A monologue song is often the part of Saturday Night Live most likely to be viewed in DVR fast-forward. It might be a host who's an unlikely singer, like Jeremy Renner, doing the best he can, or a host you already know can sing (kind of), like John Goodman, and you just don't care. It usually feels like a wasted opportunity for something funny to happen, though, which is why you might expect an episode that's basically one long monologue song would be an aca-nightmare. But in the instance of Anna Kendrick's episode, at least, you would be aca-wrong.
There was a thematic unity to the actress and "Cups" singer's first visit to Saturday Night Live. Nearly every sketch found our host either breaking into song or starting there from the top. Any doubt that she had the chops for it went out the window early on and stayed there. Kendrick may have picked up an Oscar nomination for her role in the George Clooney drama Up In the Air, but to SNL's prized demographic of young people, she's probably more well known at this point for her pipes in the a capella comedy Pitch Perfect. The star also received a Tony Award nomination at age 12 for her work on Broadway in the musical High Society. Whether it was Kendrick's idea to make an almost wall-to-wall singing episode, or it happened organically, the cast, crew, and host all really tried something this week. More often than not, this musical experiment was an encore-worthy success.
Tactical Evasion of the Week
With Donald Rumsfeld in headlines again recently, thanks to Errol Morris's new documentary about him, rhetorical evasion is on a lot of people's minds. Perhaps this preoccupation with known unknowns seeped into the writers room this week and resulted in the opening sketch about GM's recall trial. Kate McKinnon's CEO Mary Barra explores the limits of the phrase "We're looking into that" to avoid any culpability. There's some fun wordplay, as in the squirming Barra's request "Your honor, may I approach the exit?" The best part, however, is some brief meta business over who gets to say the line that opens up the show every week.
Belle Channeling of the Week
It was obvious during the Melissa McCarthy episode's Super Bowl sketch a couple months back that SNL is well-equipped to dust off the old razzle dazzle these days. This week, the monologue turns into a Broadway-style twist on "Belle" from Beauty and the Beast, with all the cast, some backup dancers, and even Lorne Michaels uniting to welcome Kendrick with jazz hands wide open. In retrospect, the sketch serves as an early warning shot fired across the audience's bow. If your heart isn't open to a song and dance number or two, this is going to be a long night.
Required DVR of the Week
The dum-dums over at Fox and Friends are back this week to trot out a (sadly real) misleading Obamacare graph, and confuse Neil deGrasse Tyson with Mike Tyson. It feels like two talk-show sketches stuffed in one and that's not a complaint, because both are pretty strong. Extra points to Bobby Moynihan's Brian Kilmeade who looks absolutely blown away by everything Kenan Thompson's Tyson says. The kicker on this sketch is its crown jewel, though. Before the Fox and Friends gang cuts to commercial, they list off some corrections from the first half of the show, and these glide up the screen too fast to catch on first viewing. I feel obligated to mention some favorites, and you can add yours in the comments:
- Captain Phillips is not a brand of rum
- Ukraine was not Frasier's brother
- Jackson Browne was only one person
- Pop-Tarts do not cause 'splosions
- Don Cheadle does not appear if you say "Cheadlejuice" three times
Dong Song of the Week
Everybody seemed to be having fun singing and dancing throughout this music-packed episode, but never more so than in the digital short, "Dongs All Over the World." Inspired by songs like Ludacris's "Area Codes," which is name-checked during the intro, "Dongs" finds the ladies of SNL embracing their inner International Nasty Girls. It's a welcome rebuke to the pop-cultural mythologizing of the international playboy, currently embodied by Pitbull a.k.a. Mr. Worldwide. Anna Kendrick's itinerary for her global dong tour is a classic corollary to the famous steps 1-3 recited in "Dick in a Box." Sasheer Zamata steals the Icona Pop-assisted show, though, with her reaction shot while reading a book called "Guide to Dongs."
Erstwhile Ursula of the Week
Risking musical whiplash, next up is a sketch where Kendrick's modern Ariel (from the Little Mermaid) is way into today's pop hits. Aidy Bryant's Ursula starts off wanting to steal Ariel's voice, but becomes quickly disenchanted upon hearing her take on Kesha's "We R Who We R," among other jams. Aside from a solid Iggy Azalea joke, though, this sketch's main selling point is its impressive set design. (Those eels!) Unfortunately, NBC didn't make video of it available.
