There’s no way to write about the history of “Saturday Night Live” without including Kristen Wiig. Her overall place in that story is for individuals to decide, but to remove her from the conversation betrays a fundamental misreading of her overall importance to the history of the show. From 2005-2012, she quickly rose from “solid ensemble performer” to “the absolutely go to person week in and week out”. For her last few years, she was the center of the program, carrying the biggest workload and often getting the biggest laughs. The sheer number of characters that she created, the professionalism and integrity that she brought to each show, and the way she helped the show survive the loss of such female “SNL” standouts such as Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Maya Rudolph cannot be overstated.
And yet her returning tonight might still be a disaster of epic proportions.
Let’s be clear: I don’t wish for a disaster. I go into every episode hoping that it will be the best episode of the season. But there are two factors at play here that have me worried. The first is timing: Wiig’s goodbye at the end of last season was the highlight of that season, a perfect send-off for an all-time great cast member. But that was only a year ago, during which we’ve already seen her in a backstage skit already this season. It’s really hard to make this feel like a comeback when she’s hardly been away. (The same went for Andy Samberg and The Lonely Island, who came back after retiring their “Digital Short” segments in order to promote their latest single.) The second is more an “SNL” problem than a Wiig problem: sometimes, when celebrating its past, it ignores its present. So more than likely, we’ll see a retread of Wiig’s past recurring characters with little in the way of original comedic premises. The occasional trip down nostalgia lane is fine. But when Justin Timberlake hosted this year, everything save that God-awful Caligula sketch was a reskin of an older sketch or the reintroduction of tried-and-true favorite.
But hey, many will be happy to see Target Lady, or Garth and Kat, or Two A-Holes. I’m not against seeing these characters again in principle, since you don’t bring back someone with Wiig’s back catalog of characters and not bring them out. What I do object to is doing a “Mad Libs” with those sketches, bringing them out to simply remind people of what they once enjoyed. Placing old characters in current contexts keeps them fresh. Simply trotting out the old numbers without changing the tune keeps them (and the show) mired in the past. Let’s see which road “SNL” takes tonight, as Wiig and musical guest Vampire Weekend seek to entertain us on this, the second-to-last show of the season.
Follow along starting at 11:30 pm EST, when I’ll be liveblogging the show as per usual. And, as per usual, you’ll be sure to tell me how wrong I am about everything. That’s cool. If you started agreeing with me, I’d be worried.
Benghazi Hearings: In an effort to get media attention on the ongoing investigation into the attack on the consulate last September, Darrell Issa calls Jodi Arias as a witness. I’m not sure which part of this confuses the crowd more: the Benghazi trial or Arias herself. And just before the sketch even has a chance to start, it’s over. Totally baffling. That has no energy, no rhythm, and didn’t have anything to say about Benghazi or Arias. Unbelievable. [Grade: D]
Monologue: “Even though I left the show eleven months and thirty days ago, it still feels like a year,” says Wiig, getting the obvious out of the way. She busts into a cover of “I’m So Excited”, which is Monologue Staple #1. Then she does the backstage tour, which is Monologue Staple #2. Then we get celebrity cameos in the form of Jonah Hill and Maya Rudolph, which is Monologue Staple #3. After that, the obligatory Lorne Michaels cameo, ie, Monologue Staple #4. Then we get a pre-taped Gilly appearance, and now my will to live is waning. The stuff about her being rusty is funny, but the visual of the entire cast as background dancers to The Kristen Wiig Show feels like an omen for the rest of the show. [Grade: B-]
Mother’s Day Flowers: Wiig and McKinnon never had much time to interact, as the latter’s time only overlapped with the former’s, and this pre-taped bit makes me think that’s something of a tragedy. Not only is McKinnon’s mom spot-on with her passive-aggressive behavior, but her over-the-top role allows Wiig to be more naturalistic. Given that Wiig often was the maelstrom of most sketches, it’s great to see her in this light. We know she has this in her (see “Bridesmaids”), but it’s rarely on display on “SNL”. I think it’s OK to breathe now. [Grade: A-]
THE CALIFORNIANS: ALL CAPS BECAUSE THERE IS NO GOD. My theory: “SNL” gives the audience $10 during the commercial break in order to laugh at this exercise in anti-comedy. I just don’t get it. Never will. “SNL” is probably trolling us, but that still means we are wasting valuable time watching the cast enjoy the series’ longest-running inside joke. [Grade: D-]
Aw Nuts! Mom’s A Ghost: The good: Cecily Strong’s Disney Channel acting. The bad: we’re still making “The Ring” jokes? Production wise, this was on point. But I kept trying to figure out, “Why?” As in, why do this sketch? Yes, “to be funny” is the answer. But this is a sketch that literally could have aired at any time in the past decade and been as topical. If the Bengazi sketch is all we’re going to have in order to locate this show at a particular place in cultural/pop culture history, why bother having a weekly live show? There’s no reason the show can’t have a “timeless” sketch. But this is both of a general time (ie, the post “iCarly” era of Disney Channel) while not really beholden to anything specifically. So great: Wiig walks on the ceiling like a spider. But will anyone remember this in 48 hours? [Grade: C]
