SNL Season 35: Final cast and episode summary

This is my last part in my series of posts about the 2009-2010 season of SNL.  If I blog about SNL during the summer hiatus, I'm going to focus on earlier seasons and episodes.  I plan on doing reviews of an earlier season during the summer, but I wanted to give some final thoughts on the castmembers and the shows this year.  I've said before that the writing was the big problem on the show, but I wanted to discuss the individual castmembers' performances this year in-depth.  I also wanted to highlight a few of the standout moments of this year, both good and bad.

The Cast

Fred Armisen: When they were hired on the show in 2002, Fred Armisen and Will Forte were the ones contributing the freshest, most offbeat material in a period of the show's history where inspiration was sorely needed, the years between Will Ferrell's departure and the hiring of Bill Hader, Andy Samberg and Kristen Wiig.  I do still like Armisen a great deal but although he has had a lot of screen time this year, he hasn't really done a whole lot that was particularly memorable.  His Barack Obama opened the show quite a bit.  Most people call attention to the weakness of the impression, but there's really not a whole lot with Obama that Fred can work into a "hook" besides his speech cadences: he can't turn him into a character like Carvey did with Bush Senior or Ferrell and Forte did with George W. Bush.  Combined with the fact that the impression is mainly used for dull-as-hell cold openings that are short on actual humor, it really seems like he could better be used elsewhere.  Other than Obama, he's been doing the "improv game" characters on Weekend Update (Garth of Garth and Kat, inarticulate "satirist" Nicholas Fehn) as well as more run-of-the-mill characters that really don't stand out on the level of his earlier, more eccentric contributions to the show.  He still has his moments (I did enjoy the Wedding Band sketch with Dave Grohl), but I know he's capable of better.  C+

Will Forte: Forte's been with the show as long as Armisen, but he's not getting the same amount of screentime, and we're still getting some offbeat material from him: we got a few appearances from his creepy gravel-voiced Obama hater (now named Hamilton), the eponymous hero of MacGruber, and a new character in oblivious sportscaster Greg Stink.  What I really like about Forte is his absolute commitment to his characters, no matter how bizarre or inane: Jon Bovi actually works thanks to the performances of Forte and Jason Sudeikis.  Even this far into this tenure, he's playing roles like the Closet Organizer (in one of the best commercial parodies in recent memory) or the interviewer who gets worked up when a job applicant steals a lone potato chip.  The peaks aren't coming as frequently as they had before, but they're still there.  B+

Bill Hader: Now that Darrell Hammond is off the show, Hader's now the show's resident male impressionist on the show.  This year, he's given us return appearances by Vincent Price and Robert Byrd, and introduced new impressions of James Carville, Rod Serling, Richard Branson and Eddie Vedder, once again demonstrating his talent for impersonating a wide variety of different public figures.  Bill also seems to have inherited the Dan Aykroyd pitchman mantle.  Towards the end of the season he also brought back Stefon, a one-off character from last year, in a few well received Weekend Update commentaries.  My main complaint with Hader is that he does tend to break character a bit more than he used to (mainly in the Stefon and Scared Straight bits) but he's still one of the best parts of the current cast.  A-.

Seth Meyers: Ever since he started on Weekend Update, Seth Meyers barely appears in the show, something also owing to his duties as head writer.  He's been doing Update solo for a year and a half now; I still think he has some strong moments, namely when there's a little more anger and smugly sarcastic indignation in his ranting, but truth be told, he works better with a partner.  Update was also a little too dependent on the guest commentaries, especially in the later half of the season.   B-

Andy Samberg: Samberg is still the cast's resident go-to guy for just plain goofy material and one of the "faces" of the current cast, but the show seems to know when to use him as a performer and not just a personality.  In fact his presence seems almost muted this year compared to seasons before: Samberg spent a lot of time in the straightman roles this year.  The goofiness is still there, but it seems more fine-tuned: he had an excellent night during the Ryan Reynolds show that ended with a silly backstage sketch involving him and Lady Gaga attempting to kiss while both wearing Gaga's bubble outfit.  The digital shorts are still hit or miss but still decent: when they're good they're good, when they're bad they're just forgettable, but at least they've recovered from the dip in quality they took in early 2008.  B-

Jason Sudeikis: Sudeikis is the most solid and dependable castmember this season.  Equally at home playing straightmen, overconfident blowhards, the beleaguered or just plain silly characters, he had a few standouts this year: Sudeikis easily steals "What Up With That" from Kenan Thompson with dance moves and a facial expression, and I always enjoy his Joe Biden.  Like Forte, Sudeikis has a firm commitment to the roles he plays, and it's no surprised that the two work well in sketches together: watch "Potato Chip Thief" from the Blake Lively show for an example.  The writers brought back the ESPN Classic guys too many times, but Sudeikis and Forte give good performances in each one, and even an idea as dumb as the opposite band Jon Bovi works thanks to their commitment.  A

