It’s time for Justin Timberlake to enter a special place in the “Saturday Night Live” pantheon tonight, as tonight’s hosting gig allows him membership in the Five-Timers Club. Given a certain photo that a certain member of that club tweeted this week, let’s just assume that there will be many existing members of this exclusive organization on hand tonight to mark the event. (Then again, maybe that picture simply depicts a table read for “The Ghosts Of ‘N Sync Past”.)
There are two likely scenarios tonight. One is that we’ll get a great episode that will ultimately rank high in the season-long rankings. Timberlake always brings his A-game to the show, and the writers/performers in return respond to the level that he brings. The other scenario, which is semi-unlikely but absolutely possible, is that the show will pull several muscles while patting itself on the back, relying on pure nostalgia to simply coast through an episode based on recognition of past achievements rather than offering up anything new, fresh, or interesting. A simply mediocre or instantly forgettable episode doesn’t seem in the cards. And hey, if for some reason the writers couldn’t come up with enough good ideas for this show, Timberlake can simply play the full version of his single “Suit & Tie”, which clocks in at roughly 23 minutes.
Let’s do this as we usually do it around here, and that’s to conduct a live blog in which I grade every sketch, a small number of you vociferously express your disbelief that I enjoy things you don’t (or vice versa), and then we all go to sleep realizing that Timberlake probably did more things today than most of us will do this calendar year. We good? Good. See you at 11:30 pm EST when we’ll get this ball rolling.
Memorial Service For Hugo Chavez: Timberlake doesn’t even wait for the monologue to show up, appearing here as Elton John performing at Chavez’s funeral. “Candle In The Wind” gets another workout, this time breaking down the highlights of Chavez’s more outlandish public appearances. Timberlake doesn’t sound much like John, but he obviously has charisma to spare in the role. “SNL” had to do something about Chavez’ passing, and considering how bad most of their politically-themed cold opens have been, this represents a major upgrade, even if it was more bizarre than biting. [Grade: B]
Monologue: You’re not gonna believe this, but Timberlake is dressed like one of the Rat Pack. I KNOW, RIGHT? Timberlake thanks me for overinflating the hype about this show, which is awfully nice of him. Timberlake then visits the Five-Timers Club, which looks exactly as it does when Tom Hanks first visited it. For some reason, Paul Simon, fresh off his unexpected journey with the rest of the Hobbits, seems unclear that the sketch has started. Steve Martin is unimpressed that Timberlake can’t play the banjo. Chevy Chase appears, and let’s all hope he doesn’t think he’s still on “Community”. While there’s star power to spare, this is dragging beyond belief. Everyone’s mugging to get their fifteen minutes of fame, but this is only a 90-minute episode, guys. This isn’t a monologue, this is a filibuster. I enjoy current cast members fighting to the death for the enjoyment of Tom Hanks as much as the next “SNL” recapper, but I worry that those cast members will metaphorically fighting for it soon enough. [Grade: B-]
It’s A Date: Oh good, the nostalgia parade is in full swing, with the “D%ck In A Box” guys making their first in-sketch appearance. And also along for the ride, the “Wild And Crazy Guys” are back as well. (Dan Aykroyd, in those pants, is making an excellent case against high-definition. MY EYES.) Bill Hader saying “rail on your butt” might be my new spirit animal, however. So that’s a plus. Even though it’s the least showy part of the sketch, Bobby Moynihan somehow gets the most laughs with his incredulous response to everything going on around him. Vanessa Bayer also gets high marks for her giddiness throughout the sketch as well. This was bloated as as hell, but enjoyable all the same. We’re 25 minutes into the show, and have only had three segments. Just saying. [Grade: B+]
Veganville: Yup, it’s going to be one of those “remember that stuff you liked, well, here’s more” nights. Which is fine, except…it’s all so darn safe, no? There’s literally nothing surprising about this sketch at this point, which turns everything into Timberlake’s execution. That he makes it all look so easy shouldn’t be a negative, but there’s a “Mad Libs” quality to this series of sketches that makes them amiable but unnecessary. Timberlake can do so much more than the five sketches that he repeats in each hosting gig. If this were all he could do, then whatever. But I know he can do this. I want to see what else is his arsenal. At least the "Harlem Shake" joke will help future generations accurately date this sketch within an hour of when it originally aired. [Grade: B-]
NuvaBling: Vanessa Bayer strikes again with her facial expression upon inserting the titular product. But most of all, I love the fact that the four newest female cast members get a crack at having the spotlight all to themselves. (The fact that Nasim Pedrad is nowhere to be found is slightly worrisome, but more on that later in the recap.) Earlier today, I was watching some old Timberlake-hosting “SNL” eps, and I remembered just how much fun it was to watch Amy Poehler, Mya Rudolph, and other female cast members take over and blow the doors off the place. This cast isn’t on that level by a long shot yet. But there’s a lot of potential here, and I hope the show nurtures it. [Grade: B+]
