Saturday Night Live, Season 40, Episode 20, “Reese Witherspoon/Florence + The Machine”
Aired May 9, 2015 at 11:30 pm ET on NBC (East coast version watched for review)
Host: Reese Witherspoon is a type of host that blends in with the cast and feels at home, similar to how Cameron Diaz’s episode played earlier in the season—Witherspoon’s outing even shares a sketch with Diaz’s. Unlike last week’s episode, where there was always this nagging feeling that the writers had no idea what to do with the talent they had on hand, Witherspoon settles perfectly into her role as support. This is best seen in her monologue, where she simply introduces the cast and their mothers so that they can tell cute and embarrassing stories, like how Jay Pharoah was always throwing the artfully crafted sandwiches his mom would make for him. Witherspoon still gets a handful of laugh lines throughout, particularly in a rare-for-a-host appearance on Weekend Update, but her real strength comes from not hijacking the evening, allowing the sketches to live or die on their own merit.
Musical Guest: With what could be pedantically described as a witchy voice, Florence Welch has the kind of baroque voice and presence that allows her to take clichés, like singing about bad relationships, and make them feel important and powerful and genuine. Her second performance, “What Kind of Man”, is a slow build of realization and pain that ends in a loud and incredible statement of Welch’s talent as both a singer (those notes!) and performer (that face!). The intimacy of the SNL stage only amplifies her powers, and the direction by Don Roy King smartly keeps Welch in the shot as much as possible, because she is far and away the best thing on that stage.
Best Sketch: Sometimes the best sketch of an SNL season will be a complicated, loony character piece that highlights the talents of a particular host, like Zach Galifianakis’ two-part Darrell’s House sketch. But other times, all that’s needed is an elegantly simple joke with just a bit of edge and the right execution to make a sketch a classic, and that is what SNL delivers with tonight’s “Picture Perfect” sketch. A simple game of what is essentially Pictionary goes awry when the second team is tasked with drawing the Prophet Muhammad, and viewers get to just sit back and watch Bobby Moynihan and Kenan Thompson freak out as they grapple with trying to win a million dollars by simply inviting the wrath of radical Islam. Witherspoon is the secret key to the sketch working so well, because she plays frustrated with Moynihan and Thompson’s lack of effort, but is never unenthusiastic or mean spirited towards her teammates, making their unease and fright in the situation all the more deliciously goofy. The sketch itself is A material, and having it air right after the what transpired in Garland, TX earlier this week gives the sketch just the right amount of bite to put it above anything that has come before it this season.
Worst Sketch: Sketches like “The Scene in L.A.” are just plain bad, because they never have a spine that keeps the sketch together, leaving the players to meander through half-jokes, like Cecily Strong and Witherspoon’s characters leaving their mics on while they deal with leaking urine and massive farts, respectively, and their gay best friends not knowing how to work any of the tech of the show, and they also are cougars, and also Witherspoon’s unseen plastic surgeon husband funds the show. But a truly terrible sketch will have that same lack of spine and collection of half-jokes but waste something truly magical, like the waterpark sketch does with the chemistry between Beck Bennet and Kyle Mooney. Those two dudes have such natural chemistry and herky-jerky delivery, that to strand them at the top of a waterslide and throw half-baked ideas at them until the sketch runs out is wrong. Unfortunately, we live in a world where Strong’s Troll Bridge character can come back, so these poor bozos that Bennet and Mooney have cooked up will probably be resurrected at some point next season to again deal with the sad antics this waterpark will throw at them.
Weekend Update: Jost and Che’s one-liners are rather soft across the board this week, but Che gets in a good jab about Dr. Ben Carson being described by Republicans as “Some of my best friends are…” and Jost not only makes another entry in his distant dad jokes, but knocks Floyd Mayweather on his ass, saying that, with Mayweather saying there won’t be a rematch with Pacquiao, if you want to “fight Mayweather more than once, you have to date him.” As for the panelists, Leslie Jones: Relationship Expert returns and gets to call Jost a sexy Dreamsicle, and Che’s neighbor Willie comes back, and as they always say, “there ain’t a bus short enough for you, Willie”. But the stars here are The Girls You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party, with Strong bringing Witherspoon along to tag-team the segment. TGYWYHSACWAAP works, like Drunk Uncle, because the writers have a unique talent for stringing together strings of topical gibberish like “Bruce Jenner’s allowed to be a transformer but our climate’s not allowed to change” and Strong, and in this case Witherspoon, walk the line of slurring the dialogue and portraying confidence that comes across as completely unearned. Weekend Update is the one spot on SNL where recurring characters do not elicit an automatic eyeroll, and that tends to be because those characters, like TGYWYHSACWAAP, are the strongest written ones on the show.
Other Notes: Next week SNL looks to bow out season 40 in style, with host Louis CK and musical guest Rihanna.