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‘SNL’ Review: Justin Timberlake Runs a Victory Lap

I don’t think anyone is as big a fan of SNL as SNL itself. At every opportunity, Lorne Michaels reminds us of his show’s elite status and cultural impact, whether in a tongue-in-cheek backstage bit with Paul Simon and a scotch, or in a more sincere soundbite from one of those now-dime-a-dozen behind-the-scenes specials NBC rolls out on Sunday nights. I can’t really blame Lorne for perpetuating this “SNL dynasty” mystique; admittedly I find the show’s history fascinating, and I believe the man has earned enough ego to occasionally place his show on a pedestal, especially by coyly likening it to a vain gentleman’s club. SNL can get away with its only-somewhat-in-jest swagger because it usually follows it up with genuinely impressive comedy: clever jokes, original concepts, strong performances from its actors. For a majority of any given episode’s runtime, SNL walks the walk.

Last weekend’s episode was bigger than five-time-host Justin Timberlake. It was a celebration of the entire SNL legacy. There was a sense of homecoming pride in the air, similar to the feel of a beloved former castmember returning to host and the whole gang coming back to play. And while I enjoyed seeing Timberlake and the boys run victory laps, if you look at the scoreboard, you’ll notice the home team’s win wasn’t a decisive one. Unlike during the star host’s previous appearances — which are all episodes for the books, with Timberlake’s perfect assimilation into the cast — this time, frequently his performance magic either wore off prematurely or was dispelled by SNL‘s incessant need to jerk itself off.

Perhaps I’m just being a Debbie Downer who remembers all-too-fondly Timberlake’s past work on the show, or I’m a victim to the “overly high expectations” he noted in his opening remarks. I will say Justin Timberlake remains one of the best hosts SNL has ever seen and easily topped most of the other hosts from this season with a nearly flawless performance… even if the episode itself wasn’t.

What Hit:

Hugo Chavez Cold Open. It was clear this wasn’t going to be a typical episode when the host appeared in the cold open — a privilege reserved for only the most honored of hosts. JT kicked off the night as Elton John singing “Candle in the Wind” at the funeral of Hugo Chavez. While the sketch could have used more actual jokes, I liked the “a gig is a gig” premise, and the listing of Chavez’s bizarre career highlights proved to be entertaining enough: “On your shoulders stood your parrot with a matching red beret,” and “You said capitalism killed Mars.” (Watch the video here.)

Five-Timers Monologue III. As a callback to Tom Hanks’ induction in 1990 (and the more recent Platinum Lounge sketch), SNL pulled out all the stops to celebrate Justin Timberlake’s entrance into the exclusive Five-Timers Club. This time, they stuffed the booze-soaked lounge with fellow members Paul Simon, Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, Alec Baldwin, Tom Hanks, and Candice Bergen, with Martin Short reprising his role as the waiter and Dan Aykroyd popping up as the bartender. (Anyone else notice Aykroyd’s Crystal Skull vodkas lining the shelves?) I did enjoy the endless cameos, and classic SNL smugness, and the gags were there — the Gilly-shaped cocktail, Bobby and Taran fighting to the death Django-style — but I have to admit the pandering started to wane on me 8 minutes in. Perhaps my happiness faded at the absence of John Goodman, as well as at the thought of how awkward it must have been for female staffers to run into Chevy backstage.

It’s A Date. The “SNL greatest hits” schtick gassed out in this Dating Game style sketch, naturally featuring Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake’s “Dick in a Box” guys and Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin’s Czech Festrunk Brothers (aka “two wild and crazy guys”). Of course, the horny duos were the focus of this sketch, and although I appreciated the Akyroyd and Martin’s old-school charm, Samberg and JT were more of my generation, so naturally their bits came off stronger. What really kept this sketch on the rails, however, were the current cast members: Bobby Moynihan’s flustered Bachelor #1 (“Should I have brought a buddy?”), Vanessa Bayer’s unoffended contestant (“That sounds fun and not creepy!”), and Bill Hader’s menacing host (“I feel awful!”).

Veganville IV. It came as no surprise that JT would reprise his classic Omeletville routine, this time in a big tofu costume, promoting a vegan restaurant. This was probably the night’s strongest sketch, and that’s due to Timberlake being liberated to do what he does best: charm us all with his overflowing charisma and musical talent. The fact that he hosts the show every two years or so provides just the right amount of time between appearances of his dancing costume guy, so that he’s welcome pretty much whenever we see him. I do wish they hadn’t ended the sketch with the tired Harlem Shake bit, however. (Watch the video here.)

Nuva Bling. Nothing too special here, just a solid fake-product commercial about a jewel-encrusted vaginal ring. I especially loved the gag of re-using the birth control as earrings.

Weekend Update. Weekend Update seemed cut short once again this week, thanks I imagine to the numerous applause breaks during the monologue, It’s A Date, and Veganville. The silver lining was that Seth Meyers’ jokes contained pretty much no filler. The segment’s second half was handed over to Stefon (XIV), who graced us with the glorious images of “Jasper the Gorilla passing a kidney stone,” the name of a club being “Your Mother And I Are Separating,” and Hader reenacting “Donald Duck having a Vietnam nightmare.”

Moet & Chandon II. While I would have preferred Vanessa Bayer and Cecily Strong’s airheaded porn stars commercial to be a one-off sketch after it first appeared in the Jamie Foxx episode in December, their stumbling through the copy (“You’ll feel like you graduated magnum cumloudly!”) and anecdotes (“I got banged into a sink hole. Then a mole person banged me back up. I’ll drink to that!”) won me over once again. Also, apparently you can say “jerking off a horse” on network television. Thanks champagne!

What Missed:

Sober Caligula. The obvious dud of the night was this sketch about the notorious Roman emperor Caligula swearing off his partyboy antics. While some the details were funny (“I woke up with my penis in the mouth of a dead lion. I don’t even want to get into where the lion’s penis was.”), seeing such an energetic host like JT play a sober, passive character was a bit of a bore. Also, it might just be me, but weak sketches always seem that much worse when everyone’s wearing ridiculous costumes.

Maine Justice II. I remain a bit on the fence with this one, but I just can’t justify a reprisal of this fun-yet-one-note premise about a supposedly Maine courtroom in which all the characters are clearly and inexplicably Cajun — yet another sketch first done in the Jamie Foxx episode. Jason Sudeikis and JT’s performances were still enjoyable, as was the alligator bit, but overall, knowing the twist ahead of time sucked the wind out of some of the jokes, especially the jazz parade at the end. The audience member shouting “Go Tigers!” at the mention of LSU didn’t help either.

She’s Got A Dick. Other than making fun of some of the standard rom-com tropes, this faux-trailer for a chick flick about a guy in love with a girl with a penis seemed hesitant to make any jokes about the subject, leaving us with a watered-down, pointless video.

I don’t want to sound too harsh, because I truly enjoyed watching Justin Timberlake — a performer whose talents make him a perfect fit for SNL. My concern was that this episode placed a greater emphasis on celebrating the larger SNL tradition than simply having a good episode. The night lacked the memorable highlights that have defined JT as a go-to host and replaced them with a bunch of easy, unoriginal, pandering sketches that sought more applause than laughter.

What did you think? Were your expectations unfulfilled, or did Justin Timberlake deliver the night you hoped for? Have Lorne and co. earned the right to spend so much time joking and talking about SNL, or are they starting to sound like the self-important comedy snobs behind Seth Reiss’ take on Studio 60? Did watching Dan Aykroyd make you feel sad? You know what I mean.

I’ll see you on April 6, when Melissa McCarthy will host after a month hiatus with musical guest Phoenix.

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.

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