Brief thoughts on #SNL40

Other people are probably going to write more extensively about tonight's SNL 40th Anniversary special, so I'll leave it to them, but I'll say my piece about a few things:

Most of the show was entertaining; the clip montages were well-chosen and edited, and it was good to see the lesser-celebrated Doumanian and Ebersol years get more "deep cuts" covered in the highlight reels, as opposed to the same Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo clips they normally rely on.  

The music performances weren't bad; nothing on par with Prince doing "Electric Chair" at the 15th anniversary or the Eurythmics and Al Green medleys at the 25th. Miley Cyrus doing "50 Ways To Leave Your Lover" was surprisingly good, though.  

Jane Curtin doing Weekend Update with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler was a highlight, and she killed it with her Fox News joke. She was always the secret weapon of the original years, or at least the one hidden in plain sight.  

The biggest misstep of the night was the Californians sketch, which didn't seem to play too well in studio. Despite the participation of Laraine Newman and cameos from Bradley Cooper, Kerry Washington, Taylor Swift and Betty White, the sketch dragged.  David Spade posted a close-up of the script on Instagram earlier, which revealed this was the handiwork of James Anderson and Kent Sublette; for all I know they may be wonderful people, but this was all too typical of their other work on the show*.  The same could be said for Garth and Kat, which ground the pacing of the "salute to musical sketches" segment to a halt.

The "In Memoriam" montage was well-done, but I noticed a few glaring omissions:

  • Joe Bodolai (writer, 1981-82)
  • Nelson Lyon (writer, 1981-82)
  • Mark O'Donnell (writer, 1981-82)
  • Terry Southern (writer, 1981-82)
  • Alan P. Rubin (band, 1975-83)
  • Drake Sather (writer, 1994-95)
  • Mauricio Smith (band, 1975-79)

They may have kept to a "more than one season" rule for writers, but I found it odd they didn't count the other band members who have passed.  I believe there were also a few other crew and staff members that had been memorialized beforehand but not here.  That said, it was nice to see some others get their due.  I was most concerned that Charles Rocket, Danitra Vance, Michael O'Donoghue and Tom Davis would get short shrift, and was pleased to see they were counted.  The same goes for Don Pardo, Dave Wilson and Audrey Peart Dickman (from many accounts, she was the engine that kept the show running, production-wise). 

Other than those issues, the special served its purpose: it reminded the audience why this show (and it's history) is special, and it was good to see a lot of familiar faces again.  I hope everyone there had a good time (even Anderson and Sublette).

*A partial list of other Anderlette sketches this season: "Forgotten Television Gems", "Women In The Workplace", "Campfire Song", "Nest-presso", "Amy Adams Monologue", "Singing Sisters", "Soap Opera Reunion", "The Journey", "Casablanca".

SNL Post-mortem: 10/26/13: Edward Norton / Janelle Monae

After an underwhelming episode with Bruce Willis, pretty much anything would seem like an improvement for SNL's next show.  Fortunately, Edward Norton's episode was markedly better than the last few, thanks to a game host and strong musical guest, even if the writing continues to be sub-par.

The Wes Anderson parody was easily the strongest and most fully realized segment, drawing primarily from Royal Tenenbaums, with some smaller nods to Rushmore, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Moonrise Kingdom.   I have to admit that "failure to grasp a simple concept" is pretty reliable as far as a sketch premise goes, so "School Visit" and "Steve Harvey" both made me laugh.  "School Visit" was the stronger sketch, with Nasim Pedrad getting a rare featured segment on the show as an elementary school student who doesn't quite understand "Stranger Danger".  The sketch works because Pedrad plays her character with such undue confidence, while Norton is able to hold his own against Pedrad in his role as the police officer; the remaining cast also does some good support work.  "Steve Harvey" was weaker and didn't have an ending, but Harvey's (Kenan Thompson) completely wrong guesses about punny Halloween costumes were some good quick laughs.

The show's weaknesses were still apparent last night.  Norton's final sketch, where he explained individual pieces of Halloween candy he gave out, had some good lines, but seemed like a quick rewrite of the Christmas ornaments sketch from the 2011 Steve Buscemi show.  Miley Cyrus' cameo in the monologue didn't bother me as much as it did other people, but the gratuitous twerking reference that ended "12 Years Not A Slave" only served to instantly date the sketch.   A sketch revolving around a "Rain Man"-type character 25 years after the movie got some grousing from the message boards for its untimeliness, but the bigger problem was a lack of an ending.   Weekend Update was mercifully shorter than usual, but Cecily Strong still seems a little tentative, and Bobby Moynihan's Anthony Crispino character seems to be more to provide Seth Meyers something to react to than anything else.

