Reese Witherspoon is full of surprises. She's in critically acclaimed independent films like Mud and high-budget flops like This Means War. She'll get arrested vigorously defending her husband against a DUI charge, disappear for a year, then return in two powerhouses of the Oscar season. And then she'll follow all that up with the intensely reviled Hot Pursuit, which she's currently promoting with a stint hosting Saturday Night Live. The only surprise she could have brought to the show is if she didn't approach her hosting duties ready to play. The real surprise was that this episode was just as risky and unpredictable as its host. There is scathing satire, pitch-black comedy, and heartstring-plucking sentiment all in the same 90 minutes. Some of these risks did not pay off — frankly, some of them were total train wrecks — but like Reese Witherspoon's career, you always wanted to see what happens next.
2016 Republicans Cold Open
So many Republican presidential candidates emerged this past week that there couldn't not be a cold open on the topic. "People say Republicans can't be cool, but we’re about to prove them wrong," announces Cecily Strong, who is DJing the (fictional) Southern Republican Leadership Conference. What follows is a rockin' debutante ball presentation of the candidates. America's Got Candidates, if you will.
Mike Huckabee offers some sweet Seinfeld bass licks, Carly Fiorina storms the stage on a Harley, Ted Cruz erupts in a fit of black-light-dancing. All the onstage pyrotechnics is contrasted with the DJ mentioning some of the candidates' lesser-loved core beliefs. The novelty almost wears off by the time we get Taran Killam's Marco Rubio, shirtless and oiled up, emerging with backup dancers to a Pitbull song. It feels like a formal introduction to some of the faces we'll be seeing a lot more of next season, when election coverage starts getting truly intense.
Mother's Day Apologies Monologue With Reese Witherspoon
After a decent cold open, the episode moves ahead with maybe the most endearing monologue of all time. Look at Facebook any time today and you'll be instantly drowned in pictures of everyone with their moms — and it's kinda hard to find a problem with that. Whether vintage or present-day, there's an inherent fascination to just seeing the side-by-side comparison, and the bond that must hold together anyone on good enough terms for such a public display. That's what this episode's Mother's Day monologue is about. We get every cast member onstage with his or her mom to briefly apologize for one terrible thing they did growing up. It's adorable. Seeing all these points of origin puts some of our cast in context. (Vanessa Bayer's mom has gorgeous red hair, too!) Peak poignancy is achieved when Kate McKinnon apologizes to her mother for being weird, and the response is: "It's good that you're weird because weird got you here." But wait! There's more! As a Mother's Day bonus, there's "embarrassing" footage of each cast member as children. It doesn't get much cuter than Jay Pharoah, age 2, screaming his head off because mommy went to the store. Many of the clips feature adolescent versions of the cast — Cecily Strong, Kate McKinnon — performing in school plays and other silliness, with hints of the talent we know them to possess. Not shown in the clips: the mothers we've just seen, encouraging their kids to continue pursuing school plays and other silliness.
The L.A. Scene
It must have been awkward for Pete Davidson and Kyle Mooney, whose moms are in attendance tonight, to play guys rebuffing predatory seduction attempts from women of a certain age. Luckily for them, that's probably the least awkward thing about this unfocused talk show sketch, which drains much of the goodwill from that superior monologue. Let's not even talk about the fart joke. The less said, the better. When the funniest thing in your sketch is Mooney thinking "Scott Bakula" might be the name of some kind of animal, you're in trouble.
Since the show is sometimes criticized for falling back on game shows and talk shows too often, seeing this setup immediately after the previous sketch didn't inspire confidence. What a surprise when, midway through, it suddenly turned into the edgiest sketch in ages. Picture Perfect is a Win, Lose, or Draw–type game show that gets very uncomfortable when the contestants are asked to draw the prophet Muhammad. As if the Charlie Hebdo massacre wasn't enough of a reminder of the barbaric potency attached to drawing such an image, two men were gunned down last week in an idiotic contest in Texas to see who could do so the best. Bobby Moynihan and Kenan Thompson pack a whole lot of terrified squirming into the moments they should be drawing, but smartly aren't — and perhaps some NBC executives made similar faces when this razor-sharp satire was suggested.
