Aidy Bryant, Reese Witherspoon (NBC)

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

Okay, here’s the thing about Reese Witherspoon’s monologue—I enjoyed it. Sure, it was shameless, with Witherspoon and most of the cast bringing out their actual moms, purportedly to apologize for youthful indiscretions. (None of the confessions were especially funny, but the moms all played along with endearing mom awkwardness.) And the analytical, cynical killjoy critic in me did recoil at the over-long laziness of the enterprise, but, sometimes cute is cute, what can I say. Even when Reese’s mom told Lorne to roll the home movies of the cast as kids, I could not resist the cuteness, dammit. Cute mom stuff is apparently critical kryptonite.

Luckily, Witherspoon’s first sketch of the night snapped me back into critic mode like a cold, stale glass of prop wine in a lame knockoff sketch. “Be Scene In L.A.” saw Witherspoon and Cecily Strong essaying a “Kathie Lee and Hoda” talk show vibe, and coming up woefully short, even of that middle-rung limbo stick. Neither character was well-drawn (they lust after young dudes and have had a lot of plastic surgery), and the big laughs are supposed to come from the fact that their incompetent sound guys let everyone hear their off-camera conversations about farts and incontinence, respectively. As the board ops, Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah managed to squeeze a few chuckles out of their defiant lack of expertise—they’re effeminate stereotypes, but at least they’re specific. The way Jay over-enunciates his objections to the hosts’ criticisms and Kenan’s “I mean, we’ll be better for the next show, I bet” pop a little in the performances, but overall this was a dire harbinger of the show to come. Through the episode, Witherspoon, in her second hosting gig, was all big smiles and lifeless eyes, the flatness of nearly every sketch echoing in her indifferent line readings.

Weekend Update update

Maybe it was all the moms running around backstage, but tonight’s show coasted along as if afraid to offend anyone, a dull blandness that extended to Update. Michael Che got in a good line or two, especially referring to newly announced Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson’s nickname “some of my best friends,” but his role mainly consisted of playing straight man to two indifferent returning correspondents. Jost fared better, scoring a hit (if not a bullseye) by saying that the only way the latest bunch of Republican candidates could be duller is if they added Hawkeye to the group, and smacking down boxing champ and serial woman-beater Floyd Mayweather’s refusal to give Manny Pacquiao a rematch by saying, “if you want to fight Floyd Mayweather more than once, you have to date him.” Sure, Jost’s perpetual blandness continues to sap some of the juice out of his jokes, but those are solid burns.

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The three correspondent pieces tonight were all recurring bits—and all crashed hard. It’s tough to say that Leslie Jones’ appearance suffered from repetition, as most recurring bits do. I mean, it’s Leslie—her appearances as herself (or this exaggerated, Jost-lusting version thereof) rise and fall on the strength of her writing and performance. On the performance front, Jones continues to be shaky on-camera, here tripping over a line which, seemingly, she had in right in front of her as she read love letters to an unworthy “four-year booty call.” I like Jones’ energy on SNL, especially when playing herself, but this was neither her strongest material nor her most confident delivery thereof. Plus, ending with a Tom Brady/deflated balls joke? Ugh.

Kenan’s irrepressibly (and misguidedly) optimistic Willie reached his apotheosis in the Dwayne Johnson episode earlier this year, but here his reminiscences of graduation fizzle. Only his tale of a prom night gone wrong (“It’s like they say—Lorraine set you up, Willie!”) got a laugh. Similarly, Cecily Strong’s return as The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started A Conversation With At A Party (here with Witherspoon’s similarly snotty companion in tow) petered out, which is probably a not-to-be-heeded sign that she should hang up her clutch and iPhone. The concept of the character way back when lived in Strong’s performance and the weirdly specific conception of the eternally disdainful, woefully uninformed know-it-all, spouting malaprop versions of sanctimonious, half-understood do-gooder catchphrases as if they were the ultimate putdowns. But the gag has run its course like most one-note recurring bits do, and Witherspoon’s halfhearted aping tonight doesn’t enliven it so much as double down on its comic bankruptcy.

Best/Worst sketch of the night

There were two sketches that might have passed for decent lesser material on a good episode, but calling them the best sketches tonight should illuminate what a bummer this episode was. The Pictionary-style game show sketch, with both Bobby Moynihan’s husband and Kenan’s celebrity contestant Reginald VelJohnson freezing up at the thought of having to draw “the prophet Muhammad” had the tiniest bite to it (especially considering the recent shooting at a Texas “draw Muhammad” art show/deliberate, racist provocation). Kenan’s VelJohnson was about as accurate as any Kenan Thompson impression (and having Cecily Strong’s Rosie Perez say about three lines indicates how secure the writers were with her impression as well), but it’s a solid premise for the sketch, and the way Taran Killam’s grinning host refused to let the two guys off the hook (“And that sound means it’s the halfway beeper!”) drew out the laughs nicely.

