Saturday Night Live, Season 40, Episode 12, “Blake Shelton”
Aired January 24, 2015 at 11:30 pm ET on NBC (East coast version watched for review)
Host/Musical Guest: Country music gets a bad rap in a lot of ways outside of the bible belt. Part of this is justifiable: The dregs of country music are ripe ground for parody, what with their trucks and beer and love for the troops. “Bro country”, in particular, has as many staunch defenders as it does haters who want to watch it burn in a tire fire. These are the kinds of country songs that take those truck and beer aspects of the genre, crank it up to 10, and generally are performed either very drunk or without shirts on (for a good primer on this, just listen to Maddie & Tae’s excellent takedown “Girl In A Country Song”). For many, Blake Shelton is the grand poobah of bro country, due to his massive record sales and his role as mentor on NBC’s The Voice. And Shelton is a great personality, all good-ole boy charm and chicken-fried good looks, but he isn’t much of non-musical performer. Because of this, SNL smartly builds the show around Shelton, so that he wouldn’t have to actively do much. The “Farm Hunk” sketch serves as a good metaphor for this episode in micro: A revolving door of cast members acting wacky show up to make Shelton’s few actual laugh lines properly land. As a performer, though, Shelton is at his best when he is singing, something the episode uses with surprising efficiency, since SNL tends to never waste a host with a voice, returning to NBC this February. Shelton only sings twice outside of his musical performances — “Neon Light” acts as a prime example of the big inspirational notes he can conjure when he isn’t wallowing in the self-parody of “Boys Round Here” — and one of those is in a music video. Even if one still is not convinced of Shelton’s talent after watching the episode, which is agreeable and full of chuckles in a way last week’s wasn’t, his cheery proclamation during curtain of “I hosted Saturday Night Live!” should be enough to assuage all of one’s doubts.
Best Sketch: It isn’t often that three sketches have well-constructed arguments for winning this platitude. The Shawshank Redemption parody, in which Kenan Thompson plays Red with the same calm dignity we are familiar with at what seems to be a parole hearing, opens big with the reveal that this Red is known as “The Texas Man Gobbler”. Shelton plays shock and indignation well as one of the board members trying to get Thompson to realize how ridiculous all the inspirational monologues about the human spirit sound when coming from a mouth that has tasted human flesh. Then there’s “Topeka Today”, where Shelton shows up to a morning news show to sing a song he helped an old widower (Taran Killam) write for his dead wife. The sketch builds nicely as we wait for the song to take its inevitable dark turn, where we learn that Killam’s dead wife yelled at him in his sleep and her favorite hobby was making him cry. But what takes the cake is “Celebrity Family Feud: American Idol vs. The Voice”. Much like its comedic forefather “Celebrity Jeopardy”, this sketch is just an excuse to let the cast run wild with celebrity impressions of varying degrees, and let them bounce off an incomparable one who plays host, that being Thompson’s Steve Harvey impression in this case. Thompson’s Harvey is an expertly tuned joke delivery machine, what with his lisp and his suit made by Hennessy and his new moniker as the Black Captain Crunch. Even though the sketch starts to lose some steam as it begins to rely more on the actual mechanics of Family Feud, Thompson as Harvey is a dynamo of goodwill and energy that will never die.
Worst Sketch: As pointed out earlier, the only sketches that don’t work are the ones that require Shelton to do too much. Even though he doesn’t have much to do speech wise, the “Farm Hunk” sketch quickly falls apart, as Shelton is just too milquetoast to sustain the increasing weirdness coming at him from the women of the cast. The other main offender here is the 10-1 sketch, in which Shelton plays a patron at a magic show who comes to believe that magic is real. The sketch mostly consists of Shelton standing behind the magician and making requests, like “Make me rich”, “Give me guns for hands”, or “Give me the power to go down on myself.” Because the sketch lives and dies on Shelton’s comedic chops, it mostly dies because he cannot engender the character with the amount of wonderment and increasing frustration, which means he mostly comes off as whiny and grating. Thompson’s reading of the “go down on myself” line that ends the sketch shows how much a MOR sketch can be enlivened by a good performer. In addition, these two sketches have strange lines about Shelton’s characters being generally confused by black people. While a sketch dealing with racism, both purposeful and accidental, in country music could be topical and arguably necessary, the presence of these lines in these sketches just feels icky and hack.
Weekend Update: Disjointed is the first word that comes to mind about Update this week. Sure, Jost and Che have some fine jokes about the state of the union and #ballghazi, but no one segment seems connected to another. The best segment is the appearance of Riblet (Bobby Moynihan), a loudmouthed, crazy-haired friend of Che’s who shows up at the Update desk and proceeds to steal his job and return at the end of the Update as Che’s ex’s new boyfriend. Update has always been a great showcase for Moynihan’s character work, and while Riblet is no Anthony Crispino, Moynihan does wear Riblet’s manic faux-gangsta energy well. The rest of Update is marred by jokes just straight up not landing, from Che’s joke about Saudi Arabian women drivers to Pete Davidson’s entire monologue about all the gay porn he watched while he was high. The only thing less interesting than someone detailing what they were dreaming about is someone detailing what they did while they were high.
Other Notes: “The Wishing Boot” music video not only captures the feel of every country music video produced in the last decade, it tales a gloriously loony tale of a magical boot that grants wishes and can shapeshift into a dog. Pitch perfect, through and through. Props to the cold open, as well, for taking a “you can’t handle the truth” reference seriously and just full out doing the climatic scene from A Few Good Men; Dougy Spoons just did what he had to do. Next week is J.K. Simmons and D’Angelo, a pairing perfectly summed up by this tweet.