Too often, SNL's digital shorts skew toward fake movie trailers or ads, destined for a long afterlife on social media and blogs. It's not that they're not funny — they're sometimes the standout sketches of their respective episodes — it's just that their designed share-ability feels obvious and safe. This week's short, however, is dark and twisted and will not be widely shared. A group of Hallmark employees gathers to commiserate about the balding, ball-busting bossman played by Bobby Moynihan (who quietly had his first big week in a while). The gripe session goes off the rails, though, when Beck Bennett casually describes the psychosexual mind games Mr. Westerberg has been playing with him. These include forcing Bennett to take a bath in the middle of the day. ("Make sure you're clean to my satisfaction.") As the creep-factor continues heightening between each round robin of complaints, Bennett's fondly annoyed tone never changes. Although there's nothing funny about abuse itself, the execution here makes for arresting television, especially when you consider that it's set in the Hallmark offices on Mother's Day weekend.
Update anchors Michael Che and Colin Jost get in on the Mother's Day action from the monologue by each reading a joke their mothers texted them at some point during the year. The jokes themselves are fine, but the best joke of this bit is that there's no picture of Che's mom because he asked her for a picture to show on TV and she is still at the beauty shop. (Instead, he shows a picture of what she wants to look like: 1970s Diana Ross.) Elsewhere, Leslie Jones strikes again as a Relationship Expert writing love letters to the guy she had a four-year booty call with who has since blocked her on social media. Luckily, she still has a fondness for Jost. After calling him a Creamsicle, she yells, "I just wanna chomp all the orange off and get to the cream," as only she can. This Update appearance isn't as purely funny as the initial Jones segments, which seemed more rooted in her stand-up, but her energy is as on-point and unpredictable as ever. Reese Witherspoon appears later on alongside Cecily Strong as Two Girls You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With at a Party. Reese seems to be playing it more like the sidekick of the Ex-Porn Star character Strong plays in another recurring sketch, and so it just kind of feels like Strong has an unflattering vocal fry echo here. Elsewhere, Kenan Thompson returns as Willie, the most optimistic guy Michael Che knows. This appearance doesn't really add any new shades to the character, but Kenan may only be around for one more episode of this show, so I'll take all of him I can get. Which sort of sounds like something Mr. Westerberg might say. Sorry about that.
High School Theatre Show With Reese Witherspoon
As unlikely a candidate for a recurring sketch as there ever was, the High School Theater Show debuted last fall during the kickass Cameron Diaz episode. It's the same spot-on evisceration of the on-the-nose message-making of young dramatists, only this time it's dedicated to John Lennon and Shonda Rhimes. Even though it's virtually the same sketch, right down to the same defanged industrial music I think I recognize from Fuerza Bruta, it's interesting to see just how these students will over-make their obvious points. "Next time, don't 'like'; love" is exactly how a certain brand of faux-philosophical teenager would think they were blowing your mind about Facebook.
We enter the final stretch of the show with this strange sketch about Southern belles whose names all rhyme: Carolyn, Marilyn, Tarilyn, and Jarilyn. When one of the first things a sketch offers is wacky names, it's a big indication of trouble, and in this case it is not wrong. The ladies drink wine and discuss bizarre traumatic experiences of late, involving sexting with one's son, demons, and, well, jizz. The performers clearly relish the tasteful Southern brunchwear and antebellum accents, but there was a missing ingredient here unresolved by the last-second reveal that these ladies have all gathered together to rob this house. All told, an interesting misfire.
Speaking of "something's missing," whole minutes appear shaved from this sketch, which must have been cut short for time, like that odd Voltron piece from the recent Taraji P. Henson episode. The top of a water slide at Whitewater Kingdom is a fun setting for a sketch, and I quite enjoyed the SoCal, Bill and Ted–type milieu, but what the hell? The sketch is over before a premise is even established, making the setting itself the premise. Now we'll never know what might have been, but at least we'll always have the mystery.
Whiskers R We With Reese Witherspoon
It's almost cheating to stock a sketch with adorable kittens, but the recurring Whiskers R We scenes have enough going for them otherwise that they don't need the help. Kate McKinnon reprises her Khaleesi of Cat Ladies role, last seen in December's Amy Adams episode, again training another younger concubine in the ways of the feline. Reese Witherspoon has one of her better roles of the night as new sidekick "Purr-sula," unaccountably under the sway of McKinnon's Barbra DeDrew, who rocks mom jeans and Betty White's hairdo. As the two go down the line of cats for sale ("With every cat purchase, you get a free All the Cats"), the pet backstories get more peculiar, which is ultimately a way you could describe this episode itself.