The Lawrence Welk Show: Let’s head back to the good ol’ days with the return of Eunice Maharelle. I could be mistaken, but I think this is Jason Sudeikis’ first appearance all night. He’s not really the song-and-dance guy, with Taran Killam often taking the reigns here if the male host can’t warble. At some point, “SNL” just decided Eunice is a straight-up perv as opposed to being simply weird. Which is…a choice? The “Welk” sketch is like “The Californians”, in that both are 1) really, really long and 2) have patterns that let you know exactly how far you have to go. In this case, you know you’ll get verse after verse until Eunice goes on a mile-a-minute rant, after which she’ll pop bubbles with her tiny hands. This is the “Mad Libs” approach I feared, but pretty much expected, from this episode. [Grade: C]
Vampire Weekend gives us a break by appearing to perform “Diane Young”. And for a moment, I worry that I just took a buncha drugs, since the vocals slow down/speed up live during the performance in a way that had me seriously worried for a moment or three. All I know is the saxophonist in the top hat is my new spirit animal. That dude’s alright. The song itself is too precious and self-conscious by half. But that’s kind of Vampire Weekend’s thing, no? So in that respect, it’s a great song for them. [Grade: B-]
Weekend Update: I love Bobby Moynihan, but Lord almighty Anthony Crispino is just about the worst. The only thing they have added to this one-note character is an increasingly high-pitched yelp in between his malapropisms and Seth Meyers’ corrections. Afterwards, as expected, Garth and Kat make their return to the “Update” desk to share their new tunes for Mother’s Day. This type around, not only does Wiig follow along to Fred Armisen’s lyrics, but his prose as well. That’s enough of a twist to make this feel like more than a carbon copy of the old iterations for me. Even in its hey day, this was a hit-or-miss segment (by design), and I don’t think tonight’s version ever hit truly inspired heights. I don’t think this has anything to do with rust so much as the improvisatory nature of the interaction. [Grade: C+]
Target Lady: You know that friend from high school? You know, the one that comes back home and pretends that his or her current life doesn’t exist, and only wants to pretend like high school is still happening? That’s what this show feels like right now. You can’t tell me that the only thing Kristen Wiig and “SNL” can do are the same darn things they’ve always done. I’m reading many people on Twitter saying what’s happening tonight is an episode-long piece of performance art. But outside of “The Californians”, which feels intentionally antagonistic at this point, I wouldn’t say that “SNL” is trying to consciously burn down the Kristen Wiig era of the show. It simply doesn’t have any other gear at this point. And that’s just sad. [Grade: D+]
Acupuncture Clinic: Oh whew, an original concept! I didn’t know that was allowed tonight. Sadly, this concept revolves around the copious gushing of blood. So, I’m a touch woozy. Still, you have to give props to all involved for somehow keeping their calm, even if this is prop blood. Aidy Bryant in particular is great here, especially when trying to cover for outside noises giving the game away. (“I think it’s cool street talk. Like, ‘Yo, whassup, blood?’”) I’m not sure I ever needed to see a man drink his own blood, even if it’s just syrup. And now the sketch is winding down OH NO HIS BACK JUST EXPLODED. Look, the gross-out is the point here. And even though I probably won’t eat again for a week, I have to give props to the sketch for taking its concept to the absolute limit. And if I slam the show all night for being nostalgic, I should reward it for being original. [Grade: B]
Vampire Weekend returns to perform “New Song #2”. Man, it doesn’t sound anything like Blur’s “Song 2”. (Jokes!) There’s a heavy Elvis Costello influence here in the form of the organ riff, although little of Costello’s punk aesthetic. Whereas “Diane Young” felt as self-conscious as most of tonight’s episode, there’s something more inviting about this track, even if its horn section threatens to over-twee the universe itself. But I’ll take this song over the former every day of the week. [Grade: B+]
Cougars And Sixth Graders: That’s not the name of the sketch. But that’s the premise. That’s too bad, since the idea of more sketches involving Tim Robinson and Bobby Moynihan sounds PHENOMENAL to me. These two nail this part of the sketch. I just don’t know if I enjoy them in situations in which the potential of statutory rape is in play. Is this a science fiction concept? Is that why this is OK? Every adult in this universe is OK with this arrangement, including the women, the waiter, and the fathers of these sixth graders. On one level, it’s silly to get upset about this. But when you can clearly feel the crowd working through the same types of issues, it’s a comedy problem, even if it’s not an overtly moral one. [Grade: C-]
Classy Sexy Elegnance: “You played Coach on ‘Coach’!” OK, that’s funny. Not that the crowd seems to realize this, as there are crickets, and I mean crickets, during this final sketch. Did the audience leave after the last sketch? In any case, this isn’t a weird 12:55 am sketch, just the best of the worst sketch left that also fit into a three-minute time slot. The idea of “Real Housewives” recording a record probably has some legs, but by making these women generic, there was no punch to anything they said. I love me a good Craig T. Nelson joke, but it wasn’t enough to make this sketch actually good. [Grade: C+]
Best Sketch: "Mother's Day Flowers"
Worst Sketch: Take Your Pick (I'd say "The Californians", but that would only make their hate grow stronger.)
The Takeaway: Just a bad show all around. Lazy, self-indulgent, and self-congratulatory most of the time, and crude/callous the rest of it. I'd have to look at my grades for the year, but that certainly feels like the worst episode of the year.
Next week: Ben Affleck joins the Five-Timers Club. Argo Stefon Yourself!
What did you think of tonight's episode? As bad as described above, or was Wiig's return a triumph? Did the cougar sketch sit as oddly with you as it did with me? Did the acupuncture sketch simply go too far for your tastes? Sound off below!