A Review by "HelloStuart," Amateur Critic and Fiery Latina
After a month off, the SNL comedy wagon sets up shop for the calendar year 2009. Of course, after four weeks on hiatus the creative staff is refreshed and raring to go after the previous live broadcast, perhaps the weakest episode this season not hosted by a gawky, emotionless Olympic swimmer. Fred Armisen's portrayal of Gov. David Paterson was perceived as an insult towards the visually impaired (that quickly died down), but the less said about Kanye West, the better…
This week's host is Neil Patrick Harris, the child star turned veteran TV actor best known and loved as Doogie Howser, MD… or Barney Stinson if you're under the age of 20. The musical guest is Taylor Swift, the perky blonde country-pop singer behind the best-selling album "Fearless." With any luck, Swift will augment her performance with a giant screen, rap about her feelings in an unfocused manner, than get distracted by an off-camera gaffe and flip out, because nothing like that has happened on SNL lately.
Without further ado, the sketch-by-sketch analysis:
COLD OPENING: Tonight on "The Rachel Maddow Show," the most powerful lesbian in the news media not named Ted Koppel (AE) lobs softballs and lends a sympathetic ear towards Roland Burris (KT), whose attempts to enter the senate chambers are denied in an almost cartoonish manner. In turn, impeached Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (JS) makes a string of gay slurs and seems dissonantly unfazed by the prospect of being forced out of office.
MONOLOGUE: The greatest (albeit inadvertent) spokesman in the history of White Castle admits that he almost hosted in 1990, but NPH was passed over for Fred Savage. We end up with two monologues for the price of one, as his obsessed diatribe against the "Wonder Years" star awkwardly segues into three hecklers (FA, BH, BM) making lame "How I Met Your Mother" jokes, followed by a contrived appearance from Mark Wahlberg (AS). This neither doubled the pleasure nor doubled the fun.
"Today": The gratuitous fourth hour of the morning chat-fest finds Hoda "The Giddy Egyptian" Kotb (MW) playing straight man to egomaniac/aging succubus Kathie Lee Gifford (KW). Bantering about pizza in vending machines and pantyhose for men gives way to non-sequitors from Regis' sloppy seconds. This unsettlingly precise dig at the doldrums of network daytime television ends with a D-list fitness guru (NPH) punching and thrusting with reckless abandon and Kathie Lee becoming the victim of her own brazen aloofness.
"Curtains for Broadway?": The Phantom of the Opera (JS), Mark from "Rent" (NPH), and the stars of various other Great White Way mainstays fight for their survival as the economy hinders the average theater fan's urge to buy $150 tickets. The Music Man (BH) resorts to selling steak knives, while a puppeteer from "Avenue Q" (AE) moonlights as something quite unprintable, yet apropos for such a raunchy musical. Ensemble sketches tend to be heavy on banter and light on plot, but America's dire financial straits looms large in this piece and gives it a relevant kind of levity.
"Penelope in Group Therapy": Same character, same joke, new locale. Was it just me, or did you see that DVD gag coming from a mile away? I guess this bit is still funny, but the only real variation was namedropping Liza Minnelli, followed by a cameo from the actress-singer-dancer herself.
DIGITAL SHORT: Neil and an orchestra of blond wigs and white lab coats perform the "Doogie Howser M.D." theme song. As I warned you before, no one born after 1988 would understand the reference, but hearing that song brought back vague memories of an above-average family sitcom that was cancelled when I was 8 ½ years old.
MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: "Love Story" has intriguing romantic imagery and numerous allusions to "Romeo & Juliet," but it feels like a Kelly Clarkson imitation.
WEEKEND UPDATE: Seth's first true solo venture goes swimmingly, and that says a lot. A commentary by Charles Barkley wasn't quite the dead-in-the-water, let's-see-what's-on-other-channels experience that we've come to expect from Kenan, and "college sports fan" Will Forte and his sarcastic musical tribute to the Bowl Championship Series wasn't half-bad.
"Two First Names": Neil Patrick Harris, Jamie Lynn Spears (AE), David Lee Roth (FA), Philip Seymour Hoffman (JS), Michael Clarke Duncan (KT), Tommy Lee Jones (DH), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (MW), Daniel Day-Lewis (BH), the worst Billy Bob Thornton impression ever (AS), and Joe Pantoliano (FA) sit around and… do stuff. Seriously, who in the hell wrote this?
"Air Traffic Control": Two southern belles (KW, NPH) with ridiculously long fingernails shoot the breeze while guiding Delta flight 425 to Hartford. It's a slice of life vignette, assembled around two vaguely defined characters doing plodding physical humor at the speed of molasses.
"Frost/Other People": Following the Oscar buzz of the movie adaptation of the play based on a series of TV interviews from 30+ years ago, David Frost (NPH) grills other '70s pop culture icons with similar persistence. The British talk show great grills David Bowie (BH) about his space-travel credentials, than finally gets to the heart of the Doobie Brothers' random appearance on "What's Happening" via a nervous Fred Berry (KT).
MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: I have little doubt that Taylor is a gifted songwriter, but "Forever & Always" is orchestrated like a variation on "Since U Been Gone," right down to the girl-power guitar chops and the schoolgirl jumper. Does anyone remember the exact moment Taylor's guitar and mic stand disappeared? Neither do I.
"Whopper Virgins": The culturally insensitive Burger King ads take on a village in Romania, where three locals (FA, BM, MW) are baffled by the concept of a cheeseburger. This was pretty funny, but it won't age well in repeat viewings.
After a rare clunker show and the excepted holiday hibernation, it seems that our show is back on track, at least for the time being. Three of the four featured players were front and center in tonight's show, with Abby Elliott finally earning her breakout moment in the cold opening and Bob Moynihan and Mike Watkins playing several prominent parts. This was also the first post-Poehler show, and her presence was missed only in fleeting moments, like the newly airbrushed Weekend Update intro. Harris was the latest in a line of fun hosts, and I pose no opposition to seeing him host again.
Segments That Will Probably Be Removed in Repeats: "Two First Names," "Air Traffic Control," "Forever & Always," and "Whopper Virgins."
Next Week: "Seven Pounds" star Rosario Dawson hosts with indie-pop troubadours Fleet Foxes as her musical guest.
"HelloStuart" is based in Downers Grove, IL, home of the four-eared cat that was all over the news six months ago. Contact him at email@example.com.