Thursday, November 19, 2009

Charlie skewers SNL

Here's a look at some of the key factors that typically determine how healthy SNL is, and some of the question marks observers had about the show coming into the season:

Guest Hosts: Megan Fox, who hosted the season premiere in September, was practically a cameo presence in her own episode -- not terrible, but simply not given much to do. Such a strategy might have suited this past week's host, Mad Men's January Jones, whose lack of familiarity with live TV made her one of the weakest hosts in memory. Jones giggled her way through a not-very-strong monologue about Mad Men fanatics, and then interrupted her first sketch to ask what camera she was supposed to be looking at. Her co-star Jon Hamm showed himself to be surprisingly adept at comedy when he hosted a year ago, but lightning did not strike twice.

As for the season's other hosts thus far: Ryan Reynolds was pretty good... Taylor Swift was blessed with the season's best material so far, but considering she's not really an actress, it was surprising the writers didn't have to work around her, choosing to involve her in almost every skit.

Newer Cast Members: The SNL bench is weak, yet again. Jenny Slate made a gigantic splash by cursing in her very first sketch, and whether coincidental or not, she has been given little to do since then. Is it punishment, or has she simply not fought for herself behind closed doors? Fellow newbie Nasim Pedrad is faring slightly better,... It doesn't help that both women look somewhat similar. In their second seasons, neither Abby Elliott nor Bobby Moynihan show signs of being future SNL mainstays, though Moynihan has shown a little promise as a potential non-lame version of Horatio Sanz.

Kristen Wiig: I don't think Wiig has the versatility to be the go-to cast member on SNL... that is what she has been since Amy Poehler departed last fall. The problem with Wiig is that she mostly just plays variations on the same character: a neurotic who is either overly talkative and/or inappropriately exuberant. It's gotten to the point where I find it hard to maintain interest once I see a sketch is going to be built around Wiig, because it's already so clear where it's going to be heading. SNL desperately needs another woman to step up and share the load, as Wiig herself did for Poehler a few years back. Having four female guest hosts so far this season has helped, but not enough.

Coping With Obama: SNL has been grappling with Barack Obama for nearly two years now, but ten months into his presidency, the show has still yet to find a consistent way to approach him. A cold open sketch where Obama (played by Fred Armisen) admitted that his administration had done none of the things that were promised in the campaign attracted a lot of attention, and pointed at a possible Obama "character" (all style and no substance). But the show has not returned to this theme, or really dealt much at all with the whole issue of hard times in America.

Michaels ignored all the folks who insisted that the role of Obama needed to be recast once his election was official, so it looks like we're stuck with Armisen as long as he stays with the series. Previous presidential impersonators on SNL tweaked their characterizations as they went along (compare Carvey's early G.H.W. Bush to the way he was playing him by 1992), but for some reason, Armisen has gone in the other direction. Last season he seemed to be making some effort at nailing Obama's speech quirks if not his exact voice, but so far this year, he's just using a more formal version of his own voice. SNL gives the impression of wanting to avoid the president if it can get away with it -- an uncomfortable position for a show known for political humor.

Weekend Update: While this old standby is not at historic highs right now, and most of the walk-ons remain as lame as they have been since Adam Sandler left (Jon Bovi doesn't do it for me), Update has become an oasis of reliability on an otherwise erratic show. No one much talks about the need for a co-anchor alongside Seth Meyers any more, which makes sense since solo anchors were the SNL norm prior to Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon...

Grading the six episodes thus far:

Megan Fox: C-. I can't see her being asked back, or wanting to do it again.
Ryan Reynolds: B-. He's a funny guy, and if he can get his wife (Scarlet) to make more cameos, so much the better.
Drew Barrymore: C+. Likable and professional; usually good for a few laughs.
Gerard Butler: C. He's not known for comedy, and didn't make a strong impression.
Taylor Swift: B+. She was better in her skits than she was singing -- who would have thought?
January Jones: D. Gorgeous woman who should never do live television again.


Charlie was pretty brutal, but I agree with him on a few points. Megan Fox was pretty much just making cameos, but I didn't mind it. Still funny. Gerard's pimp character was hilarious. I'm glad everyone seems to have liked Taylor's performances. She had two stiff skits (Scared Straight and The View), but she pretty much nailed everything else. I think Nasim just proved herself with Kim Kardashian, and Abby and Bobby have been trying. But they need to be given a chance to shine. January Jones had maybe two skits where she kept it together (like the clouds skit), but yeah, she probably wasn't the best choice.

Oh, and I think Charlie nailed Fred's Obama and Kristen Wiig. But even though most of Kristen's characters are similar, they're still funny. They need to figure something else out about Obama. They need to be willing to make fun of him. Maybe Kristen Wiig should do him. She's willing to brutally skewer anyone. =^)


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