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Even though it suffered from recurring sketch diminishing laughs syndrome (or RSDLS—check with your doctor), the Ten-To-Oneland cat lady sketch was as silly and weird as ever.

And that’s it. All other sketches tonight tie for worst. The cold open took mild potshots at the Republican presidential candidates, but looked for most of its laughs from cast members doing funny dances. The high school drama club sketch made fun of the fact that high school drama clubs often aren’t very good at expressing political ideas, and featured the laziest excuse for an ending I’ve seen in a while. The water slide sketch started out well enough, looking as if it was going to let the ever-underused Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett create the sort of awkward teen characters they can do so well, only to wheeze out to the second laziest ending of the night. (I have a sinking feeling the phrase “hog clog” was supposed to bring the house down.) It had me wondering how much Lorne spent on getting a working water slide in the studio. The southern ladies sketch strained to find a weird groove in each woman’s increasingly outlandish tale of misfortune, but never committed, either in writing or performance. The final reveal (they’re actually gathered to rob the place) was neat, but the pacing was way off up ’til then. The greeting card company film similarly tried to go dark, with Beck Bennett joining in with his coworkers’ mockery of their whiny boss and inadvertently revealing that he’s become the guy’s mesmerized sex slave. The last shot of Moynihan’s Mr. Westerberg standing menacingly in his office awaiting Bennett was creepy, but the bit never built a sufficient head of black comic steam. (I do wonder if Hallmark is super-pleased to be associated with the sketch, though.)

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

The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started A Conversation With At A Party, Willie, Leslie Jones as herself, the high school drama club sketch, the cat ladies—all have been done before, and all have been done better. (Although the drama club sketch was never funny.)

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I am hip to the musics of today

Pleasant enough to write a review to, Florence + The Machine’s numbers were notable mostly for how little effort went into disguising their prerecorded nature. Florence Welch has a lovely voice, and the songs incorporate some impressive vibrato which is no doubt hard to replicate live, but the contrast of her dramatic facial expressions and the canned vocal track produced an emotional disconnect that made the performances downright eerie at times. There’s no secret how friendly SNL has become to acts that want/need some audio help, but at least put some effort into it, for pride’s sake if nothing else. That the live music aspect of SNL has eroded over the years in proportion to how inessential the musical guests have become to the experience isn’t news, but it’s also a shame. SNL was conceived as rock ‘n’ roll comedy, the live-wire energy of the musical acts feeding off of—and into—the sketches. Apart from a few obvious lip-synching slips (in the first song, especially), tonight’s performance wasn’t egregiously different from a lot of weeks’—but the enervating nature of the spots underlined the flatness of the show as a whole.

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

In quantity, Cecily Strong had the most screen time tonight, but none of her roles showed her to great effect. Um—hell, it’s officially Mother’s Day! Let’s give MVNRFPTP as a tie to everybody’s moms! (This really was a bad episode.)

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

There’s a specificity to Kate McKinnon’s lisping, closeted cat lady in these sketches that elevates the stereotype and makes the character memorable. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have her hauling out a succession of freaking adorable kittens the whole time, but it’s the convoluted backstories her very lonely cat lady supplies for each cat that makes this sketch so welcome. Again, it’s been funnier elsewhere (in the Charlize Theron episode especially), but McKinnon (and Witherspoon as her latest squirrelly gal-pal) spin unnervingly weird tales about the kitties that hint at the madness lurking inside them both. My favorite out of a solid bunch tonight: “This is Skittles. He’s a gift from God. Or at least that’s what he told the members of his cult.”

Stray observations:

  • “It’s the most distant galaxy yet discovered. So distant, in fact, that astronomers have named the galaxy ‘Dad.’”
  • “Won’t it be fun watch all of these guys lose to Jeb Bush?”
  • “This is Peanut. He’s called that because he’s tiny, and because 5 percent of people have a deadly allergy to him.”
  • “We call this next kitty Magellan, because he’s an explorer. Although so far, his greatest discovery is his own butthole.”
  • “With every cat purchased, you’ll get a free all the cats.”
  • “Thanks, Reese Witherspoon!”—Pete Davidson, after the big movie star embarasses him in front of his mom.
  • I thought of what sketches to include in the review tonight, and realized that “none” was probably the right number.

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SNL Vintage Report: It was the Betty White Mother’s Day episode from 2010. While watching White do her “too old to put up with your nonsense” schtick is as amusing now as it was five years ago, the real takeaway was Seth Meyers, Amy Poehler, and Tina Fey teaming up for “Really” on Weekend Update. That’s how you sell Update jokes—stare them down. The gap in political material between the Meyers and Jost/Che era isn’t as pronounced as the latter’s critics would have us believe—for as long as current incarnation of The Daily Show has been on the scene, Update has been shown up as the essentially glib and harmless minor league affair it’s most always been. But confidence goes a long way toward at least making the jokes land. As with a lot of the current cast, there’s a sense that Jost and Che are attempting to emulate Meyers’ style rather than establishing their own. Plus—lots of MacGruber. Sue me, I miss MacGruber.