Kenan Thompson: The former All That regular still can grate at times, and his range is only slightly bigger than Melanie Hutsell's, but I did find myself enjoying him a lot more than I have in seasons past.  I still think they need to get another black performer to do impressions that he is not suited for (like Tiger Woods), and I'm not really a big fan of his recurring material: Grady Wilson was funny as a one-off but it didn't need to be brought back; the same goes for "What Up With That".  I never cared for "French" Def Jam comedian Jean K. Jean in the least, and the Scared Straight bits are more entertaining for seeing the host get into the action than Thompson's character.  Where Thompson excels is in straightman roles, especially when it calls for his character to just glare back at the other person (his facial expressions are priceless), which is why his Whoopi Goldberg works so well.  The other thing he can do is get the quick, easy laugh a bit better than his castmembers: usually this involves him in drag, but he's also blessed with good delivery.  C

Kristen Wiig: If there's a performer who's being stretched too thin, it's Kristen Wiig.  She is getting the most airtime and the most notice in the press out of anyone else in the cast, but since the show is lacking another full female castmember after Amy Poehler left, she seems to get first dibs on any significant female role.  I still think she does OK in supporting bits and impressions but I haven't seen enough of those.  Far too many sketches are just excuses for Kristen Wiig to do something annoying while everyone reacts to her; it's always everyone reacting to her and not the other way around.  Critic Jaime Weinman feels that the weakness in Wiig's characters is that they're too obnoxious; I think the main issue is that it's a steady diet with a dominant flavor.  Just like a little onion works in a sauce, a smaller dose of Wiig was welcome: this feels like a 30-day diet of raw onions with bland generic-brand wheat crackers on the side.  D

Abby Elliott: Her impressions are decent, if not a little too exaggerated.  She does a pretty wide variety of impressions as well, including a few older actresses, butch lesbians and even an androgynous-looking male athlete; some are better than others, and for every Sally Field or Anna Faris she nails, there are a few weaker impressions, such as her take on Rachel Maddow (good at the mannerisms, but the voice needed work).   The main issue is that we haven't really seen her do much else besides impressions: the majority of her non-impression roles are bit parts, and even then she has fairly limited screentime.  She runs the risk of being a female Darrell Hammond, who by the end of his tenure was basically doing cameo appearances in one sketch per night just for an impression, and even though she does get some noticed due to the impressions, she may not have made a big enough splash on the show to justify a third season.  C+

Bobby Moynihan: In his second year, Bobby Moynihan has made a strong impression on the show and it seems almost certain he will be promoted to the main cast for the next season.  Of the featured players in the last few years, he just seems the most natural and at ease in sketches, and gels with the cast well.  There's a confidence in his performances that makes it seem like he's already a full castmember, and he also has a considerable amount of charm and likeability that makes him appealing to watch even in small parts.  Of his appearances this year I would probably rank his work as the thing on the airplane wing in the Twilight Zone sketch, his Juggalo parody character Ass Dan, and his brief appearance as Susan Boyle as my favorites.  I'm curious about what he'll contribute next season.  A

Nasim Pedrad: I was having a little trouble distinguishing Pedrad and Slate at the beginning of the season because of some similarities in appearance (the way I finally distinguished the two is that Nasim is a little shorter and Jenny has a distinctively shaped nose), but Nasim has distingished herself from Slate with a couple of strong performances, especially in a Weekend Update performance in her second full show as "Mrs. Ahmadinejad".  She also debuted a number of characters with potential, such as Ravish and Bedelia, that hopefully won't be completely undermined with the show's weak writing, as well as a decent arsenal of impressions.  B+

Jenny Slate: Poor Jenny Slate.  She had a bit more buzz going into the season than fellow rookie Nasim Pedrad on the strength of her live show, but her first showcase sketch had to be the one with all the "frickin's" in it; Slate slipped and said "fuck".  After that, there were a few nights where she was lucky to appear in a single sketch, and she has been only been steadier screentime in the second half of the season.  Unfortunately, the loss of on-screen experience also meant she wasn't integrating as well into the show; for months after her debut, she still had very awkward delivery and presence, at one time even reading a wrong line on a cue card.  If she is brought back for a second year I hope she gets a better outlet for her talent than the "What's Up With That" singer or doorbell hawker Tina-Tina Chanuse.  Some castmembers, such as Tracy Morgan, languished a few years before finding their voice on the show, so there's still hope.  I have seen some improvement toward the end of the year, but she needs to find a way to distinguish herself.  D+

