Why does this season of Saturday Night Live feel like it's just missing a certain something? Or is it a certain someone? Cannot put my finger on it. Each week this fall, critics have pointed fingers at the show, claiming it lifted a sketch premise from this place or that place, or that it had too much Kristen Wiig, or not enough Kristen Wiig. You're not using the new kids! You're not using the new kids properly! Lonely Island's out. No, wait, they're still in! Up is down. Down is up. The funny sketches come later in the show after you've already tuned out. Tonight's episode spelled out everything that's not quite special about this season before the opening credits.
We opened cold with a CSPAN feed of President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao meeting at the G20 Conference. Fred Armisen, still, inexplicably, is playing Obama. Bill Hader is, for lack of an Asian cast member, playing Chinese. Nasim Pedrad (who is Iranian-American, points for that?) is translating. Their premise: The one thing Obama didn't talk with China about was the fact that the U.S. owes China $800 billion. If it all feels a little been there, done that, it's because they have been there and done that. And these long, ponderous political cold opens are no longer SNL's forte. Especially when they're lacking Will Forte, who played Hu Jintao in this same exact sketch last November. Meet the new sketch. Still as lackluster as the old sketch. SNL #36.6, meet SNL #35.7. It's one thing to have a recurring character. But a recurring cold open? That offers nothing new? Ugh. Strap in for a long haul.
Fun fact in the monologue: It's ScarJo's third time hosting. Did you know that? I'm going to call her ScarJo because trying to remember the spelling of Scarlett Johansson is too time-consuming, and you need that time for other things. Like writing jokes? She says she's keeping a low profile, but her hair is saying high-profile! Her monologue about celebutards is all prelude for her to sing a song from "Chicago." And get Kristen Wiig onstage as Dina Lohan. And Abby Elliott as Ke$ha. You didn't miss much. Presumably not online due to licensing rights for the tune.
In the post-monologue ad spoof spot, we're treated to a look at a new MTV series: "My Super Sweet 16 and Pregnant!" with a teen preggers ScarJo, and "America's Best Pregnant Dance Crew" hosted by "DILF" Mario Lopez (Andy Samberg) and a dance crew with Pedrad and Elliott, Nick Cannon's "Wild'N Out" is back (with Jay Pharaoh), and a new version of "Cribs" with Vanessa Bayer and a crib, and "I'm Snooki and Pregnant" with Bobby Moynihan returning as Snooki. MTV: Maternity Television. Snooki was good for a chuckle. But the video felt like it was going through the motions instead of going for it.
After our first ad break, it's another TV parody, this time of Bravo's "millionaire matchmaker," with ScarJo as the matchmaker (what's her name Patti) and Moynihan and Elliott as her assistants from the show. OK. Before I decide whether I like this sketch, let me just say that I really do appreciate the Internet nod (intentional or subtle) to Vanessa Bayer's real-life dating video submission by casting her in this scripted awkward one. "You look like a visible fart," Patti says of her millionaire "Candace." Then out of nowhere comes her perfect match in Taran Killam. I felt like the point of this sketch was summed up in the end, when ScarJo told us, "Who knows? Who cares? Shut up!"
This is a rough start.
Television Dominicana presents "The Manuel Ortiz Show," with Armisen as the host. Oh, this is the talk show with revelations, broken up by frantic Latin dancing. Ay ay ay. We've seen this before. ScarJo is his first guest. Her baby might not be her husband's (Samberg), but her husband's best friend's (Hader). What about his girlfriend (Pedrad), though? Security is played by Killam and Kenan Thompson to take the girlfriend away. Wiig is the nurse with the lab results. No. Wait. That other security guard was Jason Sudeikis? Those stories must be true, then, about him trying to lose a bunch of weight because he's dating January Jones. Creepy. If that wasn't either of them, then creepier still.
You know that new movie about the unstoppable train called Unstoppable? If you have a TV, then of course you do. You couldn't avoid TV trailers for this thing. So, time to bring out Jay Pharoah's Denzel Washington for an encore, with Killam playing Chris Pine's part. ScarJo gets Rosario Dawson's lines from the trailer, apparently. Paul Brittain is in this video, too. The premise is that Pine's insults about Denzel's age don't hurt Denzel's feelings. And something about the Chrysler Building. Definitely something about the Chrysler Building!
