Blake Shelton, Cecily Strong (NBC)

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [country music/reality TV] star!”

A best-case scenario for a show hosted by the musical guest, tonight’s episode made the most of what country superstar and The Voice judge Blake Shelton could bring to the table. It helped, too, that Shelton turned out to be a competent straight man and was clearly happy to be doing SNL (his earnest “Thank you all! I hosted Saturday Night Live! I hosted Saturday Night Live!” during the goodnights was especially endearing). And while it’s doubtful anyone out there is pitching the Blake Shelton Musical Comedy Hour, SNL used his unassuming, big-lug charms nimbly, not asking him to do too much, and getting some serious mileage out of his musicianship in two of the night’s best sketches.

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Unsurprisingly, his monologue turned musical in a hurry, although the hoary country cliché of him fondly recreating the cornpone awfulness of Hee Haw found a little traction when the cast found themselves unable keep their knowing “big city” snark from submarining the accurately terrible joke setups. (“Hey, Jay—did you hear about the huge fish I caught?” “Yeah, well don’t give it to your wife—I hear her cooking sucks.”) Shelton took/applied a lot of heat this week, with his Twitter defense of American Sniper seeming to play into dispiriting “red state/blue state” stereotype, but in the monologue and elsewhere, there was an amiable common ground on display, with the point of the sketch turning out to be Shelton’s joy at winning over the viscerally horrified Leslie Jones (“I do not like this” “This is wrong”) and everyone onstage having a fun hoedown going into commercial. And isn’t that what we all want—a fun hoedown? No? Well, it was charming anyway.

Weekend Update update

Boy, they’re up there trying. The Colin Jost/Michael Che experiment has shown improvement over the last few episodes, and the progress continued, incrementally, tonight. Jost is finding a persona—prep school wiseass—and staring down the camera to better effect, with some of his best jokes tonight landing because of his confidence in holding for the laugh. (“Last Wednesday was National Hug Day… Dad” was right on the money.) Che’s finding his feet, too, sounding more relaxed and confident enough to ad-lib a callback to tonight’s all-star Update guest when a joke didn’t land.

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On the chemistry front, there’s still a lot of work to be done, although at least this week, there was some attempt to slam the two anchors together every once in a while and see what happens. (A welcome effort after last week, when it appeared SNL was just going to let the two exist in their own desk bubbles for the rest of the season.) The interplay was a little forced (and yet another of the season’s camera mistakes blew the joke where Colin scoots out of frame instead of backing Che up with Sasheer Zamata’s correspondent/ex-girlfriend), but at least it’s something.

On the correspondent front, Pete Davidson was brought back to do some standup masquerading as a commentary piece, but his mini-Sandler self-effacement remains adorable, and his cyber-security bit (which segued quickly into a story about testing himself with gay porn after watching Leo in The Wolf Of Wall Street) was funny stuff. In the guise of cutesy, mumbly bits about wieners and so forth, Davidson’s been marking out a quietly bold little niche for himself questioning male homophobia by telling embarrassing anecdotes—it’s sneaky smart and unique enough to evoke some uncomfortable audience laughs. (After not getting aroused by Stud Horse 4, Davidson muses, “Maybe I didn’t like it because I haven’t watched 1 through 3—maybe this is just the wrong franchise for me.”)

Zamata’s big turn, sadly, fell flatter, with her performance as Che’s deceptively cheery ex never taking off—at least until Bobby Moynihan’s Riblet shows back up.

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Oh, Riblet—you are what an Update guest should be. Moynihan’s ability to imbue broad characters with a lived-in affect made the seemingly one-joke Riblet—supposedly an old high school friend of Che’s—jump off the screen. The conception—that Riblet is jealous of his “Hollywood” classmate—seemed ready to get predictable, before it morphed into a meta-gag about how easy Che’s job is when Riblet read the next three jokes from the cue cards with pinpoint timing and tone. There’s an uneasiness to SNL making jokes about Che’s undeniably shaky start behind the Update desk (and Riblet’s initial off-camera interruption was pitched so low, I thought we were in for a new technical snafu), but Moynihan’s brash confidence showing up his old classmate for looking down on his job at Friendly’s (“Mississippi took over the ranking of ‘unhealthiest state,’ but only because Arkansas died of a heart attack. Now make me a Fribble!”) was infectious. I don’t know if we need a steady diet of Riblet, but he was on fire tonight.