I'm still baffled by the decision to hire six new featured players to replace three (four if you count Tim Robinson's move to the writer's room).  I understand that Fred Armisen, Bill Hader and Jason Sudeikis were the cast's foundation in the last few seasons, but the huge number hired seems to indicate a lack of faith in the established cast; this is even more aggravating when you take into consideration their limited opportunities to develop their own dynamic, especially during the reign of Kristen Wiig as alpha-castmember.  Kenan Thompson is being pushed as this year's bedrock, but he doesn't have the versatility of the departed players; why the show didn't look for a stronger black performer to replace him is a mystery.  To their credit, Bobby Moynihan and Taran Killam are still very dependable in whatever they do, but there are so many players competing for airtime that the cast can't establish a true group dynamic.

SNL Post-Mortem: 10/05/13: Miley Cyrus

Miley Cyrus first hosted SNL back in 2011; at the time I was a little irritated by the show's kowtow to the youth demographic, but in retrospect she ended up being a decent host.   Following the media attention to her infamous twerking performance with Robin Thicke at the 2013 Video Music Awards, her second hosting gig seemed to be an inevitability.  This honestly didn't bother me much, largely because all the finger-pointing and tongue-wagging towards that particular incident seemed to disproportionately blame and criticize Cyrus, as well as call her mental health into question.   Her attempts to sexualize her image have a whiff of trying too hard, but for all the questionable decisions she made in the past few years, Cyrus comes off more as a 20-year-old who makes many the same mistakes as a lot of non-famous people do than a cautionary tale in the waiting.

Some were expecting the show to be a trainwreck; Cyrus did seem to fan those flames by getting into a feud with Sinead O'Connor over the latter's open letter to her, but by air, she seemed collected and in control.  I'm not going to kid myself: Miley Cyrus is no Justin Timberlake, but she did fine on double-duty.  She has a self-awareness that I never really detected in Britney Spears, so while she sometimes does stupid things, she also seems fully aware of her actions.  

I was more impressed by her ability to share the spotlight and join in SNL sketches as part of the ensemble.  In that respect, she was light years ahead of Justin Bieber.  Cyrus also performed her songs decently, even if it only served to illustrate that "Wrecking Ball" and "We Can't Stop
 aren't especially great songs to begin with.

Where the show faltered was the writing.  A lot of the sketch ideas came across as fairly low-hanging fruit for the show, particularly the VMAs, the cable networks' Hilary Clinton movies).  My main issue with the "Mornin' Miami" sketch is that SNL has overused the promo shoot premise in the past few years; while the one-liners ended up justifying the sketch's place in the live show, it still felt like the writers plugging things into formulas instead of building towards a strong payoff.   The poetry teacher sketch had a few moments, but while it was nice to see Vanessa Bayer get a feature role, her character wasn't developed enough for the sketch to work.  The worst segment was the "cheerleader alien abduction", which felt too similar to "Nascarettes" and "Delinquent Teen Girl Gang" in that the crux of the sketch was the same unfunny joke repeated over and over.  I actually found the technical miscues funnier than the actual content of the sketch.

There were bright spots here and there: the "We Can't Stop" parody with John Boehner (Taran Killam) and Michelle Bachmann (Cyrus) twerking was memorable, and new players Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett got some of their own sensibility on the air with a pre-taped 10-to-1 sketch.  Bobby Moynihan can be still depended on to provide a quick laugh if a sketch begins to falter.  "Girlfriends Talk Show" came across as a predictable choice for a lead-off, but Aidy Bryant demonstrated that she carries those sketches.  Cecily Strong is growing into her role as Weekend Update co-anchor, but has yet to fully ditch the "Seth Meyers' trainee" vibe that permeated last week's show, and the segment as a whole has become way too long and bloated in recent years.

Next week's show should prove to be a wild card: Bruce Willis returns as part of SNL's "Hey, let's get someone who hasn't hosted in a long time" series with musical guest Katy Perry.

A BRIEF NOTE ABOUT CANADIAN TV: I missed a good chunk of the "Fifty Shades Of Gray Auditions" because Global, the Canadian broadcaster of SNL, mistook the commercial parody for a real commercial.  This has been happening infrequently for the last 10-11 years or so, possibly longer: I remember back in 2005-06, the network would run commercials during the Robert Smigel "TV Funhouse" segments.  It's annoying because in most markets, the American signal from NBC is unavailable due to simultaneous substitution.  SNL has been clearly marking their ad breaks for years, and to keep doing this suggests incompetence with live TV on Global's part.  NBC needs to consider renegotiating the Canadian rights to the show with another network.