There are many actors out there who are known primarily for a single role, but very few of those actors spent an entire decade of their lives playing that role in a series of eight films which quite comfortably be considered a phenomenon. It’s all the more impressive of course that Daniel Radcliffe, hosting “Saturday Night Live” for the first time, has done all of this at the young age of 22, all while seemingly avoided the child star syndrome that has plagued so many others who became so famous so quickly.
This seems like a fine week to be filling in for my estimable colleague Ryan McGee, given that Radcliffe has spent much of the past year honing his live performance skills on Broadway. As Hugh Jackman indicated in his brief cameo as Daniel Radcliffe earlier this year, there are definite advantages to having celebrities who have at least some experience in a live setting, and from the moment tonight’s episode began it was clear that Radcliffe has become highly comfortable with this kind of environment, making for a strong central performance that could weather even the weakest material the show could send at it.
However, before we get started, I figured in honor of Radcliffe’s presence we should adjust our grading system accordingly. As a result, I’ve adopted – just for this week – the system of evaluation for the Ordinary Wizarding Levels at Hogwarts
. While this means that we need a legend to interpret some of the below, I feel it’s only fitting (and gives me the potential to label something particular awful as “Troll,” which seems too good an opportunity to pass up).
The O.W.L. Grading Scheme
O = Outstanding
E = Exceeds Expectations
A = Acceptable
P = Poor
D = Dreadful
T = Troll
Let the exams begin – hope you all brought your timeturners!
Mitt Romney for President: Like last week, the show opens with a basic direct address campaign commercial, in this case for Mitt Romney as he prepares for the South Carolina primary. However, also like last week, the result is incredibly one-dimensional, taking a single joke (that Romney struggles to appear human to voters) and a single event (his comments regarding enjoying firing people) and just throwing them out there without much in the way of structure. Sure, the breakfast order conceit was an attempt at comedy, but it was just the same joke that kept being adjusted slightly. This isn’t political satire: it’s a political impression thrown onto the screen and left to wiggle around for a while. [Grade: D]
Radcliffe’s Monologue: While there was not necessarily anything surprising in the monologue, moving quite quickly into a discussion of both his recent run on Broadway and his role as Harry Potter, it was nonetheless a very strongly delivered piece of comedy. The jokes weren’t necessarily all that strong, but Radcliffe was remarkably confident, despite simultaneously appearing slightly nervous in that British way we find so charming. The pacing was brisk, but Radcliffe didn’t feel like he was tripping over his lines, and the sense of timing was so far removed from last week’s Charles Barkley monologue that it was almost like whiplash. You can tell that Radcliffe’s time spent on Broadway has served him extremely well in performing in front of a live audience, and he elevated a typical “Host’s major project turned into a series of jokes” monologue into something really enjoyable. [Grade: E]
Ricky Gervais: Awards Host: There’s something extremely dull about doing a Ricky Gervais sketch, although Sudeikis’ impression is fairly solid. The problem, more than anything else, is that Gervais’ schtick is already kind of tired, and yet the sketch largely ignores any more incisive commentary to focus instead on the ridiculousness of that schtick being applied to these other outlets. There’s room here to actually say something about the limited charms of Gervais’ persona in these settings, and the sketch somewhat implicitly drew attention to this, but instead it chose largely to marvel in how ridiculous and hilarious it would be for Gervais to make jokes about dogs or plants. The substance was simply lacking here, although the jokes themselves were occasionally clever (even if they could have been cutting as well). [Grade: P]
Target Lady: I don’t have any particular affection for Target Lady, although it’s a fun character that has perhaps been unfairly marred by the overuse of Wiig in recent seasons. Like all recurring sketches like this, it very much depends on how ably the host can participate and how well the various segments and jokes are pieced together. In the former category, Radcliffe was strong again here, enthusiastic and game for the ponytail-sporting white trash employee who just wants to stare at Target Lady’s ass and take her to see Tintin (while, of course, baring his buff bod). The actual jokes? Eh. It’s one of those scenarios where I would love to see a version of this sketch really kill, just to defeat expectations, but the same ol’ pattern had no traction for me here. Performances aside, this one just couldn’t get off the ground. [Grade: P]
You Can Do Anything!: It’s possible this sketch has recurred in the past, although even if it hasn’t it’s nearly identical to other similar talk show oriented sketches. The three-guest structure means that we’re going to get some pretty brief bits, but what I like about this one in particular is that it uses the three guests to make a single argument. It’s a simple joke, an indictment of the YouTube generation with their “Twitter fame” and the like, but each guest offers a few solid jabs at the same argument. While Killam’s juggler didn’t get much to do, Sudeikis’ singer-songwriter was fairly solid, and Radcliffe was again very compelling as a delusional, over-educated – in poetry and clowning – irish dancer/calligraphist. While the jokes didn’t do much to expand on the basic premise, Radcliffe’s performance in particular indicated a commitment to that premise which I found admirable (especially given that he does a mean jig). [Grade: A]