Best/Worst sketch of the night

Family Feud was a limp noodle, as usual (see next category). Otherwise, this was as strong an outing as SNL has had all season, no mean feat since they were working with (and around) a non-actor all night.

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The “Ballghazi” cold open hit all the expected notes, which is to say it required viewers to understand the talking points it was ticking off and laugh in mild recognition, although the performances went off in weird enough directions to make it more enjoyable. Beck Bennett’s Bill Belichick was predictably gruff, but he turned on quarterback Tom Brady (“someone that good looking and rich—I mean, you’ve seen American Psycho”) with shocking alacrity, and Taran Killam’s Brady followed suit, playing dumb with escalating absurdity. (“This is above my pay grade!” “You make 26 million dollars a year.”) When assistant equipment co-manager Dougie Spoons (Moynihan) emerged to engage the press in an A Few Good Men riff, the predictability of the joke got a shot in the arm from Moynihan and Kate McKinnon, whose combined, bug-eyed commitment to the exchange made it funnier than it should have been.

But then there’s the Shawshank Redemption sketch, with Thompson’s aged convict intoning Red’s parole board speech, only to reveal that he’s an unrepentant cannibal. The sketch is just one well-stroked line reading after another, with Kenan’s convict and board members Cecily Strong, Bobby Moynihan, and Shelton puncturing puncturing the inspirational Shawshank music with surgical underplaying. (“Hell no—you ate a man!” “You’re the Texas man gobbler.” “An emphatic no!”) And Kenan’s last meal request of “A man. No? Well, two boys then” built the premise to a hilarious conclusion. (Before he reveals that he ate Andy on the beach at Zihuatanejo.)

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And then there’s the “Farmhunk” Bachelor parody, which gave every woman in the cast a chance to be weird in the face of Shelton’s unappealing Iowa jokes, none more so than McKinnon, who kept returning to woo Shelton while carrying, in turn, a handful of loose spaghetti, a live macaw, and a working blowtorch (she heard he likes welding). The fact that all the women were from Hollywood (and dabbled in “light porn”) came off every time, and Shelton’s introductory confession that the ones most likely to be sent home are “the two black ones, and one of the ones with curly hair” was a surprisingly harsh (and funny) burn on middle American insularity.

As for best sketch, it’s surprisingly hard to call. Honestly, I went into tonight expecting little—no offense to the likeable Shelton, but, as far as musical guest/hosts go, he’s no Timberlake. But Shelton’s musical talents were put to outstanding use in both “Wishing Boot” and “Topeka Today,” so I’ll call it a tie.

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“Wishing Boot” saw Shelton, alongside Aidy Bryant, and Kate McKinnon (both showing off credible country pipes) singing a paean to the titular magical cowboy boot, a dusty shoe with the power to set people’s troubled lives aright with gifts of food, new clothes, and the power to disguise itself as a dog and destroy an evil imposter Wishing Boot packing a knife. Here, a loopy idea (is it a reference to the infamous “The Christmas Shoes”?), combined with great performances, and the host’s skills, produces something indelibly weird and wonderful. (The sight of McKinnon gratefully devouring boot-grapes made me laugh out loud.)

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And “Topeka Today,” with a nigh-unrecognizable 100-year-old Taran Killam penning a deceptively sweet tribute to his recently deceased wife (with Shelton’s straight-faced guitarist singing the lyrics) just kept plumbing new depths of gentle, lilting hatred, the expected insults only getting funnier with how specific they were. Some highlights:

You could silence a room with your nasty remarks

Your hatred of animals rattles my core

You even yelled at me in your sleep

Your body it was just okay

I’d hide in the closet and read my bible for strength

Your favorite hobby was making me cry

You monster, you monster, I wish id killed you but you choked on some corn

Do they let you use your humidifier in Hell?

