Well, we’re probably in for one of two things tonight with Jeremy Renner hosting “Saturday Night Live”. Either we’re in for a nice surprise (fingers crossed) or a Daniel Craig-like disaster. I still say that Craig as a choice for a host was a sound one. It was only the execution that hurt the episode. Renner is known for a similar onscreen intensity as Craig, and his comedic parameters are unknown at this point. If the show steers into the curve of his intense charisma, then maybe we’ll see something fun tonight. But if we see any construction workers, start heading for the hills. Along for the ride will be musical guest Maroon 5, which is the band Adam Levine fronts when not flirting with Blake Shelton on “The Voice”.
As always, I’ll be grading each sketch as they air, with no retrospective analysis coloring my opinions. As always, you will see certain grades and attempt to shoot me with an arrow while looking in the opposite direction. Let’s get to it.
Booknotes: Wow, Aidy Bryant and Cecily Strong once again get early, prominent positions in tonight’s episode! Strong portrays Paula Broadwell, reading from her Petraeus’ biography “All In”. The segments she reads aloud sound like “Fifty Shades Of Grey” set in Afghanistan. It’s a fine idea, but good God it goes too long. When the in-sketch audience starts to leave, I wish I could join them. On the plus side, Cecily Strong is not doing an accent. That might be a first! Aside from Fred Armisen’s creepy grin, I’m not sure anything made me laugh. Poor start to the show. [Grade: C-]
Monologue: Renner owns up to his onscreen persona. “If I laugh in one of my movies, somebody dies.” His monologue nearly dies right after it starts, as he professes his desire to write theme songs. “I can’t believe I agreed to do this,” he says, which is either super charming or totally staged. What’s not staged? An audio snafu that could have thrown him completely off his game. Luckily, he keeps things going, which bodes well for the rest of the night. And his song for “The Avengers” isn’t half-bad, either! Hearing Renner repurpose the melody from Kings Of Leon’s “Use Somebody” is a great way to play against type, and shows that “Saturday Night Live” may have learned its lesson from when Bond (James Bond) hosted. [Grade: B+]
Visit Your Childhood Home: Another good idea, and one more successfully executed than the cold open. But maybe a dash of David Lynch might have given this one some more bite. It’s never clear if the narrator of this piece is being genuine, sarcastic, or oblivious. As such, the premise never really gets a focus. So we get gags about old-school televisions, new and old K-Marts, and “exotic destinations for smoking weed”. But the parts are greater than the sum, rendering this ultimately a hit-and-miss affair. [Grade: B-]
The Californians: OH DEAR SWEET MERCIFUL LORD, WHAT HAVE I DONE TO OFFEND THEE? One day, we’ll learn why this sketch keeps airing. OK, that’s not fair. I understand why: the cast absolutely loves doing it. And Armisen threatens to break from the first moments, betraying his inner glee at somehow getting this on the air again. But look: you know I hate this sketch. I know I hate this sketch. If you like it, that’s awesome. (You get plenty of chances to enjoy it, that’s for sure.) Different strokes, different folks. As for Renner: his first sketch features some intense…cue-card reading. Which is to say that he looks abjectly terrified out there. That’s disappointing, especially after his monologue, and hopefully not a sign of things to come. [Grade: D]
The Situation Room: Cecily Strong, back again! She’s Paul Broadwell! She’s Jill Kelly! In the next sketch, she might be Petraeus himself! A spoof on the paucity of Kelly footage plays like gangbusters, as the single clip of her walking to her car gets played again…and again…then in reverse…then with Tim McKinnon replacing Strong in a “dramatic reenactment”. Renner also feels fifty times more alive here as the “self-proclaimed” mayor of Tampa. The role calls for him to speak directly into camera, which may help his cue-card reading nerves. But he also inhabits the character effectively, both in terms of gesticulation and odd speech patterns. (“Jill Kelly got a dress! She fuuunnnn!”) Lastly, I appreciated the sketch’s restraint on deploying Wolf Blizter’s mumblecore voice. In previous incarnations, “The Situation Room” has been a vehicle for Jason Sudeikis to get increasingly incoherent. Here, the material around Blitzer was strong enough on its own. Whew. “SNL” crisis averted, for now. [Grade: A-]
The Stand Off: A moving Mexican stand-off? Be still my heart, this is fantastic. Once again, the defining characteristic of a post-Lonely Island short film lays in its desire to tell an actual story from start to finish. Sure, that story involves three hit men who refuse to lower their weapons over a two-day period, but it also depicts those same men actually developing a relationship with one another. That made Bobby Moynihan’s line “These have been the greatest two days of my life!” actually retrospectively meaningful when Renner and Taran Killam take him down only to start the cycle all over again. Also? Bonus points for throwing in Adam Levine as Adam Levine into the gun-toting mayhem. Of all the things I’ve ever worried about, “preproduced ‘SNL’ films without Andy Samberg” has to be the dumbest. [Grade: A-]
