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I can't recall ever having such a hard time writing an SNL review. I blame most of the fatigue on the almost universal and undeserved derision toward Year 39, maybe the weakest season of SNL in recent memory. To say 2013-14 was awful by any means is an exaggerated misnomer, though the first half of the season was considerably stronger than the second. If anything, the blame should be shifted toward an increasingly rudderless writing staff, and not so much on a young, unproven, and overpopulated cast. The overall situation is a mess, but nothing that some minor tweaks and trimming couldn't salvage.
With that note, the ghosts of SNL's recent past resurface as a rebuilding year comes to a close. Sitcom star and recent Golden Globe winner Andy Samberg --I know, right?-- returns to host two years after quietly departing the live grind. The 29th alum to host will be joined by indie-pop sensation St. Vincent, referred to by some as the daughter David Byrne never had.
COLD OPENING: The current writing staff doesn't seem inclined to write political sketches, and James Downey's decision to take a year off made that apathy almost transparent. Thus, tonight's topical sketch has a fish-in-the-barrel feel. Solange Knowles (SZ) and Jay-Z (JP) want to make it abundently clear that there's lingering hard feelings about the previous weekend's elevator melee, though the tension keeps Hova's bodyguard (KT) on his toes. The actual security footage is dubbed to acknowledge a mutual hatred of spiders, and the security guard (BM) that leaked the video gets skewed in his own right. When Beyonce (Maya!) walked in to a 15-second ovation, it almost felt like playtime was over, and the adults were back in the room. It was a great cameo, yet at the same time it sucked the air out of the room.
MONOLOGUE: Coming off a banner year, Andy half-jokingly points out that he produced 101 Digital Shorts and appeared in six live sketches. He points out that Bill Hader holds the all-time record for impressions (he surpassed Darrell late last year, look it up) and with the assistance of Seth Meyers, tries to shatter that. Ultimately, any show like this will turn into a "cameo orgy," and after Andy breaks the record Hader takes it right back.
"Camp Wicawabe": Circa July 1990, two campers (AB, KM) host a pretend talk show inside one of the cabins. Their 4th grade-level of worldliness makes them both a little condescending, but similtaneously bewildered by Piper's cousin Jeremy (AS), a 14-year-old camper with a tendency to rub things with his posterior. Bolstered by winning performances from Aidy, Kate, and Mooney, this was just middle-of-the-pack and engaging enough that we'll probably see this recurring sketch again in Year 40.
DIGITAL SHORT: "When Will the Bass Drop?" is an oversimplified parody of EDM, with Andy playing a cultish DJ threatening to drop the beat like "The Pit and the Pendelum." He keeps teasing and teasing, then when the bass does drop, the club (to no one's surprise) turns into Armageddon. It seems brutally ironic that if this is the last time we ever see John Milhiser on SNL, we saw him perform seppuku in a nightclub.
"Confident Hunchback": Following the winking one-joke balderdash of "Rude Buddha," Victor Hugo's most beloved underdog is re-interpreted by Andy as an oblivious womanizer. Unlike "Rude Buddha," however this juxtaposition of 15th century alienation and 21st century swagger had a few stray chuckles. Besides, he has less than a year to live.
MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: Surrounded by bathroom tiles, "Birth in Reverse" showcases Annie Clark in all her elegant quirkiness. The robotic arm gestures complimented the warm electronica.
WEEKEND UPDATE: When half of Twitter thinks you're the second greatest WU anchorperson named Colin, you just have to accept the burn. Some writers aren't meant to be on-screen, and I'm still debating whether Colin Jost is one of them. Whatever progress Cecily Strong made as Seth Meyers' co-anchor has either stalled or regressed, and at times are time filler between sterling desk commentaries. The Jost-Strong tandem is light on chemistry, and their comfort level wavers at times. "Get in the Cage" was a nice treat, as Nic (AS) grills an uncomfortable Paul Rudd. (Speaking of Cage, I'm pretty sure that's the second week in a row Cojo has been addressed as "Seth" by a guest commentator.)
"The Kissing Vogelchecks": Andy was never really part of this outrageous sketch, but sure, I'll suspend disbelief this one time. Samberg is the doting son and Taran is the boyfriend/study in slow burn as the entire Vogelcheck clan snogs like teenagers in a 1996 Honda Accord. Fred Armisen and Kristen Wiig walk out to thunderous applause, and other family members (like Kate's ornery grandma) just randomly walk in from all sides of the living room. Than we realize what the sketch is really about (hint: the NFL Draft) and social commentary blends into the obvious slapstick.
"Wake Up With Kimye": This morning on the show, hip-hop's most self-involved power couple (JP, NP) are working out the final details of their pending nuptuals. The all-Kardashian band is subbed out by the cryptic presence of Bruce Jenner (TK), who just stands there and shoehorns himself into the Wests' vapid conversation.
