For better or worse, SNL leaves little room for subtlety. The show’s sketches are shot like a live multi-cam sitcom, with three-wall sets, a studio audience, and no time to edit takes for comedic rhythm. It’s interesting to watch 30 Rock’s live episodes in that regard (both of which were shot in SNL’s Studio 8H). The writer-driven, single-camera comedy capitalizes on subtlety in its wordplay and reaction shots. However, in the live episodes, Tina Fey and her team had to find a way to channel that signature 30 Rock sophistication through the broad, pandering, performer-driven world of live comedy. Fey obviously is no stranger to that world, so she succeeded.
The same cannot be said, unfortunately, for Jennifer Lawrence. The Oscar nominee has mastered the closeup, and she brought an uncanny level of naturalism to the surreal dystopia of The Hunger Games and truthfully conveyed a woman broken in Silver Linings Playbook. But her nuanced delivery did her no favors on the SNL stage, where her quiet, passive energy flatlined in most sketches. The writers seemed reluctant to challenge Lawrence with their material, holding her hand the way they do most A-list first-time hosts (re: Jeremy Renner, Daniel Craig, Daniel Radcliffe): a monologue riffing on their IMDB page highlights, lots of walk-on roles, and a parody in which they get to play their big movie character.
Take away Bobby Moynihan, or Bill Hader’s various facial hair getups, and this episode was pretty forgettable.
Also, since this the first episode of 2013, I have a New Year’s resolution I’d like to introduce. Because recurring sketches are essentially “SNL sequels,” I will now identify them as such in my reviews. Let’s pray we never see another “What Up With That?” I can’t count that high in Roman numerals and might have to resort to an occasional “Attack of the Clones” or “Lost in San Francisco” to keep us straight.
Starbucks Verismo. It raises a pretty huge red flag when the first decent sketch of the night is the post-monologue video. While I can’t say I have personally dealt with any ghetto baristas — here in Hollywood, our lattes are served by former American Idol contestants — it was fun nonetheless to see how owners of the home coffeemaker would endure the same headaches as going to an actual Starbucks, like messy countertops and employees talking about you in your presence. And bonus points for Verismo earrings.
Girlfriends Talk Show II. Initially I was excited to see one of my top 5 favorite sketches from the first half of the season make a comeback, but then I remembered: This is recurring now. The writers literally take the script from the first time and swap out jokes. Naturally the game of GTS — loser girl jealous of her co-host’s new, cool friend — didn’t punch as hard now that we saw the beats coming. Still, Aidy Bryant won me over as the sketch wore on, especially as she became increasingly defensive over her guinea pigs and prepubescent boyfriend: “Um, no, I’m not a cougar. Do these human fingers look like paws?”
More Hobbit. SNL jumped on the bandwagon of haters of Peter Jackson’s stretched-out Hobbit franchise with a sketch that ironically ran three times longer than it needed to. Not to mention pretty late to the game. Still, the jokes were strong, with the images of the dwarves assembling an Ikea drawer and singing “The Longest Time.”
Weekend Update. Seth Meyers had some great jokes with Biden photobombing President Obama and the Mississippi state legislature being 30 hissing possums in a barn. The star of the segment — and of the night as a whole — was Bobby Moynihan, appearing here as Secondhand News Correspondent Anthony Crispino (V). The details were amusing as usual — thinking Ben Affleck was dating G-Lo (George Lopez) and that Kim Kardashian’s legal husband, Chris Christie, was so mad he threw a roller coaster into the ocean — but what was most fun was seeing Moynihan jump the shark with the bit, calling the Depp ceiling joke “pretty dumb” and repeating his high-pitched “I’m pretty sure!”
B-108 Morning Show II. Taran Killam and Bobby Moynihan fared better with this version of their early morning rural Minnesota radio show than they did when Herbie Fully Loaded’s Lindsay Lohan hosted last season, thanks largely to Jennifer Lawrence having decent delivery with the “bad rap” gag.
