Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Sketches in Tuscan Leather: My Review of Drake on SNL (1/18/14)

A Review by "HelloStuart," Amateur Critic and Gubernatorial Bully

Scroll down for a special bonus review!

With tonight's episode, a smidgen of history is being made as an already swollen cast grows by one. First off, welcome Sasheer Zamata to the show; a veteran of UCB, Miss Zamata first auditioned last summer, then was invited to a special "cattle call" after the SNL came under fire for a lack of diversity. She's the first African-American woman in the cast since Maya Rudolph and only the fifth in the show's long history. (The two runners-up for Sasheer's job were brought on board as writers.) The expectations are weighty, but I wish her nothing but the best. Also, for the first time in SNL history there are seven women in the cast, doubling the median of three or four that had been the unofficial norm. That also balloons the cast to 17 actors, trying the 1991-92 ensemble for the largest in show history, and one can assume that this will further hinder airtime for the six actors hired at the beginning of this season.

This week's host and musical guest is Drake, the Canadian rapper and former child actor who previously appeared three seasons ago. On paper, Drizzy's pedigree gives him a 60/40 shot of succeeding as a host; "Degrassi: The Next Generation" wasn't exactly "Downton Abbey," but his charisma more than made up for it.

And now, the sketch-by-sketch analysis:

COLD OPENING: Another week, another jigsaw edition of "Piers Morgan Live." A quick, self-deprecating jab at Piers (TK) gives way to the current litany of troublemakers in the news, circa early 2014. Gov. Chris Christie (BM) is defensive and tense in the wake of Bridgegate, then threatens the smarmy Brit. Drizzy comes out of nowhere to take down Alex Rodriguez, who blames his suspected steroid abuse on faulty texting and misleading emojis. The revelation was Kate's dead-on imitation of Justin Bieber, looking vague and aloof in the face of possible vandalism and drug charges. It was kind of strange that he/she said LFNY, though if it was for time constraints I perfectly understand.

OPENING CREDITS: Howdy, Sasheer!

MONOLOGUE: Drizzy's opening words segues awkwardly into what should have been an individual sketch about his bar mitzvah, circa 1999. Either he didn't have much to say, or the writers wouldn't let the opportunity pass them by. Sasheer makes her first sketch appearance (with a brief ovation) as Kenan's gold-digger ladyfriend, the high point in a parade of hacky stereotype jokes.

"Hip Hop Classics": Partially or entirely pre-recorded imitation showcases have quickly become the norm in Year 39, offering the young, bloated cast an opportunity to share their wares in a rapid-fire assembly line. Rather than focus on one performance, you almost have to look at the sketch as a whole. With that said, former MTV2 talking head Sway (KT) shows fake clips of today's hip-hop stars before they were famous, mostly on parodies of '90s TV shows. What worked was pretty damn funny: Lil' Wayne (Drake) was the original Urkel, Rihanna (SZ) was Barbados' answer to Blossom, Rick Ross (KT) as a Teletubby. If "That's So 2 Chainz" (JP) becomes a recurring sketch, I will not complain.

"Nancy Grace": The southern-friend lawyer/attention hog will never stop bloviating, so perhaps a revival of this sketch was inevitable. Tonight's edition extends Grace's opposition to legalizing marijuana, then fails to connect with a 420-friendly bakery owner (KT) and the chronically chronic comedian Katt Williams (Drake). Noel's Nancy pales to Amy Poehler's salt-of-the-earth egomaniac, though she makes a valiant effort.

FILM: "Resolution Revolution" ultimately doesn't know if it's a straight music video parody with jokey inclinations or just a dry lampoon. In spite of some questionable editing, the clip looked like a lot of fun to shoot, and Sasheer looked fiiiiine.

"Slumber Party": An alleged pre-teen (AB) swoons illicitly over the father (Drake) of her friend (SZ) as a gaggle of other jejunes just want to talk about girl stuff. This sketch is a somewhat overdue showcase for Aidy's skills as a physical actress, a commodity in her Chicago days but particularly unused in her stint on SNL thus far. Further points to Drizzy for playing the oblivious dad with goofy charm.

MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: Under a red filter, Drizzy keeps it real and remembers his roots on "Started From The Bottom."

WEEKEND UPDATE: With the Meyers/Strong era ending nearly as soon as it began, it's hard to judge whether the mentor and protege had any chemistry or if Seth was politely showing the new kid the ropes. Even though Cecily is steadily finding her rhythm, it's still Seth's Update and 60% of the stronger material is moving in his direction. Tonight's edition featured a rare running gag/wraparound in the form of Jacqueline Bisset (VB), the recent Golden Globe winner whose confused journey to the stage and perplexed acceptance speech was an unintentional highlight. Bayer doesn't imitate Bisset so much as nail down the beats of her bewildered "journey," complete with heavy breathing. In comparison, Nasim's latest commentary as Arianna Huffington was a little more off the rack, a stew of witty analogies and half-conceived catchphrases underlying some dead-on political commentary.

"Indiana Jones Experience": A Disney World cast member (Drake) fights to remain chipper as foreign tourist Rahad (NS) fails to grasp the one-of-a-kind experience her American hosts have dropped on her lap. Like "Slumber Party" earlier this evening, this is Nasim's time to shine; Rahad's childlike confusion ruins every element of the experience with abstracted aplomb. This won't be the last we'll see of her.

"Detention Poetry": Reprising a character introduced in the Miley Cyrus (which dates back to Vanessa's SNL audition 3 1/2 years ago) quirky Miss Meadows persuades a class full of delinquents to write out their feelings. It's a slight improvement over the first go-around, yet covers most of the same territory; two misfits (AB, KT) present their writings, while a third (Drake) puts the moves on Meadows. POB does a nice job as the understated monitor/straight man.

MUSICAL PERFORMANCE: Have you noticed how nearly every second song so far this season has been a ballad or slow jam? And it's seldom a single, usually a deep cut near the end of the album? Well, Drake keeps that trend going with this doleful mash-up of "Hold On We're Going Home" and "From Time." The second half is a duet, and Drizzy's goo-goo eyes with singing partner Jhene Aiko (who?) drags on so long that he actually asks her to stop the song. Oy gevalt.

"Mornin' Miami": Oh hey, another encore from the Miley Cyrus show. It's the same strategy as last time, only the segment teasers are more absurd than before. One must wonder if all local morning chat-fests are this prickly behind the scenes.

FILM: Kyle constantly says "I Know" to an increasingly annoyed Beck, but a near-fatal accident puts their friendship in perspective.  It's not as surreal as other efforts, but they're unilaterally charming and at this point, the Good Neighbor boys own the ten-to-one slot.

To say Drake was a revelation is a bit much, but he was a very good host at the center of another very good show. He only played himself in a sketch once (twice if you count the monologue), an indicator that he checked his ego at the door and jumped into the group effort. Sasheer had a very strong first show, and though I doubt her early showcase won't last there's not much to criticize so far. If one mere episode is any indicator, Miss Zamata is a cross between Maya and Cecily, a workmanlike and multifaceted actress that can play sexy and zany at the drop of a hat. Considering how almost all the women in the cast were front and center at some point tonight, I think Sasheer will do just fine.

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And now, a quick recap of the first half of Season 39:

Midseason MVP: Kate McKinnon by a hair. In a transition year someone had to take the reigns and steady the ship, and Kate has done a better job of doing so than Cecily, Taran, or Bobby.
Midseason ROY: So many rookies, yet so little to analyze. On the strength of the aforementioned filmed pieces, I'll let Beck and Kyle share the honors. Noel ranks a distant third, and the jury's still out on everyone else.
Midseason Most Improved Player: Another close call, but I'll take Nasim over Aidy. After getting lost in the shuffle during the Kristen Wiig era, Miss Pedrad is finally showing the promise she first flashed over four years ago.