And now it's the return of the horrible Hollywood tabloid TV duo (Wiig and Hader) to do "Hollywood Dish" with ScarJo as ScarJo. This sketch is supposed to point out how horrible Hollywood tabloid TV is, and they do get that point across. Also a nice nod to mothers. I'd tell you about a moment that Wiig gets victimized, perhaps surprisingly by Hader, based on their mutual facial reactions, but you can see that already in the screencap above. Seemed like Hader may have done something differently from dress rehearsal, just to trick Wiig? Or am I reading too much into that moment. Just looking for answers…
Can the Arcade Fire save it? Can Arcade Fire save us? "We Used to Wait."
In Weekend Update, we see former President George W. Bush and Kanye West, together again, for the first time? Pharoah plays Kanye, while Sudeikis is W. "No time for haters!" You know, this would have worked better as the cold open, I think, than an Update segment, especially since Matt Lauer was involved in screwing up interviews with both of them this week. Did they not have someone who could play Lauer?
Armisen and Bayer, meanwhile, showed up as Frank and Gladys Madden, passengers on that Carnival Cruise Lines ship that lost power after a fire off the coast of Mexico this week. She does all of the talking.
Disney Channel, St. Katherine's Middle School is the scene for Marvin (Kenan Thompson) in a wheelchair after his knee surgery, with other students played by Wiig (?), ScarJo, Samberg, Brittain and Killam. Could he use the "power of positive thinking" to walk instead of relying on doctor's advice? Pratfall! Why is he talking like he's dying in an old Western movie? But so-and-so lectured that "anything is possible"! Oh, Disney Channel and your messages that don't jibe with reality. If you zone out, you'll miss the masturbation joke, because by then, they're yammering about "the sky's the limit." Armisen plays the gym coach who tries to get him on a trampoline. My problem is Kenan doesn't really sell the pratfalls big enough. His hands are on the floor every time to brace the fall, worse than a WWE rassler. People loved Chris Farley's dives and Molly Shannon's backward-falling Mary Catherine Gallagher because they fell with a sense of danger. This is too safe. A metaphor for the season, perhaps!
Are you trying to be subversive but not going for the gusto, SNL? Level with us. Blink once for yes, twice for no. We won't tell the others. Promise.
AN SNL DIGITAL SHORT from the U.N. Hader introduces kids doing their "model U.N." winners, with their thoughts on world history. Samberg is up first. He raps! Were you surprised? At all? In the slightest? "What was that???" He does have a point. And look, that's Arcade Fire to sing about the healing power of dance. And you thought the healing power was comedy. If dancing is part of comedy, then yes. Then. Yes.
Has SNL not yet tackled Paula Deen, the Southern homecooking chef on the Food Channel who loves butter and fat? Who plays her? Wiig, naturally. Actually, she's probably the best one to tackle Deen. This was an ad for her new towels that soak up all the fat.
Once again, Arcade Fire. "Sprawl II."
TLC's "Stars of Tomorrow" with Moynihan as a casting director for child actors. Wiig plays the mother of 11-year-old Laura Parsons (Bayer), who shows how she became a show-stopper delivering the crucial dialogue from "A Few Good Men." ScarJo plays another child actor doing "On the Waterfront." Kids do say the darnedest line readings, don't they? That inflection. Classic. Armisen plays a theater producer. And they heighten it by casting these young girls in more outlandish roles. "We have a word in theater: Gaymazing."
ScarJo has sold items in the family business each time she has hosted, and even when her hubby Ryan Reynolds hosted, so why wait until a few minutes to 1 a.m. to have her do it again? Another weird scheduling choice. But there is Armisen to tell millionaires nothing says you're rich like…ceramic busts. They've already done chandeliers, marble columns and porcelain fountains. Why not busts? I suppose it's easier to fill a stage with busts than with baby grand pianos, right?
And that was that.
When I'm up on a Saturday night, I can tell from my Twitter feed when there's SNL buzz and what for, and this season, crickets. Whether that's a indictment from my peers, or whether that's a sign that the competition for our time is more compelling — this past Saturday also saw the big Manny Pacquiao fight — I've noticed that other comedians and comedy fans, and even some who usually race to comment on SNL each week, aren't doing so this fall. This week's episode certainly looked like a microcosm of a season in transition — barely any Sudeikis, and none of Wiig's classic characters, with more screen time for Bayer and the other newbies.
I heard about two sketches that got laughs in dress but were cut from the live program. In one, ScarJo milked cows and attracted attention from all the local boys, while she couldn't figure out why they liked watching her milk the cows. Pretty standard sexual innuendo fare. The other sketch would have been a game show in which contestants had to guess the identity of another person. In this case, the person in question was the contestant's doorman. Hader and Bayer would have been in this one. Sounds funny to me. But maybe that's because it sounds very New York. If we're lucky, they'll tweak this one enough to put it back on the schedule. Or something funny that we all want to talk about on Monday morning. Right?