Recap: 'Saturday Night Live' – Lena Dunham And The National
Well, this should be interesting.
Not “Saturday Night Live” itself, which I imagine will rebound quite nicely from last week’s fairly disastrous show. Rather, I mean reaction to Lena Dunham, who inspires more conversation than almost anyone else on television, all of which can be accurately described as “passionate.” Dunham, and her HBO “Girls,” seems to touch a nerve unlike anything else in current popular culture, to the point where any rationale online discussion of either seems as likely as my mother waking up tomorrow and suddenly understanding the concept of cloud computing.
We’ll see how much “SNL” leans into this whirlwind surrounding Dunham, and how much both the show and the actress try to move away from Hannah Horvath and into other comedic avenues. Jim Parsons declared he was “Not That Guy” in last week’s monologue, but then deployed a bunch of Sheldon Cooper-lite characters throughout the show. To be fair, the show gave him those characters to play. On the other hand, maybe attempts to branch out during the week failed miserably. It’s hard to know. The only thing we can know is what ends up on air. So it will be interesting to see what Dunham brings to the table tonight.
It’s an big moment for both her and the show: Dunham needs to both reinforce that she’s not actually Hannah (for those that still don’t realize that fact), and “SNL” needs a strong show to get some momentum going in the back half of this season. I’ll be covering and grading each segment tonight in a return to HitFix’s “SNL” liveblogging. If nothing else, the comments tonight should be extra lively. So, yay?
Come back at 11:30 pm EST, when the liveblogging will commence.
A Message From President Obama: President Obama addresses the country about the current Russia/Ukraine conflict. Obama could not get through to Putin, but he thinks he knows who can: Liam Neeson. LIAM NEESON, PEOPLE! THIS IS NOT A DRILL. “I hate it when things are taken!” Neesons growls. We’re about three years away from this current iteration of Neeson turning into an absolute parody of himself, but for now, the man can just repeat his famous speech from “Taken” another five dozen times and it will probably still be funny. Slightly less funny: a parody of Putin’s self-aggrandizing PR videos starring Obama as a shirtless, horse-riding badass. Still: While hardly a politically deep cold open, it did what it set out to do effectively, and made Putin, not the current conflict, the focus. Smart move. Even smarter move: BRINGING IN THE NEESONS. [Grade: B+]
Monologue: Dunham says that the nudity and graphic sex on “Girls” is “our thing,” not unlike the Puffy Shirt on “Seinfeld.” Apparently the nudity on the show has made people overly comfortable discussing sex with Dunham, including “SNL” cast members like Vanessa Bayer and Aidy Bryant. I’m not sure people talk about “graphic sex” in regards to “Girls” so much as Dunham’s propensity to be naked onscreen, but hey, who am I to say? But I understand why they conflated the two here, since having Dunham’s fake grandmother talk about sex is funnier material than discussing whose skin has the right to be shown on television. This was fine, but a little predictable once the monologue tipped its comedic hand. [Grade: B-]
Ooh Child: On the way to work, four coworkers take turn singing along to The Five Stairsteps' “Ooh Child,” but each time Dunham starts to sing, the GPS on the phone interrupts her with directions. What feels like a one-note sketch gets really funny once the GPS starts to constantly recalculate, with Dunham’s fills solid and exasperated without being over the top. But the real kicker is the end, which reveals the four aren’t going to work but actually taking someone found not guilty in a court of law deep in the woods for some real-world justice It’s a fantastic punch line to the segment, and does what most digital shorts do best: Tell a complete story, start-to-finish, in less than three minutes. (Go back to the beginning, and you suddenly understand what Killam was obliquely referencing.) This wasn’t flawless (in that it spent a little too much time on the singalong misdirection), but it was really great all the same. [Grade: A-]
