A Review by "HelloStuart," Amateur Critic and Aspiring Assistant Accounts Receivable Director
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What a difference five years makes. When I wrote my first episode review for TV Tome (the precursor to TV.com) in the Spring of 2003, SNL was in a different condition than it is now. The cast and writers were still reeling from the departure from Will Ferrell, and the marquee baton had been passed to the uneasy hands of Jimmy Fallon, Chris Parnell, and Horatio Sanz. The subsequent season was one of the most uneven in the show's history, leaping between weak concepts bogged down by a lack of professionalism and a desire for mere adequacy. Five years later, the show is thriving; the need for a "go-to" guy has been phased out for more democratic methods, something that wouldn't be possible if SNL didn't have its strongest and most versatile cast in nearly a decade. Granted, a certain amount of inconsistency still remains, but the end result is funny more often than not.
This week, both our host and musical guest are repeat offenders in a manner of speaking. The host is A-list comedic actor Steve Carell, who will be starring in the film adaptation of "Get Smart" this summer; he previously hosted the season premiere in Year 31. The musical guest is Usher, the sometimes melancholy R&B superstar that first graced the SNL stage four years ago.
And now, the sketch-by-sketch analysis:
COLD OPENING: During the graduation ceremony at the Pounder School for Special Needs, the principal (Steve) reads off a string of naughty-sounding names that you'd probably hear in a crank call to Moe's Tavern. It turns out that Dick Hertz is a phony name, but Harry Weiner is the real deal. I would've laughed my ass off at this sketch if I were still 14 years old; I might be 23 now, but that infantile style of humor still has a morsel of charm.
MONOLOGUE: Citing a lack of adrenaline, Steve's opening comments are marred by his body's inability to handle six Red Bulls and a package of Sour Patch Kids. His behavior becomes increasingly erratic until his wife (ex-cast member Nancy Walls) intercedes and cools him down. I don't mind that Steve is showing off his range, but physical humor really isn't his forte; then again, maybe I'm so used to seeing him on an emotional trapeze on "The Office" that I'd forgotten that this other side of Steve had even existed.
"The Democratic Primaries": "There can only be one" candidate in a spoof of those ads for the NBA Playoffs. No new ground here, but at least Amy's Hillary and Fred's Obama got one more run-through before the convention.
"Deal or No Deal": Contestant Stu (Steve) is a poor decision-maker, and his ornery father (WF) nags him from the audience while Howie Mandel (FA) does his usual shtick. One of the briefcase ladies (KW) is a facetious tease, a rare instance of a subplot within a sketch. It also lightens the tension, as the father-son storyline goes from amusing to borderline melodramatic to sappy. This might sound bipolar, but it actually was funny.
"Two A-Holes Do Karaoke": The owner of a karaoke bar (Steve) is the latest patsy for America's favorite selfish jerks (JS, KW). It was more or less the usual sturm und drang, but watching the A-Holes stand around obliviously while "Baby Got Back" plays in the background was uproarious.
DIGITAL SHORT: Ricky Gervais trashes the American remake of "The Office," then shows an episode of the "original" Japanese version that Ricky himself ripped off. Diehard "Office" fans will notice that it's a carbon-copy of the pilot episode, complete with Pacific Rim quirks like calisthenics, Hello Kitty figurines, and yes, even karaoke. For those keeping tally, that's three good sketches in a row.
"McCain 2008": The candidate himself makes a few jokes about his age, and then demonstrates his inability to differentiate pork barrel spending from more relevant government spending. It starts slow, and never quite hits the gas pedal.
MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: "Moving Mountains" has an old school vibe, shifting from Marvin Gaye-style wailing, James Brown-esque footwork to un-ironic '80s-throwback synthesizers.
WEEKEND UPDATE: "This week, Senator John Edwards endorsed himself for vice president." His backing Barack Obama gave me the same vibe, so the first gag of the night was probably the funniest (for me, anyway). Speaking of Congressmen, Senator McCain drops by again to encourage the Democrats to keep bickering over the nomination, a sly tip of the hat to his improving chances of being president in November. To balance out the political spectrum, Reverends Jesse Jackson (DH) and Al Sharpton (KT) discuss the "race-race" and do everything but call Hillary a bourgeois bigot.
"The Charlie Flitt Show": This weight loss-themed talk show features a host (Steve) that likes to leap through paper walls of his own image, a guest (AP) that sings the praises of the Subway diet, her ashamed fiancée (BH), who lost weight then regained it, and the woman's teetotaler mother (KW). It's too much of a hodgepodge to work, and the leisurely pace of the sketch also makes it devoid of energy.
"American Red Cross": Things go awry during a CPR training course when the instructor (Steve) crushes his assistant's torso. A half-hearted attempt to keep the class cool and collected is derailed by projectile bleeding that would make Julia Child blush. Usher randomly walks in for an epilogue, abruptly turning the sketch into a PSA and delivering a cop-out ending to a peculiar one-joke sketch.
MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: Joined by Young Jeezy, "Love in This Club, Part 1" has an unusually long bridge that allows Usher to do a goofy dance solo.
"Bless This Child": Two parents (Steve, KW) toss around a baby doll as their simple lullaby expands into a show-stopping power ballad. This sketch will remind some longtime fans of the classic "Stunt Baby" sketch from 30 years ago, when it was shocking, original, and slightly funnier. It wasn't a bad sketch per se, but this was another moment in the show where you wondered if the writers had a hard time ending sketches this week.
Maybe certain expectations were set too high, but tonight left me with an underwhelming feeling. Some sketches went for the obvious joke (like the cold opening) while others had a funny concept with a forced execution (like Charlie Flitt). The momentum of the show itself was pretty steady before it turned into a jokey infomercial for the McCain campaign. Nevertheless, how the star of the funniest show on television could steer such a drab broadcast is beyond explanation.
Sketches/Segments That Will Probably Be Removed in the 60-Minute Edit: "McCain 2008," "The Charlie Flitt Show," and "CPR Training."
Next Week: An encore presentation of Ashton Kutcher/Gnarls Barkley. I guess I can't complain.
And now, a retrospective of Season 33:
Best Musical Guest: Wilco
Runner-Up: Vampire Weekend
Worst Musical Guest: Bon Jovi
Runner-Up: Carrie Underwood
Best Host: Brian Williams
Runner-Up: Jonah Hill
Worst Host: Jon Bon Jovi
Runner-Up: Lebron James
The Five Most Indelible Moments of the Season:
5. "I Ran So Far" becomes another viral clip sensation (James/West)
4. Maya fades out, Casey fades in (Williams/Feist and Fey/Underwood)
3. Apparently, Brian Williams has a sense of humor (Williams/Feist)
2. Six different presidential candidates make guest appearances
1. The 100-Day Strike (like you expected something else)
Worst Overall Episodes:
3. Amy Adams/Vampire Weekend
2. Steve Carell/Usher
1. Jon Bon Jovi/Foo Fighters
Best Overall Episodes:
3. Brian Williams/Feist 2. Tina Fey/Carrie Underwood
1. Jonah Hill/Mariah Carey
Most Positive Continuing Trend: The show's continuing reliance on indie-rock artists (Spoon, Vampire Weekend, My Morning Jacket) as musical guests.
Least Positive Continuing Trend: There were only three Smigeltoons this year, and only one of them (The Ambiguously Gay Duo) was even remotely entertaining. "You Don't Mess With the Zohan" better be pretty damn funny, Bob.
2007-08 Most Valuable Player: Kristen Wiig. Did somebody say "dominant?"
"HelloStuart" wants to remind everyone that Steve Carell's name is spelled with one R. Send him your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.