Taran Killam, Dakota Johnson (NBC)

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

For all her Fifty Shades Of Grey currency, Dakota Johnson made her best impression yet as the co-lead of the undeservedly short-lived sitcom Ben And Kate, where her winsome charms as a capable single mom coping with both her irresponsible brother and her perpetual personal abashment provided a showcase for her not-inconsiderable comic gifts. Having not seen her new starring vehicle (I may be allergic to movies based on nigh-illiterate erotic fanfic—the tests haven’t come back yet), I can’t speak to Johnson’s abilities therein, but, in her first hosting gig, she exhibited a winning gameness that brought some colors to the indifferent sketches she was given. In her monologue and in the inevitable Fifty Shades sketch, Johnson knowingly betrayed a distance from the movie’s hype that lifted her above the predictability. And, in the non-Fifty Shades sketches, she showed enough personality to suggest she’d have made even more of an impression had she been given stronger material.

Weekend Update update

Things are loosening up, with Che twice commenting off-camera on Jost’s jokes, and the segment beginning with Jost and Che in a rare two-shot. All-in-all, this was one of the stronger Updates of the Jost/Che era. While none of the material was particularly hard-hitting, none of the jokes fell completely flat, a marked improvement. Both Jost and Che delivered their jokes with unaccustomed confidence, and the segment was enlivened by three solid correspondent pieces. Jay Pharoah never seems more at home than when he gets to do his Kanye West impression, and here his apology song (to Beck, llamas, his own shadow, and Selma) was as accomplished as ever. Bobby Moynihan returned as Riblet, Michael Che’s boisterous b-boy former pal, and his stripped-off mannerisms as he delivered straightforward news jokes better than Che generally does continues to be energetically funny and a sort of pointed dig at Che’s undeniably rocky tenure behind the Update desk. Riblet does’t have the staying power of a Stefon, say, but Moynihan delivered, as usual. And then there was Kate McKinnon’s stellar turn as Ruth Bader Ginsburg. McKinnon, by dint of her ability to inhabit her characters so completely, has placed herself as SNL’s most valuable player, and her Ginsburg, played the Supreme Court Justice as the strutting, trash-talking judicial ass-kicker her supporters imagine her as. McKinnon playing a character to the hilt is a thing to behold, and her repeatedly dancing under her flowing robe as she delivered lines like “I’m living an 81-year-old’s dream, I get paid to sit on a bench all day and judge people” is the sort of thing I could watch all night.

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Best/Worst sketch of the night

The “net neutrality” sketch touched on exactly nothing provocative or satirical about the recent FCC Internet ruling, instead making the ever-salient points that computer nerds don’t get out of the house much, that guys use the Internet to watch porn, and that Internet commenters don’t have much to say. (Except for you guys—you guys are great.) Throw in the episode’s second reference to that stupid dress meme, and a moment where Johnson’s character breaks character to ask Taran Killam’s net inventor to slap her harder, and this sketch commits the sin of being both not funny and instantly disposable.

The best sketch of the night was the short film scored to Sara Bareilles’ “Brave,” where nearly every female cast member (and Johnson) burst out in happy abandon at the idea of throwing social politesse out the window. While that song has forever been co-opted by those smartphone commercials, here it made a gloriously liberating soundtrack to the idea of saying what you mean, and not pretending to care about workplace chit-chat. Each actress, throwing their hands up to the heavens as they threw off the yoke of rote courtesy, sold the liberation of the moment with enthusiastic abandon. It’s a hoot.

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The political cold open, with Taran Killam as a right-wing, pandering Rudy Giuliani being stalked, Birdman-style, by his baser nature actually had some bite for a change, especially considering how cozy SNL was with the former New York mayor in the past. While the idea that the current Giuliani doesn’t actually mean the borderline racist nonsense he’s been spouting of late might be a sop to SNL’s past relationship with the guy, his alter ego’s temptation, “You’d like to see something terrible happen so you can be a hero again,” still strikes at the heart of “America’s Mayor” and his long-lost hold on the country’s sympathies.

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

While I admire Cecily Strong’s desire to carry on the SNL broad comic character tradition, her Cathy Ann—here acting as chaperone to Johnson’s Cinderella—remains funnier in intention than execution. Cathy Ann’s gabbling, mush-mouthed bluntness throws back to Bill Murray’s Honker in style, but she rarely has anything as memorable to say, and this sketch went nowhere. (Even her “funny dance” was indifferent.)

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Riblet’s return produced slightly diminished returns, but that’s the way of most returning characters, and Moynihan’s energy still found a way to make Michael Che’s left-behind old pal funny and behind-the-scenes edgy. It’s no secret that Che’s had trouble finding his calm as co-anchor, so the Riblet bits—where this Friendly’s worker shows Che just how easy that “jorb” is—suggests some in-house ribbing that makes the bit that much more alive on-screen.

I am hip to the musics of today.

While I’m not going to go out and buy some Alabama Shakes, I am undeniably drawn to the performing powerhouse that is Brittany Howard. When singing, Howard’s mouth opens wide like a Terry Gilliam animation, but she, like B.B. King, never seems like she’s going for an effect. That’s just how her voice gets out.