Strongest Shows

  • John Hamm / Michael Buble: Hamm was one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2008-09 season, and his return gig last January didn't disappoint: demonstrated that SNL may have a new frequent host a la Alec Baldwin.  Hamm's show was a tad more solid than Betty White;s, including probably the best callback to a sketch aired earlier in the same show in years: Forte's Closet Organizer guy was the main character in a bar sketch.
  • Betty White / Jay-Z: The most hyped episode in years thanks to a Facebook campaign, White demonstrated she still has her comic touch, while a half-dozen female alumni make welcome return appearances, including the much-missed Rachel Dratch and Ana Gasteyer.
  • Joseph Gordon-Levitt / Dave Matthews Band: Coming off one of SNL's most notoriously bad weeks in recent memory (January Jones), it was good to have a host so game and energetic as the (500 Days of) Summer star, especially during his performance of "Make 'Em Laugh" during the monologue.  The show had other great moments like the completely left-field bit with Kenan Thompson as Reba McEntire, and Dave Matthews doing a pretty good Ozzy Osbourne.

Weakest Shows

  • January Jones / Black Eyed Peas: Jones has got to be one of the all-time worst actor hosts the show has ever had, with a performance reminiscent of Nancy Kerrigan's abysmal  1994 attempt at sketch comedy; at one point while on air, Jones can be heard asking which camera to look into.  Uninspired writing didn't help either, and this became one of the most widely panned SNLs in recent history.
  • Ryan Phillipe / Ke$ha: A heavy amount of recurring material only demonstrated how bad the writers' lack of originality had gotten this season, especially considering one sketch was done three and a half years before with a largely different cast.  Only the spoof of the Insane Clown Posse's "Miracles" video saved this from being worst of the season.
  • Taylor Lautner / Bon Jovi: A night of not particularly funny material, including another unnecessary reprise of Kristen Wiig's "Surprise" sketch and a tepid at best sketch with Lautner in drag as a Twilight fangirl.  When the show leads off with a sketch about stupid facial expressions, you're in for a long night.

Best Sketches

  • The Sarah Palin Network (Tina Fey): Another gleeful jab at the candidate continuing the Republican tradition of unqualified candidates that Dan Quayle and George W. Bush were a part of, with a few well done shots at the Tea Partiers and Jay Leno to boot.
  • Potato Chip Thief (Blake Lively): One of the silliest, most ridiculous sketches in years, where NASA prospect Jason Sudeikis (who looks more like a plantation owner) jeopardizes his chances of becoming an astronaut by taking one of recruiter Will Forte's 35 potato chips.
  • The Census (Betty White): In a sequel of sorts to the classic 2000 Christopher Walken census sketch, Tina Fey goes to the door of one Lee Smith, pronounced "Blaarfingaar Blaarfingaar".

Worst Sketches

  • Rear Window (January Jones): Grace Kelly has gas.  That's the entire point of the sketch.
  • Snipers (Alec Baldwin): Alec Baldwin half-enunciates "tay duh sha!" to his students over and over, as he rolls around the ground.
  • Riley (Sigourney Weaver): An abortive attempt to give Fred Armisen his own character with a theme song and catchphrase ("YOU BITCH!") a la Wiig's Gilly.

Best Musical Guests

  • MGMT: More than making up for the prior two weeks with Justin Bieber and Ke$ha, we were treated to some trippy psychedelic pop in April.
  • Lady Gaga: Sure, she's gimmicky, but she has demonstrated actual musical ability behind her radio-friendly hits and attention-getting outfits.  The second number that had her stop everything for a solo piano performance (all while dressed as Saturn) was perhaps the most interesting music performance in years.
  • Jay-Z: I admit I'm not a big rap fan, but for some reason, his epic 7-minute medley concluding with "New York State Of Mind" fit perfectly into the Betty White episode.

Worst Musical Guests

  • Ke$ha: Think of a half-assed Lady Gaga impersonator that looks more like John Travolta, add more gimmicks like dressing your band up like astronauts or wearing day-glo body paint, and you get her performances.
  • Black Eyed Peas: The most apt description of their act comes from a message board post that described it as "a bunch of club going yuppies that somehow snuck onto stage to do bad karaoke".  The fact that they were given three performances demonstrates just how desperate they were to fill the January Jones show.
  • Bon Jovi: Their leaden performances sounded like bloated 80's arena rock with all the joy sucked out of it.