It seems SNL has struck gold with booking music stars as hosts. Despite my long-standing pet peeve of musical guests making cameos in sketches — No one wants to watch Cee Lo read cue cards! — I have been proven wrong, again and again, as pop stars and rock legends have strapped on their host shoes and presided over far better episodes than most athletes, comedians, or A-listers have. While I was never sold on the argument that musicians' live-concert backgrounds causally make them natural live sketch performers, musicians are often less likely to let their nerves get the best of them, and they typically bring a fun-loving charisma and game-faced hustle to their roles in sketches. Earlier last decade, Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears relied on their upbringings as child performers to deliver memorable stints. In recent seasons, Elton John, Mick Jagger, and Bruno Mars similarly hosted fun nights. In two weeks, we'll get to see if Justin Bieber is up to the task… though I'm sure that verdict is already in for millions of teenage girls (and a few grown men).
Thanks in part to this hot streak of music star hosts, Adam Levine's turn hosting SNL was highly anticipated. This episode certainly delivered — even if you don't compare it to last week's train wreck, it was still one of the best episodes so far this season — I have to admit it was more in spite of Levine than because of him. There was nothing wrong with Levine's performance, and he had some great moments (notably in the gay advice show Circle Work and in the hilarious Digital Short). However, he lacked the show-stopping highlights that made his predecessors such hits: Dick in a Box, Pandora Intern, Mick in the Mirror, etc. During the goodbyes, Levine looked visibly bummed, which is a shame considering he just finished hosting a near-perfect episode.
Obama and MLK Cold Open. The show opened with a fun sketch about President Obama being visited by the ghost of Martin Luther King Jr., just to have the civil rights leader forgo sharing his infinite wisdom in favor of the superficial chatter that dominated the Inauguration coverage: Beyonce lip syncing and the first lady's bangs. The commentary was atypically sharp for a cold open, and it was nice to see a scenic sketch instead of the usual press conference or televised address. It's been quite some time since we've seen Jay Pharoah's President Obama (and someone's been practicing) but it helped to place the president as the straight man to a more absurd character, rather than try exploit some minor character flaw. Kenan had a great deal of fun as MLK — "It's not every day they let a black ghost open the show" — kicking off what was to be a very good night for him overall.
Monologue. Following a cold open that took some creative risks (given this season's track record, a fog machine in the cold open is considered "risky") was a similarly inventive monologue in which Adam Levine received comedic advice from expert coaches in the spinning chairs from The Voice — Andy Samberg, Cameron Diaz, and Jerry Seinfeld. Samberg's return most certainly meant we would see a digital short (Levine's last appearance on SNL was in Samberg's delightful "Iran So Far" video), and we weren't disappointed. While the bit required Levine to play second fiddle to the other celebs, the host coyly facilitated the game, even when he was shirtless.
Rosetta Stone. Another strong commercial parody this week, with the popular language software receiving testimonials from middle aged creepers trying to learn to talk to Thai hookers. The highlights were the specific Thai phrases: "How much?" "Ping pong ball!" "Oh god, what have I done?"
Circle Work. Kenan and Levine played the gay hosts of an advice talk show wherein their solutions to reasonable problems of heterosexual people are simply that the man is gay. At first I worried this would just be a sketch that exploited gay stereotypes, but once we understood the hosts' agenda, it took off. There were also some nice components with Vanessa Bayer's gaydar-less stage manager and Kenan spelling out the entire sentence: "You're as gay as a gay goose in a gay geese pride parade!"
Sopranos High. In a night that celebrated the ensemble came this send-up to the CW's Carrie Diaries in the form of a show about the high school selves of Sopranos characters. The timeline-inappropriate 80s references were great, and the cast (led by Bobby Moynihan) nicely filled out Tony, Carmela, and the rest of the gang.
Bryce. Another apparently gay-themed premise (though not explicitly) came in the form of this character sketch, with Bill Hader playing Bryce, an effeminate firefighter upset that his ex-girlfriend is talking to a new man. While we're accustomed to Hader committing fully to a character, it's rare we see him play a character at this volume and over-the-top energy for 5 minutes — which won me over in the end, despite the hit-or-miss firefighter specifics (wrestling around with the obviously fake dalmatian, sliding down the pole). I would have liked to see Bryce's reputation as a respected firefighter pay off, but Hader freaking out at the cancellation of Don't Trust The B… and repeating "Shut up!" carried this sketch.