Scandal: Dunham plays Kelsey, the newest gladiator at Pope And Associates. And she…has…questions. A lot of questions. She’s extremely impressed by the speed at which everyone understands and executes Olivia’s vague commands. She’s also fascinated by the Fitz/Olivia romance/mutual hatred society. (“That was The President Of The United States! How are you not texting like a thousand people right now?”) Given Dunham’s publicly-declared love for “Scandal,” I bet she had huge input here, since most of the sketch plays like at-home “Mystery Science Theatre 3000” dialogue shouted at the screen. The trick? All of Kelsey’s meta-commentary is praising the show, rather than criticizing it. That feels like the proper approach for a show in which realism is really besides the point. (Also, know one good example of why you have diversity in an “SNL” cast? So if your host loves “Scandal,” and wants to do a “Scandal” sketch, YOU CAN DO A “Scandal” SKETCH.) [Grade: A-]
What’s Poppin’: LeGod Williams and Lil’ Taint Anthony (Kenan Thompson, Jay Pharaoh) host a show highlighting the latest on the hip hop scene. They introduce “That’s A Rap,” an all-white group that would not look out of place at one of the newest pot dispensaries in Colorado. The song itself is terrible, but not in the way the sketch intends. It’s just awkward, makes the audience (and me) uncomfortable, and goes on way too long with the same sing-song syncopation. More interesting? The weird beverage habits of the band (“They each had a liter of Sprite backstage. That’s like, a month’s worth of Sprite!”), Aidy Bryant’s sadness after her flute amp gets unplugged, and having “Tim” serve as a rapper’s name. Unfortunately, that fun stuff only took up thirty percent of the sketch. [Grade: C+]
Girl: Tying into upcoming Biblical movies like “Noah,” here comes “Girls” transplanted into the Garden Of Eden. Unlike the monologue, THIS gets at several actual controversies surrounding the show: the use of nudity, its place on the feminism spectrum, and other hot topics that make normally sane people go apoplectic. Bayer’s Shoshana is on-point as the voice/face of The Devil, but Taran Killam’s Adam Driver is surprisingly a bit shallow: He gets the physicality and the basic voice right, but what makes Adam (the character) so fascinating is the equally nimble (if very different) verbal cadences when paired with Hannah’s viewpoints and rhythms. Still, Hannah-As-Eve is as good a way as possible to do a “Girls” parody, and helped fuel yet another strong sketch. [Grade: B+]
What Are You Even Doing? You’re Being Crazy: Nasim Pedrad and Dunham play two girls that just hit puberty “three hours ago,” and are ready to flirt their way into a schoolmate’s mouth via their talk show. The pair try to act mature, but their suddenly raging hormones essentially infantilize them. (“I’m hiding from you, because you’re being insane!”) It’s totally just fine as a sketch, but then Jon Hamm shows up, and now even I’m asking what the hell he’s even doing there. (Apparently his agent told him to show up, and he wants to die on the spot upon realizing what's happening.) Bobby Moynihan doesn’t have a lot to do here, but he makes his moments count. Kyle Mooney…well, he’s fine as the soccer player, but really excels in digital shorts rather than sketch work at this point. Overall, this wasn’t really a focused sketch, but a lot of little bits worked. The Jon Hamm appearance came out of nowhere, and should make this one of the most-talked about sketches for that sole reason. Too bad he wasn’t in one of the better segments thus far. [Grade: B]
Weekend Update: Matthew McConaughey (Killam) appears to talk about the upcoming season finale of “True Detective.” Whereas his Driver was muted, his McConaughey is fantastic, since he and the writers have dozens of interviews and performances upon which to mimic the Oscar winner's floral descriptions and bizarre digressions. Afterwards, Vladmir Putin’s childhood best friends appear to defend him. This means Fred Armisen is back alongside Bayer to re-enact the couple that consistently gets quieter the more they slam their famous friends. I find Armisen’s “Update” characters hit or miss, and this was always a miss for me. So it’s doubly weird to 1) have him come back yet again this season (he appeared briefly in Seth Meyers' goodbye episode), and 2) to come back with a character that really wasn’t funny in the first place. Given his role in “Late Night,” I imagine we’ll be seeing sporadic appearances for a while from him. But when the cast already boasts seventeen members, maybe it’s best to focus on them as much as possible? As for Jost: Let’s give the guy a few months before passing judgment. By that time, he’ll have turned eighteen years old, and will be a man and thus able to withstand any criticisms still lingering at that point. [Grade: B-]