Unrequited Love of the Week
I have a soft spot for send-ups of romantic comedy conventions, and SNL has been poking it lately. Last week's episode featured Louis C.K. bungling the classic trope of winning someone back with a Big Speech; now we have Kyle Mooney and Vanessa Bayer taking on the Awkward Ask-Out. Each time Mooney sheepishly almost makes overtures toward his neighbor, he ends up backing out at the last second, badly, saying things like, "I really like you ... the soccer." This digital short was a nice change of pace from Mooney's usual lo-fi mockumentaries of late.
Guest Surplus of the Week
Weekend Update was on fire this episode. Every joke seemed to land. Head writer Colin Jost was more confident and comfortable in his on-camera role than he's been all year. Also, a nice sidebar about memory championships found the two hosts working together for the first time, goosing up the format nicely. It would have been a top-notch Weekend Update even without the guests, but luckily there were an almost-excessive three this week. First up, Kate McKinnon's German Chancellor Angela Merkel returned to compare working with Putin to being cornered at a party by the guy who has just started CrossFit. Eventually, another familiar, Bobby Moynihan's George R.R. Martin, appeared to underscore his apparent difficulty in closing out the series of books that fuel HBO's hit show Game of Thrones. (The working title of his next book is either A Whisper of Yells or A Bunch of Clocks.) The most notable appearance, though, is also the least likely.
Brooks Wheelan had a solo moment on Weekend Update early in the season, explaining his assortment of tattoos, and then gradually grew more and more marginalized throughout the season. At a low point, he only had one line in an episode and he botched it. I've been rooting for Wheelan to succeed though, since his "one second a day" video emerged earlier this year, and he got a big opportunity here. It seems as though Wheelan found a way to turn one of his stand-up bits into an interview with Jost about the dangers of excessive drinking, and he crushed it. Perhaps this bit will be the momentum-builder that allows Wheelan to finish out his freshman year strongly.
French Ambassadors of the Week
The impossibly hip French youths of Les Jeune de Paris are back again with more elaborate choreography and cameos from Jean-Luc Picard and … Chris Tucker's out-there character from The Fifth Element? It's more peppy and fun than funny, but at least it didn't outstay its welcome. The presence of Nasim Pedrad, though, reminded me of her overall absence in recent episodes. I wonder what's up with that.
High School Hell-Raisers of the Week
Jay Pharoah's original character, Principal Frye, is back, so of course the students of Booker T. Washington High have been misbehaving again. This time they've won a trip to Norfolk Zoo for selling an almost suspicious amount of candy bars. These students are just terrible people, saying the worst stuff, but we only see and hear about it from the people addressing them. Among the indignities the zoo suffers under the perennially out-of-breath principals watch is the attempted engineering of ninja turtles. Nice to see this character and his unseen assailants out of their normal setting, and Kendrick is adorably aggrieved as the zoo's tour guide.
Brittle Bones of the Week
The final sketch on SNL used to almost always be reserved for the most absurd, Will Forte-type sketch of the night. Although these corkers do still tend to crop up in the back half, it's increasingly less at the very end. This week's weirdest offering traps Bobby Moynihan beneath a bunch of rocks during frontier times, while his most likely savior proves unable to deliver. Taran Killam plays the Paul Bunyan-esque Big Joe, a barrel-chested strongman who is gradually revealed to have some kind of bone disease rendering him useless. It's kind of slow to get going, and only after the game of the scene emerges — Big Joe can't lift anything — does it pick up any steam.
Hat Trick of the Week
Musical guest Pharrell Williams and his enormous hat finally enter the fray in what I assumed at first to be the final sketch of the night. Anna Kendrick and Vanessa Bayer are twins auditioning to be Pharrell's backup singers using a song from the musical Rent. Weirdly, Bayer didn't seem to be that much demonstrably worse than the host at singing this song, or at least not in a funny way. Out of all the evening's musical efforts, this one was unfortunately the least successful.
Infomercial That Needs to Be Real of the Week
Just when you think the episode is over, the SNL crew crams in one last clip and it's a scream. "NCAA Tourney: Best of the White Guys" is an infomercial for a clip show of all the air guitar and diving after loose balls viewers can handle. There's a dark undercurrent at the end, though, when the fake ad features a bonus DVD called When It Was Fair that shows a bunch of white dudes in archival footage, ruling the court. This bonus sketch was a fitting conclusion to an overstuffed episode. Watch it here.