‘SNL’ Review: Business as Usual with Dakota Johnson

Two weeks ago, SNL’s 40th anniversary reminded us what we love about this show. The routine scrutiny fell silent at the images that once captured each generation: the classic setups like “Celebrity Jeopardy,” “Nick the Lounge Singer,” and “Wayne’s World”; the tongue-in-cheek smugness of regulars like Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin; the moments when endearing nobodies became stars before our eyes. We can complain that SNL lacks originality, but our hearts long for the familiarity we used to have, for the days when we’d pray for Chris Farley to crash into a scene or the TV Funhouse dog to drag the show away or Tina Fey to do the news.

As SNL falls back into business as usual, it’s clear the show misses this familiarity too. Talented as they are, the current cast rarely produces the thrill we require to build anticipation and stay invested – not because they aren’t as good as previous casts, but because they still haven’t won over their generation of viewers. No one during the week says to themselves, “I can’t wait to see Colin Jost do Weekend Update!” …other than Colin Jost, perhaps. This episode, with Fifty Shades of Grey’s Dakota Johnson emceeing, featured several cast members each struggling to break through this apathy in their own ways, to varying degrees of success. And still, none of these live moments reached the comedic heights of the episode’s isolated video segments, which are more the product of bold execution by writers and directors than a creatively gelled cast that functions in sync.

This chronic disconnect will be SNL’s biggest hurdle as season 40 attempts to top (or at least, not topple) a towering legacy.

Giuliani Birdman Cold Open. The episode began with an ambitious Birdman parody, with a one-take of Rudy Giuliani (Taran Killam) roaming the 30 Rock halls to frantic drum music and a gruff internal monologue mocking the former “America’s mayor.” Sure, hallway one-takes are a common sight on SNL, and Birdman and Giuliani’s fall from grace might not fit together to give the perfect topical punch the writers intended, but this was nonetheless a fun visual spectacle open to the episode, with Taran unable to restrain his inner Michael Keaton.

Monologue. The excitement of the cold open gave way to a relatively bland and predictable monologue, with Dakota Johnson enduring S&M-themed audience questions and embarrassing gawks from her parents, actors Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson: “We were just afraid you were going to be naked.” I included thoughts on Johnson’s booking in the “Additional Thoughts” section below, but as a host, she seemed at ease and possessed surprising comedic timing, even if she lacked the stage presence to ever throw sketches on her shoulders. Of course, it’s hard to tell from the safe roles the writers handed to her – hipster intern is a cakewalk compared to action figure come-to-life or token homosexual adjusting his gay-ness. Rather than the showcases Chris Pratt and Woody Harrelson gave us, this night would see cast members swinging hard to compensate for a host who didn’t give them much to work with.

Father Daughter Ad. It’s rare to see a true blackout on SNL these days, with writers pressured to punch up scripts and the video format making it too easy to spoil twists. So kudos to the show for this hilariously dark ad (a take on a frighteningly real trend) featuring an emotional Taran Killam letting go of his teenage daughter. Best of the Night.

Cinderella / Cathy Anne II. I actually quite enjoy Cecily Strong’s Cathy Anne, a brassy, defensive white-trash lady inexplicably popping up in fairy tale scenarios. And her appearance at Prince Charming’s ball worked much better than the disastrous “Magic Bridge” sketch from the James Franco episode. But I still can’t imagine any read-through or dress rehearsal that Cathy Anne hits so hard that she belongs in the top half of the lineup – the character is just too unclear and unmotivated to build any comedic momentum of her own, relying too much on shock value: “I got an HDTV test and it came back as a false positive. Talk about scary!”

Say What You Wanna Say. SNL has proven effective at framing a premise around a catchy song (see: “Ooh Child,” “Your Love“), as they have here with the repressed women boldly speaking their minds on not wanting to go to a co-worker’s party or trying to poop alone, all set to Sara Bareilles’ anthem “Brave.” The sound editing was the true MVP here, with the call-to-arms music abruptly cutting in and out to highlight the pettiness of the causes the women took stands on.

Press Junket. After being sidelined most of this half-season, Kyle Mooney had a showcase episode here, as the middle-school reporter Peter, interviewing Dakota Johnson with an inappropriate expertise on Fifty Shades of Grey: “How do I talk to the girls in my class… into choking me out while I wear a human pony harness?” While his costume choice seemed a little too broad and his mush-mouth gimmick unnecessary, Kyle’s enthusiasm as the enterprising youngster was well received when paired with Dakota’s horrified reactions.

I Can’t. Cecily, Bobby, and Dakota displayed amusing give-and-take as hipster interns whining about the cold – “Who can even? It’s literally impossible to can. I can’t.” Opposite their passive aggression was Margo (Aidy), immobilized with both her arms in casts, “pits to wrist” – an odd choice considering Aidy did the same bit with Seth Rogen last year, with no apparent connection between the characters. Regardless, it was enjoyable to see the cast share a comedic premise and Dakota play off-type.