Spin the Bottle: I’m always fairly wary of pre-taped sequences, as there’s a chance they’re brilliant or a chance that they’re just there to kill time. While I appreciated that this was not just a recycled bit from a previous episode, and that Radcliffe was featured prominently, the one joke here was pretty weak. The “He Keeps Kissing Hobos” joke was not bad, per se, but it kept escalating without much in the way of increased returns. While I did think Jay Pharaoh’s particularly creepy hobo at the end was a nice note to end on, I had been pretty much over the sketch beforehand, which suggests it outstayed its welcome. [Grade: P]
The Delaware Fellas: I was concerned that this was going to be yet another soundtrack compilation sketch, so I was quite relieved to see that it was at least slightly different (albeit still built around the same narrator-driven structure which sort of robs the sketch of any sustained interaction between the actors and the audience). The idea of the sketch – a low rent Delaware version of “Jersey Boys” - was pretty lame, and the joke songs did little to extend beyond that basic premise, but I liked some smaller details, like the fact that Joe Biden gives ratings in “Trains” and that Kenan Thompson was somehow the most aggressively quasi-Italian out of the four characters. In addition, I liked the energy level here as well: Radcliffe, Wiig, Killam and Thompson had some strong energy here, and that kept the thing from completely falling off the rails (which would surely be a perfect pun for Joe Biden’s review scale). [Grade: P]
Hogwarts 2020: We were promised a “Harry Potter” sketch at the end of the monologue, and here it is. The sketch is effectively “Van Wilder: Hogwarts,” what with Harry hanging around at the school a decade after graduating while his classmates become professors and have children of their own attending the school. While I was a bit taken aback by how shockingly non-canonical it was (and yes, I am aware how nerdy that statement just was), the sketch delivered on its basic premise and again featured a strong performance from Radcliffe. Also, while it shouldn’t be surprising given his track record, Bill Hader’s Alan Rickman was pretty spot-on, which made his Snape a highlight. While the notion of Hagrid marrying Luna might need to be scrubbed from my brain, this was ultimately a charming bit of fan service given Radcliffe’s pedigree, and an acceptable divergence into the obvious. [Grade: A]
Watching Del Rey’s performance of “Video Games,” it struck me that she is really a parody of herself, a Ke$ha-like figure whose identity is pure construction. The difference, though, is that artists like Ke$ha throw that identity in our face, while Del Rey simply waifs her way through the performance, revealing in nearly every moment just how delicate and vulnerable her tableau truly is. There are moments where her voice is genuinely haunting, but there are also moments where it amounts to a dramatic reading, and other moments where it’s like she forgets she’s supposed to be singing, or invents a new character to perform a particular line because she was so far into another key that she might as well just go with it. It’s the kind of performance where you half expect the show to follow it up with an exact replication of the performance with Kristen Wiig or Abby Elliot doing an impersonation in order to further capture the Baudrillard-esque spectacle of it all. I honestly couldn’t tell you a single thing about this song, as I was simply too mesmerized by everything else on display, but suffice to say that my fascination with Del Rey has little to do with her music. [Grade: D]
Weekend Update: There’s not much to be said about the collection of jokes in this week’s Weekend Update, a fairly standard assortment of topical news pieces without much in the way of a highlight (although it oddly featured the night’s second reference to Sarah McLahlan’s SPCA ads). Instead, Weekend Update was “A Tale of Two Guests,” divergent in both cleverness and in comic success. In the first case we have something that I truly thought we were done with, which is Bayer and Armisen’s “Friends of Dictators” characters. Yes, against all logic, the death of Muammar Gaddafi was not enough to kill these one-note characters, so now the same set of tired jokes are being trotted out for yet another dictators (in this case North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un. Look, folks: we already have to deal with a surplus of world dictators, do we really need to also use them as the subject for lame Weekend Update guests? That’s just not even fair. By comparison, Daniel Radcliffe as Casey Anthony’s adopted Yorkshire Terrier was an inspired bit, both because it zigged when you thought they would zag (undercutting the expectation of an impression of Anthony herself) and because it was yet another instance in which Daniel Radcliffe totally stepped up to the plate here. It’s not a complex character, but it was remarkably well-realized (and well costumed) given the circumstances, and it’s great to see Radcliffe stepping into the kind of role that would normally go to one of the regular cast members (rather than playing himself, or mimicking a celebrity, or the like). Update would be better served by more dynamic, less formulaic character types, so this one-off bit was most welcome, and elevated the segment despite the dictator revival. [Grade: A]
