“Saturday Night Live” is back, ladies and gentleman. And so am I, for my second year of “SNL” coverage here at HitFix. On tap for tonight’s premiere: one of the show’s favorite hosts and one of my favorite bands: Alec Baldwin and Radiohead, together at last. It is Baldwin’s 16th time hosting, which breaks Steve Martin’s all-time record. Look for Martin to show up in tonight’s broadcast, and look for a slew of “SNL” alums and big-named stars to drop by as well. No new faces in the cast this year, and no one was fired. Meet the new cast. Same as the old cast. This year, maybe they’ll remember Jay Pharaoh is actually IN said cast.
Let’s keep that continuity going here on Monkeys as Critics as well. I’ll assign relatively arbitrary grades to each sketch, you will get arbitrarily mad at those grades, and then we do it all again next week. Sound good? Good. Onto the 37th season of “SNL”!
Either the 7th or 8th GOP Debate: Huge applause for the start of the season. Let’s see how long the good vibe lasts. Baldwin’s in there right away, with his Gov. Rick Perry consistently angering the audience. Jason Sudeikis, as Romney, kills through his comparison to the other candidates. Taran Killam’s John Huntsman somehow avoided being insanely racist through a thorough commitment to turning the would-be President into a cashier at a Chinese restaurant. Another highlights: a “Whitney” joke that managed to be funnier than 95% of the jokes actually on “Whitney” this week, and Ron Paul’s refusal to help burning puppies. Much like Rick Perry himself, the sketch started with a lot of energy but lost steam by the end. Still, a solid start to the show. [Grade: B]
Monologue: You’re not gonna believe this, but Steve Martin shows up early on. I know. Blow me over with a feather. “Oh, I was just passing by the studio in full makeup,” he says, asking Baldwin for a urine sample in order to judge the validity of the hosting record. Helping with the test? Seth Rogen. (See above re: Stars, Parade Of.) Martin tests the urine as if sipping wine, detecting Cialis but no steroids. Unlike the overlong intro sketch, this didn’t overstay its welcome. It’s always nice having confident performers onstage during the monologue. [Grade: B+]
“Red Flag”: Hey, it’s “Bad Idea Jeans”, but for perfume! A series of increasingly bad things learned about an apparently perfect woman forms the basis of the first pre-produced bit of the year. Hey, I guess it’s better than re-airing something they did last year. (That’s another way of saying that we’ll see this again around November for no good reason.) By the way: 20 minutes into the show, only one sketch. I didn’t realize how long that debate sketch was until looking at the clock just now. [Grade: C]
“All My Children” Wrap Party: The conceit: the wrap party is as convoluted, overdramatic, and subject to as many wacky storylines as the soap itself. Thank God Rachel Dratch isn’t around anymore, or she’d break into laughter with each close-up. The increasingly use of, “Or was I pushed???” got funnier each time. And Lord help me, but Kenan Thompson’s “But also AIDS!” had me completely on the floor. (Strike up the annual “Kenan Sucks!” chorus in the comments.) I’d make a comment about every sketch so far having every cast member, but Pharoah hasn’t been seen yet. I’m starting a #FreeJayPharoah hashtag on Twitter right after this show ends. [Grade: A-]
“Eye on Buffalo”: When this sketch started, it felt like it would be one of those in which a single semi-funny joke got beaten into submission, until all who watched would fear they may never experience laughter again. But the tape-delay gimmick gave way to some pretty funny physical comedy, as a local reporter’s trip to Costa Rica is fraught with both technical difficulties and snakes that would give Freud a field day. We even learned backstory on both the anchor and the reporter in the mayhem. A solid sketch premise, solidly executed. Really good stuff early on, with only the commercial as a disappointment so far. [Grade: B+]
Next up, Radiohead! I love me some Radiohead, as I stated at the outset, but I’ll be honest: this song, “Lotus Flower”, is the only one that I really like off their new album, “The King of Limbs.” Still, given how few times this band will play North America in support of that album, it’s a treat to get to see them at all. And having seen them now, it appears Jonny Greenwood is playing W.O.P.R. from the movie “Wargames” as his primary instrument on this tour. Good to know. Plus? Thom Yorke + maracas = win. That’s just music math, people. [Grade: A-]