Weekend Update. After six months of hosting the news segment together, Colin Jost and Michael Che still don’t appear to have formed any chemistry – just two guys stiffly reading cue cards containing sometimes funny topical jokes. Che will occasionally ad-lib, as he did after the stills of President Obama and Iggy Azaela, but the booth rarely cuts to a two-shot, so any interplay or reactions between the two get lost. The return of Bobby Moynihan’s Riblet (II) to point out how easy their job is may win over the crowd (especially when he popped off his hair pieces and FedExed himself a microphone to drop), but it doesn’t do the two hosts any favors when his mocking joke-reads hit harder than theirs do. Kate McKinnon scored some serviceable laughs (as usual) as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, defending her old age and making corny one-liners between dance breaks: “I know [Bruno Mars] is short, but I like my men like I like my decisions – five-four! That’s a third degree Ginsburn!” Jay Pharoah made the most of his limited airtime as the self-aggrandizing Kanye West, performing an impressive rap apology to everyone: “I’m sorry… for giving my baby North a directional name.”

Emergency Room. This scene about an ER doctor dressed as Worf from Star Trek seemed like a dumb premise Kenan had unsuccessfully pitched in the past, with Lorne Michaels finally relenting in order to pay some weird tribute to the late Leonard Nimoy. At least Dakota and the cast were aware of the silliness, overselling everything and forcing each other to break.

Net Effect. SNL’s latest stab at Internet humor was this talk show featuring social media experts who are too stupid to explain what net neutrality means. Devoid of any actual commentary (on a subject John Oliver managed to get 13 minutes out of), the only takeaway from this sketch was that SNL hates social media so much, they’re willing to spend 4+ minutes on the ugliest set ever to slap four websites in the face. Who could resist making a Fifty Shades joke at that point?

Mr. Riot Films. A far-superior take on social media culture was this Good Neighbor parody of hidden-camera social experiments, with Kyle and Beck as YouTubers “bullying” each other in public – Kyle dressed as a woman being denied equal pay for a job, Beck dressed as a lost little boy in overalls – and soapboxing their views to strangers. Good Neighbor thrives on the rawness of man-on-the-street bits with real people, and I only hope they stayed in character when they asked people to sign the releases.

Cut After Dress: Fifty Shades Darker. Cut from the live broadcast was this “HBO First Look” at a Fifty Shades sequel, with Christian Grey (Kyle) bringing in a construction crew to remodel his play room, and Ana (Dakota) cringing at the workers’ frank discussion of the shelves for sex toys and penis holes. While not the strongest sketch ever, it still hit harder than most of the other live sketches – making it the latest cut sketch that’s better than what made it into the show. (The sketch is only available on the new SNL app, but trust me – it’s not funny enough to be worth downloading an entire app for.)

Additional Thoughts:

  • I realize a lot goes into booking a host on SNL, like the timing of schedules and whoever sends Marci Klein the biggest edible arrangement. But Dakota Johnson getting the gig seems annoyingly premature, with publicity demands probably playing too big a role, as usual. Lena Dunham had produced three seasons of an award-winning comedy and Jennifer Lawrence had wracked up two Oscar nominations by the time they hosted the show. By comparison, Dakota Johnson starred in a terrible movie two weeks ago that she’s pretty much disowned. Maybe I’m just miffed we didn’t get to see Will Forte (the star of multiple films and promising new series Last Man on Earth) do that Birdman stunt. But there’s still time left in this season, SNL. #BringBackForte.
  • Best: “Father Daughter Ad.” Worst: “Net Effect.” You’ll See It Online: “Say What You Wanna Say.” Worth It For The Jokes: “I Can’t.”
  • Dakota Johnson playing an adult woman shocked at a young boy having seen Fifty Shades of Grey in “Press Junket” is notably ironic considering Kyle Mooney is actually five years older than the actress. (In case you didn’t already cringe when she said she was born in 1989 in the monologue.)
  • Kyle Mooney, Taran Killam, and Bobby Moynihan topped the screen time leaderboard this episode, while Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah had the fewest appearances. Jay has been bench warming a lot in recent months due to a dry spell of President Obama sketches – the most recent being a quick cameo in the “Schoolhouse Rock” cold open in November.
  • Bobby Moynihan returning to play Riblet only two episodes after his first appearance is a strong indicator for how desperate SNL is for a popular recurring character.
  • Fewer moments have made me laugh harder this season than Kyle Mooney’s reassuring “Death to America.”
  • I’ll see you next week, when Chris Hemsworth will host with musical guest The Zac Brown Band.

    Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He performs at the iO Theater on the house teams Wheelhouse and It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way.

    ‘SNL’ Review: Business as Usual with Dakota Johnson