DIGITAL SHORT: The Lonely Island's next album is still a work in progress, but "Hugs" is hot, fresh, and just for you. Tatiana Maslany, Maya Rudolph (again?), and Pharrell help out on a good-but-not-great track about girls who misinterpret a gentle embrace for something greater.
"Legolas from 'The Hobbit' Tries to Order at Taco Bell": A self-explanatory blackout sketch with the altruistic warrior (AS) attempting to get his burrito fix. It probably seemed fun on paper, but it was all static until Gimlet (BM) walked in.
"Blizzard Man": After a long self-imposed exile, Blizzy (AS) resurfaces to collaborate with 2 Chainz (yep, another cameo). The sabbatical didn't do much for his chops, which are just as goofy and flaccid as ever. I didn't mind this sketch, but how long can KT play the same sound engineer without putting his foot down? Is this amnesia of convenience?
MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: "Digital Witness" is another standout track from one of 2014's best albums so far, a Talking Heads-type song bolstered by Annie's guitar chops and what I could best describe as assembly-line line dancing. All hail our new robot overlords!
"Bvlgari": Our favorite ex-porn stars (VB, CS) launch their latest paper-thin scheme for free bling, this time modeling Italian watches. Despite a well-placed swipe at Donald Sterling, this latest scam brought nothing new to the table, and the obligatory endorsement by their wayward peers (AS, KW) was similarly arbitrary.
All in all, this was a typically uneven show to cap a decidedly uneven year for SNL. I'll give the producers credit for limiting the number of "cameo orgy" shows this season to just two. Tonight, the adults took over and the kids took a seat; Andy carried the show almost as if he never left, though having two-thirds of the Year 32 hanging around didn't hurt his case. At the same time, it must have been disconcerting for the struggling featured players to basically be told to sit out the season finale, when for two or three actors this was their last possible opportunity to show America they had a right to be here.
What Gets Cut From The 60-Minute Edit: one of the Digital Shorts, most of Update, "Wake Up With Kimye," "Legolas at Taco Bell," "Blizzard Man," and "Digital Witness."
And now, a recap of Season 39:
Scribes and internet trolls alike were shredding SNL to bits this year --especially after Seth left-- as if this were another Season 20. Rest assured, there were some highlights:
Most Valuable Player: Kate McKinnon. You might expect me to pick Taran, but hear me out-- the woman who "replaced" Kristen Wiig two-plus years ago really came into her own in 2013-14. Her array of impressions (Justin Bieber, Angela Merkel, Jane Lynch) is just about as impressive as her arsenal of characters (barfly Sheila Sovage, Olya the Russian hausfrau, the aforementioned Piper). If Wiig had a Dan Akyroyd-like quality, than McKinnon might as well be the female Will Ferrell. If this year was any indicator, K-Mac will be SNL's cleanup hitter for the remainder of the decade.
Most Improved: Aidy Bryant. Any doubts about Miss Bryant's presence and purpose on SNL were quashed in her sophomore year. She can play emotionally vulnerable and sexually aggressive with equal aplomb. It's a joy to watch her go zany in one scene and bemused in another. Chris Farley is an easy comparision, but that doesn't really do Bryant justice; she can be manic at times, but Aidy's a far more grounded performer.
Rookie of the Year: Beck Bennett. With only two white male actors returning from the previous year (three if you count Seth), a lot of the roles that would generally go to Bill Hader or Jason Sudeikis landed right in Beck's lap. That's not to say my fellow Chicago native was a victim of happenstance; Baby Boss was one of the stronger new recurring characters of the season, and he's a very capable straight man to boot.
Ranking the "Class of 2013" by Likehood of Returning for Season 40, in Descending Order: Beck Bennett, Kyle Mooney, Sasheer Zamata, Colin Jost, Michael Patrick O'Brien, Noel Wells, Brooks Wheelan, John Milhiser
Best Hosts of Season 39:
3. Louis C.K.
2. Melissa McCarthy
1. Kerry Washington
Worst Hosts of Season 39:
3. Miley Cyrus
2. Andrew Garfield
1. Josh Hutcherson
Best Musical Guests*:
3. St. Vincent
2. Janelle Monae
1. Arcade Fire
Worst Musical Guests:
2. Miley Cyrus
1. One Direction
Best Overall Episodes:
3. Jimmy Fallon/Justin Timberlake
2. Louis C.K./Sam Smith
1. Kerry Washington/Eminem
Worst Overall Episodes:
3. Seth Rogen/Ed Sheeran
2. Miley Cyrus
1. Jim Parsons/Beck
*Imagine Dragons' mash-up of "Radioactive" with Kendrick Lamar deserves an honorable mention. Man, that was amazing.
Questions or comments? Either post below or e-mail Stu at firstname.lastname@example.org.