“Weekend Update”: Seth Meyers is back, and with a summer’s worth of material to work through, he and the staff come up with some solid jokes this week. Who’s the first to join him at the desk this year? Ah, Baldwin’s Tony Bennett! I like this, because I LIKE THINGS THAT ARE GREAT TOO! He’s there to talk movies, but somehow ends up talking about having a three-way with Bobby Darin and a girl who owned a seeing-eye Myna bird. Too bad it segues into a lost bit from the old ESPN Classic sketch involving Greg Stink. (Poise Pads! Ugh.) And Bennett is the only guest! Wow. I don’t remember any “Update” with only one guest. They must really feel confident about the upcoming sketches. [Grade: B]
“Who’s on Top?”: Bill Hader is SNL’s go-to in-sketch host. He played Shep Smith in the cold open, and he’s back hosting a game show about determining which member of a hypothetical Hollywood couple would be the “top” during gay sex. Oh my. Danger, Will Robinson! I love the idea that each person gets 10 minutes to think about each response: the type of person who would participate in something this wonderfully offensive would definitely need all the time to flip-flop. Fun facts we learn: French men are always bottoms, Timon and Pumbaa complete circles of life that are “circles of life,” and Paul Giamatti is never, ever a top. Also: “Entourage” fans that have been debating this very topic for the last seven seasons? You now have your official hierarchy. And I’m officially going to hell for laughing during most of this. [Grade: A-]
“Top Gun 25th Anniversary Edition” DVD: “SNL” did a few of these sketches last year, and the concept is simply an excuse to let the cast go wild with their impressions. Top ones this time: Hader’s Harvey Fierstein, Killam’s Tom Hanks, and Baldwin’s Al Pacino. Sadly, very few of the others really connect. And again: no Pharoah! Aren’t impressions his thing? Even if you don’t feel he can contribute in live sketches, pre-produced elements like this are totally in his wheelhouse! Abby Elliot is usually great in these as well, and anything she did would have been funnier than Nasim Pedrad’s Paula Abdul. (Props to Pedrad, however, for moving from featured player to repertory this year!) Maybe “Top Gun” should have been a category back in “Who’s on Top?” [Grade: C+]
“Child Psychologist”: Pedrad does “damaged child” as well as anyone in the cast, and she’s come up with another one here, in a vocational irony sketch to boot. The twist on this character? This iteration involves planking! Well, sort of, as at one point her character Raquel gets up on a china cabinet and launches plates at her father’s date in prime planking form. (“I could fall! Let’s talk about that!”) Props to Vanessa Bayer for taking that pudding bath like a champ at the end. Nothing about this sketch was wrong, exactly. But between Baldwin’s constant warnings about giving Raquel “the power” and her constant wailing that underscored the entire sketch, I felt worn out by the end. Having it all turn out to be a father/daughter psychological test on the hapless date didn’t save what came before it. The sketch attempted “edgy” and just ended up at “creepy”. [Grade: B-]
Radiohead is back, this time with “Staircase.” Unveiled a few months after the release of “Limbs,” it’s still more aural experiment than actual song. But it’s got a lot more life than most tracks on that album. Closing one’s eyes, it’s damn near impossible to figure out which band member is contributing which part to the overall soundscape. Sometimes their intricate parts fail to do anything but call attention to themselves. Here? They blend in successfully. It’s nothing I’ll ever hum, but it was certainly engaging to hear. [Grade: B]
Turner Classic Movies: “Angels in the Trenches” concerns a private tasked to deliver an increasingly odd set of messages back home from those dying around him. What starts out as simple offensive orders (involving debunking the Santa Claus myth to a dying soldier’s son) turns into odd sexual role-play and “Yo’ mama!” jokes before long. Yup, this was a 12:55 sketch alright, but more of the variety of “we need to fill more time” as opposed to “we’ve got something weird that we’re willing to try at the very end.” [Grade: C]
Best Sketch: “Who’s on Top?”
Worst Sketch: “Red Flag”
MVPs: Baldwin, Hader
MIAs: Jay Pharaoh, The Lonely Island
What did you think about tonight’s season premiere? Did Baldwin do his usual great work or did he just coast? Were you as surprised as I was that the guest stars stopped post-monologue? What were your highs and lows? Sound off below!
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