At this point, the 22-year-old Ariana Grande is known for Nickelodeon stardom, a couple of pop albums, taking flak from fusty ladies who want her to wear more clothing and licking a donut for which she did not pay. She’s young, what can you say? I’d guessing the SNL writing staff had a tough time trying to figure out what to play with when “mini Mariah” arrived at 30 Rock last Monday. She appeared as the musical guest in 2014 and flounced around in a She-Ra costume in a sketch about toys coming to life — but could she hold down the show on her own?
Much like last week, the cold open takes on a hodgepodge of headlines from the political news, including Ben Carson’s endorsement of Donald Trump and violence at the Trump rallies. The highlights here are the returns of Darrell Hammond, who playfully mugs his way through Trump, and Larry David, whose Bernie Sanders is a gentler Larry David. There are a few clever lines, including some nice shots at Bernie’s hardcore fans (“My message is resonating with a diverse group of white people. And I’ve got supporters of all ages: 18-year-olds, 19-year olds …”) but there’s no cohesive message. SNL likes to save the top spot for electoral politics, and relies on our general interest in the same, but the show can dig deeper than merely calling Trump racist and Bernie and old fogey.
Ariana Grande Monologue
After informing the crowd she is a singer and not a Starbucks drink, Grande contemplates the scandals of other young stars — namely, Miley and the Biebs — and sings about what her big, inappropriate act will be. You know, “Something that says, ‘Welcome to Hollywood, kid.’” The best bit involves baby-faced Pete Davidson inviting Grande to smoke pot. She replies, “Pot? Let’s smoke some crack, man.” Startled, Davidson peeps, “I’m good!” and slinks offstage. The whole number is charming enough, but it doesn’t get pushed far enough to be something truly interesting. Also, at one point Grande says “shit,” and somewhere in America, two parents wonder what the world is coming to.
Hillary Campaign Ad
This commercial parody takes on the creeping sensation that all of Hillary’s recent stump speeches and talking points take their cues from the Sanders’ rhetoric, stances, and even language. As Hillary addresses millennials directly, she tells them she “share[s] all of your exact same beliefs, and always [has].” She starts by espousing, unconvincingly, revolution in the streets and eventually becomes Bernie — down to the wispy white hair, floppy suit and Brooklyn accent. Kate McKinnon has had Hillary’s number from the start, skillfully revealing the ambitious and occasionally desperate woman beneath the stiff, calculating machine. As the ad devolves into Hillary doing a Bernie impression, McKinnon holds it together with aplomb — and maybe a touch of James Adomian’s blustery Bernie? Well observed and executed, and the tag is nice, too: “Feel the Bern ... for her.”
Kids’ Choice Awards
Touching on Grande’s early stardom on Nickelodeon, the sketch finds overly bubbly “orange-carpet” hosts anticipating the start of the Kids’ Choice Awards. The excitement of the night seems already a bit lackluster — one of the awards will be handed out for “Coolest Hairstyle: Male” — and the cheery tap dance required to kill time only becomes increasingly empty and manic. There are a couple of fun sight gags involving the countdown clock, and Taran Killam in particular does vapid and chirpy well. The scene’s thin premise relies a lot on mugging, but it’s appealingly silly.
This Is Not a Feminist Song
In this filmed piece, Grande and the female SNL cast members do their damndest to create a feminist anthem capable of uplifting a generation of women. Instead, they fumble their big chance because writing it “took too long.” The song itself is sweet and peppy, and the video presents all the necessary, inspiring imagery: Bodies running down a beach, lens flares, an old woman’s hands, footage of Ruth Bader Ginsberg. The whole of it is charming and fun, if not a laugh riot. There’s also a smart, subtle idea at the heart of it: Can’t we call something feminist if it simply celebrates women?
In this old seaman’s tale, two men are rescued from drowning by beautiful mermaids while a third is saved by a less savory creature that is “35 percent woman, 65 percent blobfish.” (Google “blobfish” if you’ve never seen one. Nature is ridiculous.) This is another funny premise that never travels far from where it starts: The unfortunate sailor avoids contact with his blobfish-woman while the others can’t wait to consummate. There are a few nice incorporations of Wikipedia details (“Mating-wise, usually a male attaches to my body and I absorb his gonads.”), but the players at the center of the sketch — Beck Bennett and Kate McKinnon — don’t have that much fun together.
Predictably, many of the jokes this week focus on Trump and the scene at his rallies. There are a couple of good shots, including a happy takedown of the elderly Trump supporter giving the Nazi salute (“She should be at home teaching her parrot the n-word.”) and the man caught hitting a protestor (“This guy has been dreaming of punching a black dude since the first time he heard jazz on the radio.”) Michael Che tries to push buttons with a knowingly sexist joke, and his glee makes the bit worthwhile.
It was perhaps inevitable that Cecily Strong take on Bachelor villain Lace … okay, the character is not called “Lace,” but it’s pretty clear. While it’s not exactly a stretch from The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party, it’s enjoyable — particularly the character’s disturbing, frozen “smile.” Bobby Moynihan shows up as Michael Che’s high school friend Riblet St. James — a “yo momma” snap that’s not worth the setup.
Some guests have special talents, and this sketch is Grande’s platform to show hers off. And as she proved on Fallon, Grande can do a number of impressions of pop singers. As this sketch is essentially a framework for Grande to show off, the set-up doesn’t matter: It’s something about a Tidal intern filling a void as the streams of various musicians go down. Grande does a spirited series of impersonations — Britney Spears, Shakira, Rihanna, Celene Dion, and Whitney Houston. She’s good at them, but there’s nothing inherently funny.
Celebrity Family Feud
This game show parody is essentially a structure set up to house nine impressions: Four famous actors, four famous directors and Kenan Thompson’s serviceable take on Steve Harvey. Most are pretty big targets — show us a comic who doesn’t have a Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese — but pretty much all of these impressions work well. Surprisingly, one of the best ones is Grande’s Jennifer Lawrence. Her practiced nonchalance comes across well when she delivers lines like, “They told me not to go on a game show but I was like, screw it, I can have fun, I’m a regular person.” Exhausted after his amazing whirlwind of comedian impressions last week, Jay Pharoah doesn't summon much for Idris Elba. But Killam’s coked-up Quentin Tarantino and McKinnon’s freakazoid Tilda Swinton are fun.
Sound of Music
This sketch is not as wonderfully weird as many SNL 10-to-1s, but it does feel like one writer’s peculiar obsession. It’s a take on the classic Sound of Music song “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria,” in which a bevy of nuns ridicule the rebellious nun-in-training who goes on to transform the Von Trapp family. The premise: What if Maria overheard this song and knew it was “a bunch of nuns singing smack about me”? That’s it: Grande as a bitchy Maria telling off nuns while the nuns dissemble. The song starts up again, Maria says, “Wow,” and the sisters explain why “will-o-the-wisp” is a complement.
All in all, the conceptual sketches in the episode don’t seem to capitalize on their premises, or push their ideas far enough to get somewhere. Thankfully, Grande shows real chops when it comes to impressions — musical and otherwise. That’s a benefit, and Grande has a nice presence onstage, but there’s nothing fully realized enough to make the episode anything other than lukewarm.