The challenge of making an unfunny actor funny was front and center this week, with the result being whatever is one level below "mixed bag." As ever, there were high points, mostly involving Weekend Update and/or Cecily Strong. Moreover, there were so many missed opportunities. How do you have Maroon 5 as your musical guest and fail to rope Adam Levine into a sketch about American Horror Story OR The Voice? Also, the choice to parody The Avengers over The Bourne Legacy may have been dictated by the wild popularity of the former versus the more mild success of the latter, but it just reminded us of how great a MacGruber vs. Bourne sketch would have been if Will Forte were still around. Alas.
Sketch of the Night
The shot kicked things off with its strongest material in the cold open. Obviously they were going to tackle the Petraeus scandal, but this "Booknotes" segment, with Cecily Strong's Paula Broadwell reading selections from her biography All In, felt like the freshest possible take. The Fifty Shades of Grey streak running through Strong's deadpan reading — "Like most people, my feelings about erotic asphyxiation have always been somewhat complicated" — killed two birds with one stone. Plus, in any context, the phrase "Tampa Bay socialite Jill Kelley" is hilarious.
Cecily Strong Takeover Status
It has to be said: Strong has pulled out decidedly ahead in the race to replace Kristen Wiig as the show's top female voice. Part of the reason I was so looking forward to the show doing a Voice sketch was to see who the show would entrust with the Christina Aguilera impersonation. Turns out, I didn't need that indicator, as the fact that Strong was cast as Paula Broadwell in the cold open AND as Jill Kelley in the Situation Room sketch was endorsement enough. Situation Room also doubled as Jeremy Renner's strongest performance, as "self-proclaimed" mayor of Tampa, "Fat Deuce" Derek.
Most Fortuitous Cock-Up
Somehow, it's been decided that every monologue this season has to involve a song, and so it was with Jeremy Renner. It seemed like they were just going to have him sing "Skyfall," I guess as a tribute to fellow not-comedically-inclined actor and 2012 SNL host Daniel Craig. But the more general "singing songs about the movies I've been in" was cute enough, especially when the backing track failed to kick in right away, leaving Renner to vamp for a few moments and accidentally let his personality slip through. There was a bit too much "I can't believe I agreed to do this" to him, but I can chalk that up to nerves. Also? Pretty good singing voice!
Most Thematically On-Point Commercial
The "Your Childhood Home" hotel ad was okay, with the holidays bearing down on us and hometown anxiety at a high point. ("Who needs snorkeling and parasailing when you can check out the new K-Mart?") But it had nothing on the strangeness of that (real) Louis Vuitton ad that used the score from 28 Days Later. I know Renner was only in the sequel to that movie, but it still felt intentional.
Least Invested Cast Member
Last season's senioritis vibe only seems to have carried over to Fred Armisen, who reliably giggles through his one sketch a week and cashes a check. Thus it was with this week's reprise of "The Californians," a sketch that usually has Armisen and Bill Hader on the verge of breaking anyway. This iteration of the sketch was lighter on driving directions and heavier on the soap opera parody, but at the very least it allowed Vanessa Bayer to have some kind of presence on the show, even if only because her role as the maid was grandfathered from last season, back when they gave her stuff to do.
This week's Digital Short in Spirit If Not Name was a cute idea that just went on forever, with Renner, Taran Killam, and Bobby Moynihan in a three-way armed standoff that took them from a parking garage to the Thanksgiving table to the bedroom (not like that) (unfortunately).
Cameo of the Night
Freed of having to talk about the election, Seth Meyers delivered his best Weekend Update of the season, featuring a crackling "Winners and Losers" segment dedicated to the Petraeus scandal. Elsewhere, Jay Pharoah's Katt Williams impersonation accomplished the improbable by unseating his Stephen A. Smith as Most Accurate Yet Utterly Obscure Impersonation of the Year. But the headlines this morning are all going to be about Chris Christie's appearance at the update desk. The love affair between SNL and the suddenly super-popular New Jersey governor continues! It feels like back in the '90s when the show blessed Rudy Giuliani with its seal of approval. ... Oh God, this means Christie's going to end up hosting at some point, doesn't it?
Awkward Subtext of the Week
The only thing the Avengers sketch accomplished — "comedy" not being among its virtues — was reminding everybody that Renner doesn't have a current product to promote. Loved the movie, liked the idea of mocking Renner's Hawkeye for being a lowly archer among superheroes, but, you know, back in July or something.
Least Flattering Retread
Maybe it was just me, but the Wes Underballs/Dick Fuel sketch with Renner and Bill Hader on a movie set only reminded me of that Jake Gyllenhaal sketch where he was teaching a seminar on how to be a Law & Order bit player. Comparatively, Renner gets hardly anything to do, though props to a sketch in 2012 referencing the Kim Kardashian/Ray J sex tape, relevance to current events be damned.
Most Flattering Retread
Kind of loved the "TV Funhouse"-esque animated sketch about anthropomorphic drone fighters who apparently moonlight as a boy band. Nice job of lulling the audience into a sense of security with the inoffensive One Direction stuff (actually, they had more of a Boyz II Men vibe) before lingering just long enough on an intense drone attack to hammer the point home.
Most Courageous Display of Holding One's Shit Together
The morgue sketch was satisfyingly wacky, with Renner's terrible attempts to identify his brother's corpse getting more and more ridiculous. But the real show was in watching Bill Hader as the morgue attendant molest the crap out of Taran Killam as the corpse, turning the sketch into an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride waiting to see when Killam would break. And he never did! Give THIS man a Bourne franchise!