YOLO Digital Short. It was a welcome return for The Lonely Island men and Adam Levine, who gave us a quintessential digital short: a great hook, amazing production value, an online-relevant topic, a bizarrely heightened pattern, and coked-up Danny McBride.
Weekend Update. In one of the stronger all-around WU blocks we've seen this season, with Seth Meyers joked about "zunes for baboons" and the anniversary of his girlfriend's "I had the weirdest dream" speech. Nasim Pedrad finally got some screen time as Arianna Huffington (III) — not as funny as her previous appearances as the character, but not without a few gems: "The last thing Rand Paul grilled for that long was a possum!" The highlight of the segment, and perhaps of the night, was Kenan Thompson as emotional Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. Kenan's impression quickly escalated into full-blown crazy town, with Lewis claiming the ice skating rink in front of 30 Rock was once a dangerous lake, detailing how he damaged his retina by plowing into a ditch, and describing his ascension into heaven, all while Seth Meyers cracked up off screen.
Maroon Five vs. Train. Typically the episode slows down a bit after Weekend Update, but I still enjoyed this bar fight sketch between chunky bracelet bands Maroon Five and Train (with Jason Mraz, John Mayer, and Hootie showing up as well). The timing felt clunky in some spots (which threw Levine off) and the premise reminded me of scenes from Anchorman and Zoolander, but other than a nonexistent ending, the writing was strong: "Are you dressing up that old guy to look like you, so I'll fight him instead of you?"
Catfish. Viewers who haven't seen the documentary or the MTV show probably won't appreciate this parody of Nev Shulman's show in which he helps naive people track down the true identity of their online lovers. But given the term's increased usage with the Manti Te'o controversy, this subject matter should ring familiar. While Levine's impression of Shulman fell flat and was a little distracting, Aidy Bryant was hilarious as the proudly oblivious Jaz, whose online boyfriend is literally Brian Williams' head photoshopped on a male model's body, whose dog is a poster from the movie Beethoven and who lives in the house from The Jetsons. Nice touch to make Ace Applebees' real name Gordon TGI Fridays.
Janet II. Here's another episode of this SNL generation's Mango — the strangely alluring Janet Peckinpaugh — whom we last saw flirting with Channing Tatum's Tom Brady. Moynihan once again nailed the character, bouncing back and forth between blunt come-ons, like admitting she had been with Magic Johnson… "before," and self-deprecation: "I look like ET when they dress him up like a lady!" The detail of Janet "flicking her bean all day thinking about this" might have been a little TMI. Say, I wonder what the real Janet Peckinpaugh has to say about this?
Biden Bash. While I'm always a fan of Jason Sudeikis' Joe Biden and this sketch had a few good jokes — namely, Biden's Macho Man Randy Savage impression and the Delaware motto: "What happens in Delaware…?" — when compared to the rest of the lineup, this 10-to-1 dragged and felt a little unnecessary.
Despite Adam Levine's underwhelming contribution, this was a fine episode — the best, I would say, since Seth MacFarlane's season premiere. That's largely due to the cast and writers. We saw several big-cast sketches, inventive premises, and new characters. And damn, did the cast bring it! Last week was a good episode for Bobby Moynihan, and so was this one, but we also saw sides of Bill Hader and Kenan Thompson (certainly the episode's MVP) that we haven't before. All the other cast members received a good chunk of screen time as well: Vanessa Bayer, Nasim Pedrad, Aidy Bryant, Tim Robinson. It is as if the SNL staff was hoping to redeem themselves after last week's fiasco. If that was the goal, I'd say mission accomplished.
What did you think? Were you hoping Adam Levine would give a Timberlake-worthy performance, or did he fulfill your expectations? Did this episode do any damage to SNL's track record of great music star hosts, and is this a warning of what's to come when Bieber hosts in two weeks? What did you make of the gay subject matter in a few of the sketches? And if the cast can put on this good an episode without much from the host, wouldn't it be worth trying a few SNL episodes without hosts? Or would that break some celebrity union rule?
I'll see you on Feb. 9, when Justin Bieber will tweet a bunch of awesome pics with Jay Pharoah.
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.