You’d think after hosting a relatively successful 40th anniversary retrospective that Saturday Night Live would have taken a moment to regard their past and reconsider their legacy for the future. This season has had ups and downs, but it’s hardly been the kind of trailblazing comedy that we (at least all of us at Awards Daily TV) still rehash today. After last night’s new episode, following up the special with a new show hosted by Dakota Johnson, the star of 50 Shades of Grey, was probably not a step in the right direction.
Now, before people start complaining, I’m not placing the failure of this episode at Johnson’s feet. Aside from a very painful monologue, none of this is strictly her fault. Clearly, she’s not ready for the opportunity and has never been tested in front of a live audience – or even in comedy for that matter. Casting someone just because they’re in a big, buzzy movie is one of the more annoying things SNL tends to do, particularly when they fail to support them with anything resembling solid writing.
In fact, Johnson’s presence in the pre-taped bits was far more successful than her live skits. Honestly, though, aren’t the pre-taped segments (commercials, digital shorts, etc.) always funnier than the live segments?
The show started on shaky ground with a “The Real Story with Gretchen Carlson” / Birdman mash-up parody starring Taran Killam as Rudy Giuliani questioning the logic of his recent controversial statements about President Obama. There’s probably a very funny skit about Giuliani’s place in the political landscape, but this wasn’t it. What was particularly weird was the seemingly out of left field paring of Giuliani with the Birdman mythology. It didn’t really comment on anything in particular – it was simply Killiam doing Giuliani doing Michael Keaton.
One of the highlights of the night was its first pre-taped segment. Killam and Johnson played a father and daughter pair saying goodbye at what appeared to be an airport. Expectations led you to believe she was going to college, but in reality, her father was dropping her off to be picked up by an ISIS recruitment team.
“Take care of my little girl,” Killam tearfully requests.
“Death to America,” an ISIS militant responds.
The fact that SNL revisited ISIS after this season’s early disastrous Shark Tank parody was slightly surprising, but here, it worked much better (ISIS was also all over Colin Jost and Michael Che’s Weekend Update). Clearly, they take more time to conceive of these pre-taped segments and hone them into something resembling comedy.
Returning with a live segment, Johnson portrayed a Cinderella-esqe character at Taran Killam’s (all over the place in this episode) royal ball. She was joined by Cecily Strong’s recurring character Kathy Ann, a blatantly obvious and uncouth woman. There was nothing particularly funny about this skit despite Strong’s dedication to the character. Sometimes, they can save them, sometimes not.
The second pre-taped segment of the evening – a digital short of women taking the freedom to “say what you want to say” set to Sara Bareilles’s “Brave” – was less successful mostly because the central joke was repeated over and over. Plus, who the hell thought a parody revolving around a 2-year old song was a good idea? No disrespect meant to Bareilles, but this is hardly timely comedy. Plus, it initially appeared to be structured like a commercial parody but morphed into a digital short, lacking any real structure around it. Andy Samberg made these things look easy, but they are far from so, evidently.
The obligatory Fifty Shades of Grey parody came with Kyle Mooney playing a young child, Peter, questioning Johnson during a press junket for the film. Rather than the expected questions appropriate for his age, he asked all sorts of uncomfortable questions about the events depicted in the film as well as the justifications behind those activities. This skit was somewhere in the middle of the pack, elevated only by the lack of higher quality material. Mooney does perfectly play young children, a natural skill for him since he looks 8 years old anyway.
Johnson was featured in the next live skit dealing with interns working in an office with a new character, Margo with two broken arms played by Aidy Bryant. Johnson, Strong, and Bobby Moynihan played interns complaining about how cold the office is while refusing to shut the open window next to Margo. The central joke was that Margo can’t help herself because of her two broken arms, and it again put Bryant into the role of the incredulous person who is the object of everyone’s derision. This was the first appearance of this character, but it’s a very familiar trope for Bryant of late. Either she has massively low self-esteem, or she pissed someone off. Badly.
After an energetic musical performance by Alabama Shakes, Weekend Update continued with an oddly short number of news-related jokes and (what I perceived to be) a slight negative turn in the charisma between Colin Jost and Michael Che. Maybe Che is finally getting tired of Jost bringing him down. The highlight of Weekend Update was Kate McKinnon doing a spry, rapping, “Ginsburging” version of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. McKinnon is clearly the best thing on the show right now, and she consistently proves she can play just about anyone reliably.
The underused Kenan Thompson led the next skit playing an ER doctor paged during cosplay (he is dressed as a Star Trek character). The mercifully brief skit was actually set up as a parody for an NBC show called “Worf, M.D.” before ending with a brief tribute to Leonard Nimoy. Thompson was the star here, and he did a decent job of creating the character, even if nothing was especially memorable.
Now entering the back-half of the show, the next live segment, a show called “Net Effect,” offered a vaguely funny take on a round-table discussion panel debating Net Neutrality. No one really demonstrated a clear understanding about what Net Neutrality actually is. Instead, they devolved into a discussion over the color of the infamous dress currently eating up internet bandwidth across the world. Leslie Jones did a decent job of playing the angry black woman, and this skit was the rare occurrence of one that actually had something to say. Looking at commentary and message boards across the internet, it’s clear that very few people fully understand the implications behind Net Neutrality. SNL rightly called it out, even if the skit wasn’t fall-on-the-floor hilarious.
The final skit of the evening was another pre-taped segment staring Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett as two guys putting on a cable access TV version of those “What would you do?” 20/20 exposés. The names of the segments (for example, “Kid Dat is Lost”) seemed funny to me, but I might have been really tired by that point. The fake profundity Mooney and Bennett were able to manufacture – particularly when they “effect change” – was amusing. Also, it was nice seeing Bennett doing something completely different than anything he’s done previously. I like the pairing of Mooney and Bennett (their “So. Cal” segment earlier in the season was clever and completely random) and hope to see more of them together in the future.
It’s telling, though, that Johnson wasn’t used at all during the final segment. Many reviewers will undoubtedly blame her for the show’s lackluster performance, but as I’ve said many times, it’s the writing that fails routinely.