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

Kate McKinnon takes the top spot tonight. Her Notorious R.B.G. was the standout, but that signature commitment also broke forth in the “Brave” short film, alongside Aidy Bryant, Leslie Jones, Dakota Johnson, and Cecily Strong. Everyone involved in the bit brought an unbridled catharsis to the idea of breaking free of stultifying politeness and just saying what you mean for a change, but McKinnon’s happy desire to poop in peace was the standout.

Kyle Mooney gets second place, with his Ten-To Oneland sketch with Beck Bennet (see below) standing alongside the episode’s inevitable Fifty Shades sketch to give him the spotlight. If there was going to be a sketch about that movie, this was about as painless a way to do it as possible, with Mooney’s middle school reporter bringing an alternating innocent and unsettlingly knowing understanding to his questions. Johnson played the straightwoman ably to Mooney’s questioner, who knew too much about the movie while at the same time betraying gaping holes in his understanding of the subject matter. Mooney’s commitment to the character reminded me of Dana Carvey at his best.

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Aidy Bryant continues to make even middling material into something with her signature character work. The office sketch, where her put-upon coworker deals with two broken arms and some self-involved office-mates, was barely written, but Bryant found a character in the middle of it, and made lines like “Both of my arms are broken—you know this” funny in spite of themselves.

No LVNRFPTP tonight—it wasn’t an especially strong episode, but everyone got the ball more or less evenly.

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

Giving the last five minutes to Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney to play with is a sound strategy, as they truly seem at most at home in Ten-To-Oneland, where their conceptual weirdness can play, unfettered by commercial considerations. Here, their clueless do-gooder prank show (from Mr. Riot Films) tackled bullying, workplace sexual inequality, lost children, and dog bullying with an equal inability to either understand or commit to confrontation, each hidden camera encounter ending with them urging unfooled passers-by to “just keep an eye out.” While not their strongest bit, its evocation of awkward titters from the audience is what Ten-To-Oneland is all about.

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Stray observations:

  • “You warned us that what you were about to say was horrible, so that was fine.”
  • “They call me the horsefly, because I bite hard and I look like a horsefly.”
  • “I like my men like I like my decisions—5-4.”
  • “A study determined that marijuana was the least harmful drug. ‘Interesting,’ said a a million black dudes in jail for marijuana.”
  • “There’s an art class where students openly smoke marijuana. So every art class.”
  • Kenan Thompson played a cosplaying Worf surgeon. While his funny voice was slightly different from his usual funny voices, it did take time for a tribute to Leonard Nimoy.
  • Melanie Griffith (appearing beside ex Don Johnson in Dakota’s monologue) hosted the show in 1988 (musical guest Little Feat!) Apart from Blythe Danner and Gwynneth Paltrow, have any other mother and daughter hosted SNL? I put it to you, commentariat!
  • Added: Wow, seems a lot of people (or at least a vocal few people interested in creating Internet waves and promoting themselves) are upset about that ISIS sketch I found uninteresting enough to leave out of the main review. (Sometimes, when I hit the 1,500 word mark, I take pity on readers and let a forgettable sketch pass by for a ball.) This one looked good, although its specificity as a parody of a current car commercial that’ll be forgotten in a month marked it as disposable as those llama and “blue or gold” dress jokes sprinkled through the episode. The fact that a few young people from comfortable Western situations have run off to join ISIS exists, so the conflation of that idea with the commercial’s manufactured sentimentality about a loving father (Killam) sending daughter Johnson off with a pickup truck full of bearded militants makes enough sense for the sketch to exist, I suppose. And Mooney’s warm, “Death to America” to the teary dad in lieu of the manly “we’ll take care of your little girl” exchange implied from the soldiers in the original commercial was a dark enough little twist. All this “outrage” online will be forgotten as soon as the Helen Lovejoys of the world find their next thing to Tweet about. Anything can be the subject of a joke—it’d be good if this joke were funnier, but people suggesting it shouldn’t exist at all should calm down. Pretty sure there’s something new to get upset about coming just around the corner. (There—now we’re over 1,900 words. Happy?)
  • Thoughts (not that anyone asked) about the big SNL 40 celebration. Eddie Murphy’s much-hyped return was perhaps the biggest anticlimax ever, his appearance amounting to little more than a courtesy visit from a long-absent royal who’s forgotten his speech. Much more impressive was Jane Curtin’s return to the Weekend Update desk. After famously announcing in 1979 that she would “never set foot in [30 Rock] again,” her appearance alongside Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in the introduction to the Update segment was the best bit of the night—three funny women who’ve each fought their own fights to get there. That’s a show I’d watch. As for the musical numbers, the Kanye bit, as weird as it was, wasn’t necessary. I think back to the Elvis Costello/Beastie Boys number from SNL 25, which called back to a significant moment in the show’s history (and still rocked). At three-and-a-half hours, SNL 40 could have shaved Kanye off, alongside Lorne’s buddy Paul Simon singing that same song again. Still—I got all misty at times. Forty years loving a show will do that to you.

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