Last night's SNL was always going to have its work cut out for it. That's what happens when you follow up a legacy-cementing three-and-a-half-hour victory lap celebration with a regular episode. Being the first new SNL after that 40th-anniversary special means being unfairly weighed down with the burden of justifying newly won over viewers. ("You've seen our glorious past, now please gaze into the future!") It almost seems like the choice of suddenly infamous Fifty Shades of Grey star Dakota Johnson as host was a signal to the audience not to get its collective hopes up. Because, ultimately, unless those hopes were for an off-night partially saved by one corker of a digital short, those hopes were probably dashed.
Johnson appeared nervous from the start, her cue-card-fixated turn in the cold open, and remained so during the monologue and most of the show. But it would be unfair to blame this messy episode on her. Stuffed with an abundance of odd choices — why a Cinderella sketch, and why insert a throwaway Cecily Strong character into it? — this was just a woefully uneven set of sketches. Perhaps the cast and crew were still recovering from the legendary, Prince-assisted bacchanal that followed the anniversary. In any case, just as it isn't right to judge this episode against the special and the past it represented, hopefully new viewers won't predict the future of the show based on this episode, one of the low points of the season.
Giuliani Cold Open
Rudy Giuliani said a dumb thing this week. Also, Birdman won an armload of Oscars. Combine those two factoids together — for some reason, I guess — and you've got the typically topical cold open. Taran Killam's Giuliani isn't bad, and I'll take any excuse for seeing Bobby Moynihan do Zach Galifianakis, but this bird had molting feathers.
Dakota Johnson Monologue
Dakota Johnson (I just want to type "Fanning" so much every time) is visibly anxious during her self-deprecating monologue, and it's unclear whether that's part of the bit or not. (But probably not.) Perhaps the nerves are due to both strands of her famous lineage, Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, sitting in the audience, looking amazing. Kyle Mooney and Kate McKinnon eventually show up, playing kinkster audience plants, as the sinking feeling sets in that this will not be the only Fifty Shades–referencing segment of the show.
Taran Killam is still a young man, but he absolutely nails his dad characters every time. The fun of this fake ad is that you know there's a joke coming, you know it's almost there, you wonder what it's going to be, and then it's even better than you thought. The faux-misty look Kyle Mooney gives Taran Killam should win some type of award — perhaps one of Birdman's Oscars that should be taken away as penalty for its insufferable subtitle.
Kathy Ann, the stringy-haired, frumpy creation Cecily Strong introduced in the James Franco episode, returns for this Cinderella update. It's one of those Annoying Person Is Annoying sketches, and if it lost its glass slipper — or sneaker, in this case — nobody would come looking for it.
Say What You Wanna Say
I've spent something like 500 words bashing this episode, so it's about time we get to the uncontestable best sketch of the night, and one of the best things I've seen lately in general. Inspired by the inescapable Sara Bareilles song "Brave," five women celebrate the joy of being brutally honest in social situations. Each vignette is like a feminine Curb Your Enthusiasm capsule, improved by a music video feel and the perfect use of slow motion: Aidy Bryant twirling. Surely, Bareilles didn't intend for this song to be about not caring whether people know how little you know about ISIS, but that's why all art is subjective and open to interpretation.
For our second Fifty Shades moment of the show, we have Kyle Mooney playing a middle-school student interviewing Dakota Johnson about her role in a film most middle schoolers are blissfully unaware of. In his suspenders, bow tie, and mushroom cap haircut, Mooney certainly looks the part! Just as Taran Killam is preternaturally gifted at playing fathers, Mooney excels at playing kids. It's definitely a one-gag sketch, but it improves whenever Mooney reveals more about his weird life. (His dad has taken him to see Fifty Shades of Grey several times.)
Hyperbole-obsessed millennials, your day of reckoning is literally here. In this sketch, Aidy Bryant has two broken arms ("shattered from pits to wrists"), and the self-obsessed interns in her office are completely devoid of sympathy. It's a well-written sketch — the entire thing hinges on how language is deployed — but the misuse of literally has already been thoroughly taken to task, and so has the declaration of whether or not one can even. At this rate, we'll be seeing a sketch about the use of the word basic sometime next spring.
If SNL is looking to shake things up next season, a solid new Weekend Update team would be Kate McKinnon's Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Riblet. That is all.
Earlier in the recap, I complained about all the odd choices in this episode. This sketch is easily the oddest thing that happened in the night, and somehow it kind of worked for me. Kenan Thompson is a doctor who just came from a Star Trek convention where he was cosplaying as Worf. (Side note: Kenan was noticeably absent for most of this episode. Does he have a foot out the door already?) The decision to have his Worf doctor break the news of Tarn Killam's death to his family makes this an agreeably morbid sketch. And Kenan's decision to give the character an almost operatic vocal tic takes all this weirdness to another level.
Sasheer Zamata, who was kind of wasted in her sketches this episode, hosts a panel of cybernobodies on a TV show about internet stuff. None of the "prominent internet users" assembled has any idea what net neutrality is, but they have some serious opinions about … sigh … #thedress. It's actually the second time that white and gold dress is mentioned in this episode after it figured into Weekend Update during one of the non-RBG or Riblet scenes. This episode ends with Vinton Cerf, one of the founders of the internet, slapping the entire panel in the face, but it sort of feels like we the viewers have been slapped as well. I guess what I'm trying to say is: Watch The Slap, Thursdays at 8 p.m., only on NBC.
It feels like it's been a while since the show closed with a Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney digital short. This one takes a swing at so-called "socially conscious" YouTubers who practically break an arm patting themselves on the back for not shoving homeless people into the sewer. The sketch may be a little light on laughs, but the target is so ripe for satire, and Bennett and Mooney nail the self-righteous tone of these jackasses enough to justify its existence.