cockatoo's 911 call was cute, but what was the deal with beloved nose-less comic-strip character Cathy (AS)? Will we be seeing characters from "Get Fuzzy" and "Pearls Before Swine" on SNL anytime soon?
"The Charles Barkley Show": The Round Mound of Rebound (KT) welcomes Bela Karolyi (DH) and Michael Phelps on his hastily produced talk show. The sketch is little than a vehicle for Kenan's suspect Sir Charles impression and the basketball great's notorious gambling addiction. It all felt thrown together.
"T-Mobile": Finally, a funny sketch! Spoofing a cell phone ad that aired over the summer, two teen siblings (CW, Phelps) bicker over their "5" before dad's (JS) offhand remark unearths tensions with his cold shrew of a wife (KW). Dad's defending his tendency to hang out with his daughter's friends only throws things in a tailspin of delicious schadenfreude.
DIGITAL SHORT: "Space Olympics 3022" is a weird, green screen-heavy musical take on sports in the distant future, as explained by a megalomaniac, Ming the Merciless wannabe (AS). Like most of tonight's sketches, it's a mixed bag; it's general weirdness and touch of originality keeps this piece from being a complete failure, but it barely merited a laugh. "Uno's Waiter": Unctuous, somewhat effete w****r Mark Payne (BM) is obsessed with the smell of pepper and alienates two customers (Phelps, AP) in the aforementioned pizza franchise. This sketch was intended to give Bob a breakout moment in his first show, maybe give him a potential recurring character, but it ended up being a huge drag.
MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: Tha Carter mumbles through his summer hit "Lollipop," then proceeds to butcher a guitar solo that would put the most remedial "Rock Band" player to shame.
"The Michael Phelps Diet": Michael awkwardly pitches his high-carb, eat-all-you-want-and-more system of weight loss, based on his own unfathomable 12,000 calorie-per-day intake. Jared Fogle appears out of nowhere to make a bad pun about foot-long sandwiches, than walks away out of disgust. Whether Jared's frustration came from that insipid line or art for art's sake, that's tough to say; if the longtime pitchman thinks he could do a better job of hosting than Michael, then all the power to him.
Plain and simple, Michael Phelps was a ghastly host. He didn't even meet the lowered standards generally expected from an athlete, and he was the single greatest negative factor in an otherwise humdrum show. On top of being stiff and uncharismatic, Phelps' performance was sloppy, unprofessional, and poorly coordinated. For someone who's eight months pregnant, I was surprised to see how much work they gave Amy tonight; even more remarkable is that her expectant status didn't really hinder her performance at all, except for a fat joke late in the show. I've seen weak season premieres before, but nothing this bad; granted, the Lebron James show last year was below average, but Season 33 recovered quite nicely. Hopefully, this was entirely Phelps' fault and everything will tighten up as the year goes on.
Segments That Will Probably Be Removed in the 60-minute edit: Nicholas Fehn and Cathy on Update, "The Charles Barkley Show," "Uno's Waiter," "Lollipop," and "The Michael Phelps Diet."
Next Week: "Pineapple Express" star James Franco hosts with southern-fried rockers Kings of Leon as musical guest.
"HelloStuart" has written episode reviews of every SNL live broadcast since May 2003. Send him your questions and comments at email@example.com.