The National take the stage to perform “Graceless.” Full confession: This is the first time I’ve ever heard The National. So take my already shaky opinion on music with an additional silo of salt! I kind of dig the fact that the leader singer looks like one of my history professors in college. Hey, you go, Slightly Emo William Hurt! As far as the song, it’s got a catchy guitar line and insistent drum pattern carrying the song under its rather subdued vocals. But here’s the thing: None of them look like they are having much fun. This isn’t intense focus so much as general malaise. The attitude belies the music, which again, MAY BE THE POINT, as I am a noob when it comes to the band. But it makes the sudden freak out at the end of the song make no sense: Is this their general schtick, or did something go really wrong in the audio mix? [Grade: B-]
Jewelry Party: Cecily Strong is Marisol, a former Venezuelan beauty pageant contestant dating a Men’s Rights activist who fights against equal pay for men and women. But don’t worry, his focus isn’t singular: he also shuts down Planned Parenthoods! Now, I’m fine having topics like this aired as a source of comedy. But I’m not sure why Strong’s character was the best way to introduce these types of issues. To further confuse things, halfway through the sketch it simply focuses on a long break-up that has nothing to do with the man’s politics and everything about his appearance and lifestyle. There were about four sketches competing for space and focus here, and the result is all of them cancelled each other out. That’s too bad, since the equal pay material felt like it was on the verge of actually having some real teeth. [Grade: C-]
Pimpin’ Pimpin’ Pimpin’ With Katt Williams: “SNL” let Brooks Wheelan out of his cage long enough to appear as Jared Leto, the first “crazy white person” that Williams introduces on his talk show. Dunham appears next as Liza Minnelli, and here’s a great time to point out the fact that until now, Dunham has played either Hannah Horvath or a slightly exaggerated form of herself. That same technique all but derailed last week’s episode, but Dunham’s natural energy has lifted things up where Parsons’ natural introspection brought things down. (Since I penalized this approach last week, I felt the need to explain why it's a positive, for the most part, this week.) Finally, Harrison Ford (Killam) makes his way to the stage in what suddenly feels like the longest sketch in ten years. It’s not bad, per se, but this is one guest too many, even with Pharaoh’s Williams being a constant delight as host. However, having Noël Wells appear as Lena Dunham in-sketch at the last moment serves as one meta step to many in an already overcrowded, overlong sketch. File this under “way too damn much of a pretty decent if not truly great thing.” [Grade: B-]
The National return to perform “I Need My Girl,” with a squirrely guitar line serving as the underpinning for a stadium ballad that builds and builds over the course of the song. The horn section roots the song in classic rock, but the staccato rhythms feel like mid-period U2 meets late-90’s Radiohead. I like all those things, so I really like this song. Here, the soft delivery of the lyrics works, since it stands in contrast to the musical maelstrom around the lead singer. I always love when a song sounds like its message: In this case, the need for his loved one keeps him grounded and focused, even as the world around him gets more frantic. Great stuff all around. [Grade: A-]
Will Smith Concert: Brooks Wheelan in this digital short represents me watching the Kyle Mooney/Beck Bennett digital shorts at this point: I don’t understand what is going on, why the two are doing what they are doing, and why they keep doing the same thing each time with very little variation on theme or tone. The two at least used to generate visual or atmospheric interest (such as “Blockbuster”), but at this point, there are diminishing returns on each short they produce. I have faith that this pair has different things to say in these pieces. I’m just desperately waiting for those other aspects to emerge. [Grade: D+]
Best Sketch: Ooh Child
Worst Sketch: Will Smith Concert
Best Use Of Liam Neesons: The Cold Open
What did you think of Lena Dunham tonight? Did Jon Hamm’s appearance overshadow or enhance it? Are you OK with more or less Fred Armisen this Spring on the show so soon after his departure? Did the show successfully bounce back as a whole from last week? Sound off below!