After SNL threw itself a little birthday bash, it’s back to regularly scheduled programming at Studio 8H.
The Host: Between the monologue, one whole sketch, and the punchline of another sketch, you would think that Fifty Shades of Grey is Dakota Johnson’s first acting role. Even though it is her big break, Johnson has had major roles before (Ben and Kate forever!) and she will likely have roles in the future. But the titillation of being able to make jokes at the expense of BDSM is just too strong for the writers this week. And it’s easy to not blame them, because Johnson comes off as utterly uncomfortable with her duties tonight. Johnson appears to be a bundle of nerves during her monologue, where she stands stiffly, doesn’t move her arms, and speaks with a shaky voice. She then doesn’t have much to do in any of her sketches, usually playing straight to crazy characters, but she reacts like an audience member brought onstage during an improv sketch, not as a performer who has rehearsed the sketch for days. It’s a shame, because during the two pre-taped segments she appears in, Johnson shows she can exist comfortably within a loopy premise. If only she was able to bring the same level of comfort to the live segments, the episode may not have been so lackluster for so long.
Musical Guest: Alabama Shakes’ previous album, Boys & Girls, was a perfectly respectable piece of Southern blues. The best aspect of that album is lead singer Brittany Howard’s monster pipes, which are somehow soulful and jazzy all at once, creating a perfect picture of anguish and youthful exuberance. Based off of tonight’s two performances, Alabama Shakes has finally found the orchestration to properly back up those incredible vocals. Their first performance, “Don’t Wanna Fight”, is a funk-tinged rocker that will likely get a ton of play on alternative radio stations in the coming months. But the real show is “Gimme All Your Love”, which sounds like an outtake from the Black Keys’ Turn Blue produced by the Pixies, and fills the stage with naked emotion, with a power that not even most veteran musicians can muster.
Best Sketch: SNL pays tribute to the late Leonard Nimoy in their own weird way with “Worf, MD”. Taran Killam is old and dying, and nurses Leslie Jones and Johnson are desperately waiting for a doctor to show up and deal with the patient. Enter: Kenan Thompson, dressed as Lt. Worf. Thompson plays his doctor as an overwhelmed nice guy who is just trying to do his job and trying his best to connect better with his Taiwanese wife by dressing up as Worf and going to Star Trek conventions. Thompson never dips into parody, which makes his performance even better, causing Johnson to break because she wants to laugh at it so much. The final punchline of “Worf, MD” being an actual show coming to NBC is 30 Rock-level good.
Worst Sketch: Any sketch pre-update could easily go here. The show, partly due to Johnson’s nerves and partly due to weak premises, spends its first hour treading water and generating few laughs. The best example of this is the “Cinderella” sketch, which features the return of Cecily Strong’s Cathy-Ann. The idea of Cinderella having a motor-mouthed, trashy friend who gives her confidence is a great first draft of an idea, but it is not refined enough by showtime to accomplish anything. Strong, Johnson’s Cinderella, and Killam’s Prince appear to be acting in three separate sketches, a fact not helped by camera blocking that isolates each of the actors. Much like Johnson’s Cinderella, we end the sketch mostly perplexed about what transpired, and hurriedly moving on to another place once it’s over.
Weekend Update: The saving grace of the episode is the best group of Update panelists of the season. Sure, there are good one-liners like Jost faking a heat attack and Che throwing shade at the justice system, but the panelists are pure gold. Kate McKinnon bursts in with another winning character, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who gives hot takes to everybody (“I’m like a horsefly: I bite hard, and I look like a horsefly”), Jay Pharoah busts out his Kanye impression to give the best apology of all time (“Sorry to Selma / Because I thought “Glory” was about me”), and Bobby Moynihan resurrects Riblet, who bounds over the desk, is convinced Chewbacca and C-3PO are real people, and has a microphone shipped to him just so he can drop it when he shows Che up at his job. These panelists all bring the right mix of incredible confidence and musical ticks that make up the best SNL characters, so don’t be surprised if we see them again before the end of the season.
Other Notes: The return of the Good Neighbors brings a hilarious “YouTube Social Experiment”, where Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney harass real people in outsized bro-vlogger personalities. It’s nice to see Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith in the audience, though one wonders at what point they will get tired of making “I don’t want to see my daughter naked” jokes. Next week, for fans of “let’s throw some darts at a board and see what happens” bookings, is Chris Hemsworth and the Zac Brown Band.