Maroon 5 take the stage to perform “One More Night”. As with their performance last week on “The Voice”, they take the stage in matching monochromatic clothing. I’m guessing this is because Levine makes way more than the others in the band, but doesn’t want to show off his expensive threads. It would make me sound both old and extremely suburban to say that I miss the more guitar-orientated sound of this band, but there you have it. I’m the guy sitting at home recapping “SNL” each week. I never pretended to be cool. [Grade: B-]
Weekend Update: Seth Meyers breaks out “Winners/Losers”, once again mining the endless comic vein that is the Patreaus scandal. (He also drops a “Homeland” reference, for those of you playing the “SNL References Homeland” drinking game at home.) Afterword, Katt Williams (Jay Pharoah) appears to defend his recent behavior. Williams admits surprise at seeing white people in the audience, and that white audience seems surprised to see a character they aren’t sure actually is real to a character the show made up. But all people will be talking about is the “F” bomb Pharaoh accidentally dropped during his performance. (It certainly SOUNDED like it. I could be wrong here. He meant to say “fight”, and may have even said it. But man, my first impression was “Lorne is gonna be angry”.) Finally, the actual Chris Christie appears on the show, with his ubiquitous fleece in tow. “I’m going to die in this fleece!” says Christie, who exhibits unsurprising comic timing when calling the mayors who didn’t heed his warnings “real Seth Meyers”. I’m a little said Armisen didn’t get to make an appearance as former New York Governor Patterson here, given that character's impish hatred of New Jersey, but them’s the breaks. [Grade: B]
The Avengers: Wow. Didn’t think they’d actually do a sketch based on the film. The nerd in me is delighted. Sadly, the premise of the sketch is “Hawkeye only brought 11 arrows to save the world and is a huge wimp without them”. Sigh. The reason why I didn’t think “SNL” would do an “Avengers” sketch was that trying to replicate the scope would make things uncomfortably cheesy. And know what? Concern confirmed! Also? I raged against the show’s parody of “Homeland” last week, and I’ll rage against the gross mischaracterization of the Marvel superheroes here. Pointing out flaws in these characters is fine. Baldly misstating those flaws for comedic purposes is ridiculous. (I’m pretty sure Joss Whedon’s take on Black Widow was slightly different than displayed here.) After a pretty solid mid-episode run of comedy, we’re brought low once again. And Loki barely had to lift a finger. [Grade: C-]
Thug #2: And the lack of laughs continues with Renner playing himself opposite Sudeikis’ thick-headed lug of an actor. There’s little for Renner to do here except be quietly angry, leaving Sudeikis to do all the lifting here. Normally, that wouldn’t be a problem, except the premise is DOA. Man, when the show is on tonight, it’s REALLY on. And when it’s off, well, it’s almost depressing. Any sketch that surpasses “The Californians” for “worst sketch of the night” honors must have done something truly terrible. And this sketch did exactly that. [Grade: D-]
Maroon 5 appear again to stop the comic bleeding. This time, they perform “Daylight”, their newest single. Their red outfits are now grey, which…might mean something? Has love drained from their lives? Or has the blood drained from their faces after those two train wreck sketches after “Update”? As for the song itself, this one should play like gangbusters in arenas, with a soaring chorus that begs for a group sing-along. Just because I won’t be buying tickets to that show doesn’t mean this song won’t excel in that environment. [Grade: B]
Midnight Snack: In a call back to “TV Funhouse”-esque animates material, here’s a cartoon that depicts a propaganda film for drones. (Not only do they help keep America safe, they also produce music your teenagers will love!) Maybe it’s just my depression between “The Avengers” and “Thug #2”, or maybe this just made absolutely no freakin’ sense. (That would be fine, if it was funny. But it wasn’t remotely humorous.) Either way, I’m longing for the break that “SNL” is about to have. I think both sides need it. [Grade: D-]
Identifying The Body: You know it’s bad when even Sudeikis is flubbing lines. Still, I’m doing something I haven’t done in 30 minutes: laugh. Between Renner’s increasingly odd identifications of the body and Bill Hader’s bongo playing on the corpse, I’m in semi-hysterics here. (Some of Renner’s guesses: “Yao Ming”, “Lucy Liu”, and my favorite, “Morris Day And The Time”. Also, Hader’s “I wanna see what he’ll guess next!” was maybe the line of the night.) Well, at least we ended on a good note, something that honestly surprises the heck out of me right now. [Grade: B+]
Best Sketch: “The Stand Off”
Worst Sketch: “Thug #2”
Biggest Takeaway: The show is on a monster roll when it comes to its pre-produced live-action shorts. “Sad Mouse”, “Lincoln,” Sloppy Swish,” and “The Take Down” is an almost impossibly good run. The best part? Each had its own unique identity, which gives me hope that we’ll see this level of quality more often than not over the course of this season.
What did you think of tonight’s show? Did Jeremy Renner pay off as a host? Did the show employ him well or leave him “arrowless”, metaphorically speaking? What do you make of the post-“Digital Short” era on the show so far? Sound off below!