Civil War Letters. Tim Robinson lucked out with a major cameo as a boorish Civil War soldier exchanging letters with his eloquent lover back home. I liked the idea of mapping a historical context over what is essentially a text conversation, with demands for a “tit-pic” and sending pictures of genitals with the caption, “Now you.” Right as the pattern started to wear out, the sketch ended in perfect 10-to-1 form, with Robinson dying suddenly and Bill Hader as Lincoln sitting at his bedside, weeping.
Cold Open: Piers Morgan III. In a week packed with ripe news stories, SNL went the lazy way out with a cold open that glossed over Lance Armstrong’s doping confession, Manti Te’o’s fake dead girlfriend, and Jodi Foster’s near coming out at the Golden Globes… without really digging into the subjects. Of the three, only Bobby Moynihan as a the gullible Te’o gained any traction.
Monologue. In a shockingly non-musical monologue, Jennifer Lawrence gave out some Weekend Update style putdowns of her fellow Oscar nominees and did a bit with Bill Hader’s stone-faced Tommy Lee Jones. I enjoyed the jokes – especially the sincere compliments after each insult (which reminded me of the “It has been an honor!” moments in the Maya Angelou prank show). Still, Lawrence’s poor timing crippled the segment. And seriously, no encores of the dance number from Silver Linings Playbook or the “Deep in the Meadow” lullaby from The Hunger Games? WHY AM I EVEN WATCHING?
Hunger Games Press Conference. Rarely does an SNL sketch open with so much promise and then tumble into broad, dumb parody so miserably. Initially it seemed like this sketch would map the Hunger Games context over a post-game press conference, the way they did with Sofia Vergara’s sideline reporter last season. Instead, the sketch had no point of view or pattern, with reporters making the same dumb comments that random dad sitting in front of you made during the previews: That beard look weird! Her name sound stupid! The ring came off my pudding can! Also, considering this sketch is targeted at people who have read the books or seen the film, including jokes that conflict with the story (i.e., the reporters wouldn’t be starving) makes the sketch lose credibility. The sketch was written by longtime writer Jim Downey, whose debate parodies earlier this season often suffered from the same problem. Don’t tempt the YA-lit obsessed 20-somethings, Downey!
50s Diner. While the premise here is strong — a couple at a restaurant that jokingly mocks its patrons gets a waitress who legitimately hates them — Jennifer Lawrence’s quiet naturalism didn’t give her character the punch it needed for this sketch to get a real response. Also, the game got a bit confused at the end with the whipped cream gag.
Top Dog Chef. I’m always down for these silly concepts, but unfortunately this one ran out of steam shortly after the dogs freaked out at the doorbell.
Danielle. Leave it to Fred Armisen to dig up the most obscure genres to parody — in this case, 1970s French erotica. I appreciate seeing something completely different emerge late in the show, but unfortunately this one just didn’t click the way Armisen’s offbeat ideas do.
It’s disappointing to see SNL come back after a month to an episode that never really caught fire. But there were a few silver linings: Bill Hader’s various beards and dancing as Lincoln during the goodbyes, Tim Robinson and Aidy Bryant getting some more screen time, and pretty much any time Bobby Moynihan was on camera. I wouldn’t say that makes for a first class episode, but it’s a little something to warm your heart during this cold winter…’s bone. (My apologies, like every other TV reviewer, I got my degree at the Gene Shalit School of Journalism.)
What did you think? Am I being too tough on Jennifer Lawrence? With such an exciting news week and a whole month since we last saw SNL, were you hoping for a better episode? And shouldn’t it have been Caesar Flickerman who interviewed Katniss and Peeta after the games, not Seneca Crane? Hello! Genius at work, here!
I’ll see you next week, when NBC’s The Voice Spinny Chair occupant Adam Levine will host with musical guest Kendrick Lamar.
Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He hosts the Evil Blond Kid podcast and performs improv on the Harold team The Cartel at the iO West Theater.