Best Host: Kerry Washington
Worst Host: Josh Hutcherson
Best Musical Guest: Arcade Fire
Worst Musical Guest: One Direction
Best Episode So Far: Kerry Washington/Eminem
Honorable Mention: Jimmy Fallon/Justin Timberlake
Worst Episode So Far: Miley Cyrus

If you have any questions for Stuart, either PM him or catch him in the forum.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Lemon Juicer

It saddens me how much Alex Rodriguez's ego blurs the reality of his misdeeds. In my opinion, his initial suspension of 210-plus games (the remainder of the 2013 season, plus all of 2014) fit the crime. Instead of just accepting his punishment, A-Rod did everything he could to fight the suspension; he vowed to clear his name in spite of overwhelming evidence against him and a total lack of proof. Rodriguez's defense was like a bad high school essay: he had an opening and closing paragraph, but no body. After a quixotic fight against the system in which Rodriguez literally played out the first portion of his suspension --and to further salt wounds, he was actually somewhat productive in a close divisional race-- the remainder of his ban was upheld. His 2014 season is over and maybe his career is, too. He had become an injury risk to compliment his poisonous attitude, and the physical toll of such a long exile is almost irreversible. And yet, Rodriguez's multiple acts of hubris made his delayed amercement ring a little hollow; at this rate, a banishment at the scale of Pete Rose's seems more justified than ever.

A once-gifted athlete with a chip on his shoulder, in less than two decades Alex Rodriguez went from tolerable to disliked to outright inexcusable. He became a diva without an audience, an emperor without clothes. I would cap this with a cliched comment about how the mighty had fallen, but it's hard to tell whether A-Rod was truly mighty to being with.

Other notes:

+ How's Dad? He's been home for about three weeks now. In spite of demands from his family and several medical professionals, he is trying to manage without a 24/7 nurse. At the same time, we've arranged an occupational nurse and physical therapist to drop by at least once a week. He also spends nearly all day in a Barcalounger the corner of the family living room, because he's afraid he'll fall out of his twin long bed. (The old man is stubborn, and he's always been a little eccentric, but he has his pride.)

+ Democrats will rail on Chris Christie for Bridgegate. Republicans will rail on Hillary Clinton for Benghazi. Democrats will also wail on Ted Cruz for the government shutdown. In retaliation, the GOP will treat Joe Biden as a proxy of everything that's wrong with President Obama. Is these are our top contenders for the Oval Office in 2016, it is going to be a long 2 1/2 years.


Monday, January 6, 2014

The Best Laid Plans...

I've never been much for New Year's resolutions. The concept feels like an admission of failure or some type of character flaw. Plus, I look at goals from an objective and circumstantial standpoint; why must we reset on January 1st?

This year --or for the first quarter of 2014, anyway-- I'm putting an increased focus on my theater interests. I just made a house team at One Group Mind, a nationally-known improv organization with a local venue in Wrigleyville. In February, I'm moving the variety show I staged last year at a new theater, with a new name (House of Stuart) and a new night (Sundays in lieu of Wednesdays). I've taken on a business partner to assist in recouping any potential losses, and the longer run time will allow me to experiment with the show's format. The outcome of this show will ultimately determine whether I have a future in producing and potentially talent management.

Of course, that doesn't mean I'm still concerned with making a paycheck. I apply for jobs online on a daily basis, and I had more interviews in the last three months than the previous twelve combined. For now I'm still substitute teaching, waking up on less than two hours' notice whenever either of my two districts need an extra hand. I wanted to make 29 my most productive year, and though progress has been slightly slower than expected, I'm working toward my goals and not looking back.

Other notes:

+ Five months since its launch, my Facebook page "Stu News" is inching towards 350 likes. Follow this link to see what the hype is about.

+ Welcome to "Chiberia." Right now the Midwest is experiencing record-low temperatures and equally mind-boggling wind chills. It's terrible out in the suburbs, but from what I've heard even worse in the city. Until this blows over (pun not intended) I recommend my Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and Indiana friends to venture out only if absolutely necessary.