X27B Theater: The idea of this sketch is fairly simple, a sort of “History of Progress”-esque look back at the current generation from the perspective of an advanced society in which your race changes after midnight and New Zealand has peeled off the Earth like a band-aid and floated into space. The jokes that come with this were perhaps a bit uneven, but some of them were delightfully random, and I appreciated the combination of the mundane (Fruits and Vegetables? Not really good for you, it turns out), the sexual/perverse (underwear that masturbates for you), and the topical (Taylor Swift? Definitely going to assassinate someone). Similarly, while the stilted acting within the play was a nice reflection of the stage performance quality, I particularly liked the shots of the audience. Note Abby Elliot’s disapproval of some of the play’s messages, and watch the varying levels of laughter as certain jokes are made onstage. It’s a dynamic sketch in and of itself, on some level, and I appreciate that the cuts to the audience were themselves variable. While this isn’t necessarily a complicated sketch, it’s what amounts to ‘high concept’ on “SNL” these days, and stood out as a definite highlight for me. [Grade: E]
Glenda Okones: This proved to be a fairly substantial week for Kristen Wiig, which is unfortunate given that I’m really not capable of enjoying her when used this broadly. What was so weird about these pre-taped sketches, a series of attack ads that Glen Falls mayoral candidate Glenda Okones took out on herself for some reason, is that they weren’t really spread out over the entire show. They just popped up in the back end of it, lumped together and thus seeming kind of overkill. There were some decent performance beats in here, and a couple of solid jokes (“I’m always honking” made me chuckle), but nothing added up to much, and instead of providing any kind of narrative it just felt like a variation on the same joke over and over again. There was potential for progression here, and it just seemed to be left wholly unexplored. [Grade: P]
The Jay Pharoah Show: On the one hand, I like the fact that we’re seeing more of Jay Pharoah. On the other hand, this sketch falls comfortably into the category of “Host plays themselves,” complete with Radcliffe pimping his upcoming appearance in “The Woman in Black” (which is effectively what he’s here to promote). In the latter case, Radcliffe did a fine job of playing himself, and displayed his consistently strong cue-card reading technique that would carry him well through the course of the entire episode. However, when we return to the question of Jay Pharaoh, this read as a meta-commentary on his disappointing tenure, reducing him to nothing but impressions. The joke, that he knew nothing about Radcliffe at all and simply had a talk show to justify his impressions, was actually kind of clever, but the perhaps unintended microcosm this created relative to his time as a cast member made it all a bit bittersweet. It wasn’t intended to have substance to begin with, perhaps, but the substance it ended up having just sort of depressed me a little, making it not quite as delightful as one would hope. [Grade: A]
All of my comments above apply to Lana Del Rey
’s performance of “Blue Jeans,” and I love that she eschews the traditional “SNL” wardrobe change and just performs in exactly the same style in exactly the same dress. While her actual singing is remarkably inconsistent, it’s consistently inconsistent, which is perhaps part of her grand scheme. The thing is that this isn’t a case where Del Rey isn’t a strong live performer, although there are more vocal struggles here than in the actual recordings of these songs. This is just the way she has chosen to perform, a style that makes her
memorable even if the music itself fails to make an impression. The second performance makes it clear that she has committed to this, to the point where it almost feels like she’s been standing in that same place for the entire period between the two performances, mumbling rhythmically and struggling to hit low notes while singing about other hobbies and articles of clothing. And while it doesn’t do much to make the singing more successful, I’m nonetheless riveted. [Grade: P]
Concord Exit Poll: Continuing a theme on the night, Wiig runs the show as an exit poller in New Hampshire hounding an amiable but creeped out Radcliffe, who just isn’t given enough to do here to make this even remotely interesting. There’s a couple of decent lines, and some solid line-readings, but this felt like a sketch banished to the final slot of the evening not because it was weird or experimental, but rather because it just wasn’t good enough to air earlier. [Grade: D]
Headz Up from World-Tel: I hate to see them filling time with a commercial this late in the show, and it makes for an anti-climactic ending to the evening. Yes, people are always on their phones, and an app to tell them what’s happening around them to keep them from getting hit by cars or help them engage with their spouse is a decent little bit, but this late in the show it just sort of goes into the brain and escapes immediately after.
Best Sketch: X27B Theater.
Worst Sketch: Mitt Romney for President.
Biggest Surprise: No Digital Short? I’m with Ryan that they’re outstaying their welcome, but this was light on Samberg, and I would’ve though Radcliffe would be game.
Biggest Future Non-Surprise: Radcliffe being asked to return as host.
Were you as equally impressed with Radcliffe’s performance? Did you also feel that he and Paul Brittain could play cousins? Don’t you think it’s cruel that there’s a “Troll” evaluation for the O.W.L.’s and I didn’t even get to use it? And how would you grade Lana Del Rey’s first American TV appearance on the O.W.L. scale? Sound off below!