Does the Devil let you curse at him in front of his friends?

It’s a perfect use of Shelton’s gifts, and bonus points to Kate McKinnon, who stole the scene even though she was just a series of photographs projected in the background.

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“What do you call that act?” “The Californians!”—Recurring sketch report.

For a Family Feud sketch to work requires two things: One, the impressions need to be solid across the board, and two, you need to really think Kenan’s ubiquitous Steve Harvey impression is a laugh riot. Neither quality was in evidence tonight, with only Kyle Mooney’s Steven Tyler making up with energy what it lacked in verisimilitude, and Kenan’s Harvey, while he had the best lines, not nearly as funny as intended. Celebrity Jeopardy worked because it wasn’t just a catch-all for everyone in the cast to do middling quick-hit impressions, and had a stronger anchor in Darrell Hammond (usually although not exclusively as Sean Connery). Honestly, I can’t remember a single, quotable line from any Family Feud sketch I’ve ever seen.

I am hip to the musics of today.

I will not pretend to be a fan of country music and was unfamiliar with Shelton before tonight, but his two songs were pretty sluggish and nondescript affairs, weren’t they? (The second song at least contained a smack of self-parody, but it was playing both sides of the fence.) Some snatches of overheard lyrics from both: “Neon light…pray…screw you…pitcher of someone new…it’s about time, damn time…Bocephus…honky tonk…four wheel drive…beer…girls…trucks…the Man upstairs…do the Dougie…”

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Most/Least Valuable (Not Ready For Prime Time) Player

Sorry to Sasheer Zamata, but if her showcase bit on Update didn’t put her over, she’s in trouble. Unlike, say Noël Welles last season, Zamata’s invisibility when she’s on screen isn’t harmful to the sketches she’s in, but she lacks presence and is unlikely to make the leap to the main cast anytime soon.

Moynihan and McKinnon brought the cold open to life with their passionate silliness and continued enlivening the show whenever they popped back up, so they share MVNRFPTP honors tonight. Niblet vs. boot-grapes: too tough to call.

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“What the hell is that thing?”—The Ten-To-Oneland Report

The magician sketch that closed things out (not including the “we screwed up the sketch timing” G.E. Smith-style band vamping in the break before the goodnights) started off shakily (thanks to another blown cue/line/cut), but got almost weird enough to qualify for Ten-To-Oneland status. That Shelton’s boob heckler was easily won from his skepticism to beg Taran Killam’s stage magician for magic favors benefitted greatly from the increasing randomness of his requests (“Give the power to know what women are thinking, so I can know what to say to them to get their tops off!” “Gun hands!” “Chicken nuggets, with ranch!” “A gun head!” “I wanna be a black guy—just for one day!”), and even the obviousness of wanting to be able to perform self-fellatio got a bump from Shelton’s overjoyed gratitude when Killam caves and pretends to grant his wish (“You will not regret this!”) Shame it was Shelton’s role, though—as with the rest of the episode, the big galoot was a gamer, but a more accomplished comic performer (or, you know, a comic performer) would have made it that much better.

Stray observation:

  • “I just want to address the elephant in the room—this is a vintage hat.”
  • “This man has won three Super Bowls! Six if you count the losses!”
  • “Dude this isn’t a roast.” “That’s what I said to you wife when she tried to make me dinner!”
  • “French scarf monster” was as succinct a burn on Johnny Depp’s recent attack on actor/musicians as could have been wished.
  • “Ballghazi” beats “Deflategate” for me, as the common theme of a completely trumped up non-scandal whipped into a frenzy of partisan nonsense is more on the nose.
  • “Does that make me rehabilitated? Yes it does—I’ll be on my way.”
  • “Would I do it again? Point me toward a homeless shelter.”
  • “You ate a whole guy, man. All that was left was his clothes and his hair—that’s like a magic trick!”
  • Shelton did a joke about his feud with Adam Levine and I…zzzzzzzz.
  • “My town is really ugly, and smelly, and far away from things.” “I love that.”
  • “I brought you a live macaw. He’s like me—unpredictable in a bad way.”

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