Justin Timberlake introduces himself as musical guest. Dude’s got pull, what can we say? Let’s talk about “Suit & Tie”, people. Can we all admit that it’s really fun to watch him perform it, but you’re more likely than not to turn the dial if it came on the radio? It’s all perfectly fine, but has all of the edges from “FutureSex/LoveSounds” shaved off in favor of an attempt to sound like classic soul. But there’s not much soul here, just a series of vaguely interconnected segments that are better as parts rather than the whole. I loved Timberlake’s first two solo efforts. And I don’t think my attitudes towards “Suit & Tie” have anything to do with suddenly turning on Timberlake as an artist so much as really not connecting with this song on any level. It happens. If you like it, or love it, that’s awesome. Wish I were there with you. [Grade: B-]
Weekend Update: I half-joked on Twitter a little while ago that after the first three segments clocked in at over 25 minutes, “Update” might get the axe altogether. But thankfully, Lorne Michaels saw fit to keep it in the show anyways. Making what I think is his first “Update” appearance all year is Stefon. "This job writing for ‘Smash’ is killing me!" he says, in what might be the line of the year. I don’t know how long Bill Hader has held onto his “Donald Duck waking up from a Vietnam nightmare” impression, but boy he deployed it at the correct time. You can tell the show is pressed for time, in that it only has one guest on “Update”. However, it’s the right guest. I keep wondering when Stefon will start having diminishing returns. But it hasn’t quite happened yet. [Grade: A-]
The Tales of Sober Caligula: Oooh boy. As happy as I am to see the cast onstage and know with 100% certainty that they weren’t fired in favor of Steve Martin cameos, I’m not sure this is the sketch I want them all in. (Aidy Bryant gets big laughs for a single “Noooo!” at this point, which bodes well for her future on the show.) The premise is semi-OK in theory, but doesn’t really go anywhere, and ends before it really starts. After getting an “A” side of super-long comedic sketch tracks, are we headed into the equivalent of a series of two-minute singles on the second side of the record? [Grade: C]
Maine Justice: Holy crap, of all the sketches I ever expected to see reoccur, THIS would not have been on my Top 10. Heck, my Top 100. Now that we all know the premise of the sketch, it’s much easier to enjoy the dissonance between the title of the sketch and the proceedings therein. Andy Samberg appears again as the straight man in this sketch, and unfortunately, he’s the worst part of it. Every time he has to say a line, the energy in the room plummets through the floor. To be fair, being the straight man has never been Samberg’s strong suit, so it’s bizarre that the show didn’t leave him back in “It’s A Date” and let bygones be bygones. This sketch isn’t about jokes so much as attitude, and that attitude is amusing enough to periodically return so far as I’m concerned. [Grade: B]
The Three Amigos introduce Timberlake, who performs “Mirrors” this time around. Also along for the ride? About a dozen backing tracks of his lead vocal. (Seriously, I know he’s singing live, but that’s some serious sweetening during the chorus.) Remove the horn section, and you have what amounts to a good ‘N Sync song. That’s not a slam. Go on: say you hate “Bye Bye Bye”. I won’t believe you, but go ahead. There’s nothing wrong with writing a good pop song. But for Timberlake’s return to the music scene after a decade away from it, he needed stronger material than this to make the comeback actually mean something. He’ll sell out every seat on his next tour, but when people plan out their bathroom breaks, they will time them to when he performs material from his new album. [Grade: B]
She’s Got a D&ck: Let’s just pretend this never happened and be happier human beings. [Grade: D-]
Moët And Chandon: Wow, another sketch I thought would never happen again. Last time, it was crystals. This time, it’s inexpensive alcohol. (Hey, when you graduate “magnum cum loudly”, there’s only one sparkling wine to drink.) I understand why people look at this sketch in dumbfounded horror. But the idea of mole people being involved in the sordid past of one of these poor ladies somehow makes me laugh. I’m not proud of this, but there you go. Having Timberlake’s drugged-out actor call it “Monica and Chandler Champagne” just makes it all better. I’m guessing I’ll hate the next time “SNL” breaks this sketch out, but I’m guessing we’ll see it in the 12:55 am slot again before the season is over. [Grade: B+]
Best Sketch: Weekend Update
Worst Sketch: That Thing We All Agreed That We’d Never Discuss Again
Final Thoughts: The show took a long time to get truly going, with that monologue threatening at times to eat the entire show whole before it even started. Honoring the show’s past is different from living in it, and that Five-Timer’s Club erred on the wrong side too often. After that, the show balanced enough of what people wanted to see while trying out some new materials and also giving life to certain sketches I thought for sure were one-off oddities. Was this Timberlake’s best show overall? It’s hard to say. At this point, we’re not surprised when he excels, but that’s not his fault. There were very few pure misses this week, but also very few classics. A solid show overall this week, but it also feels like we’ll be cherrypicking highlights rather than just pointing to the episode as a whole in terms of praising it later on.
What did you think of tonight’s episode? Did the early parade of stars help or hurt your enjoyment? Did any of the recurring sketches surprise you by returning? And how would you feel about Timberlake returning enough times to overtake Alec Baldwin’s hosting record? Sound off below!