‘SNL’ Review: Amy Adams’ Got Christmas Spirit

snlamyadamsLike anything else this time of year, it’s hard not to come away from SNL in good spirits. Traditionally, the show’s holiday episode provides an easy victory just in time for SNL‘s weary midseason mark, with returning stars like Jimmy Fallon or Martin Short bringing in the holiday cheer with some of the finest moments of the season. SNL is another one of those NYC-based festivities viewers tune into during the holidays, like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or New Years’ Eve coverage in Times Square. Whatever complaints you may have about SNL… it’s not going to ruin Christmas.

Amy Adams isn’t a proven SNL veteran like Fallon or Short — her only connection to the show is one unmemorable episode she hosted in 2008. Yet Adams nonetheless helmed a satisfying — albeit somewhat confusing — holiday special, banking largely on her well established musical charms and surprise cameos by beloved cast members. However, as welcome as the appearances by Mike Myers, Kristen Wiig, and Fred Armisen were, their bits often came out of nowhere, without any recognizable history with Adams or recent cultural relevancy to justify them. And after a half season that has been so on-point with its racial humor, this episode’s attempts to explore the subject matter ranged from hypocritical at best to exploitative at worst. Still, despite a lackluster middle stretch and a few painful One Direction sightings, the night proved to be the hearty cup of eggnog SNL Christmas episodes are intended to be… only not as sweet as last week’s Martin Freeman episode.

Dr. Evil Cold Open. The episode opened with the pleasant surprise of Mike Myers as Dr. Evil, cutting into a Sam Smith holiday broadcast with a sarcastic rant on the North Korea / Sony hacking controversy. Yes, the Austin Powers movies seem like forever ago, but to be fair, Kim Jong-Un and the Interview-motivated hack are exactly the kind of diabolical scenario that Dr. Evil would have something to say about. And honestly, despite a few roast-worthy groaners, it was just nice to see Mike Myers be funny again, especially with an iconic character whose voice and mannerisms he famously based on Lorne Michaels.

Monologue. After seeing her musical turns in Enchanted and The Muppets, it wasn’t a shocker that Amy Adams would sing during her monologue, with the cast, Kristen Wiig, and hunky backup dancers joining her for a version of “We Need A Little Christmas” that hit the right notes as a holiday charmer but was a mess in pretty much every other category.

Asian American Doll. SNL was obviously well aware of potential backlash (even steering into it, ala “The Dudleys“) prior to making this commercial for an Asian American Doll by toymakers who have painstakingly assured it won’t offend anyone, with no name, dollhouse furniture, or “academic strengths or weaknesses.” It’s a clever concept with an amount of edge I’m happy to see on the show, but added to the fact that SNL has a pretty sad track record with Asian American representation (Fred Armisen, whose ancestry is combined Venezuelan, German, and Japanese, is the only cast member ever from Asian descent), this sketch doesn’t go much further than the well-worn gimmick of “look how funny it is to see white people sweat while tip-toeing around racial stereotypes.” Until producers realize how not OK it is to have white actors play Asian and Latino characters (as the cast would do throughout this episode), you’re going to continue to see a lot of viewers justifiably uncomfortable with these kinds of sketches.

Christmas Jammies. Taran Killam and co. gave us an enjoyable parody of this cheesy “XMas Jammies” viral music video, catching up with said family a year after brief Internet fame destroyed their lives… which is especially funny considering the original video includes lyrics about quitting their day jobs to make Internet videos. Killam and Adams showed some impressive rap skills, and Kate McKinnon was especially entertaining as the sociopathic daughter who’s “dead behind the eyes,” but the sketch suffered from another non-ending with Kenan Thompson as a home-wrecker who forces the song to stop. (Watch the sketch here.)

Christmas Serial. Fans of Serial will admire SNL‘s commitment throughout this thorough, slow-burn parody of the thorough, slow-burn podcast — which many viewers still might not be familiar with it (see Michael Che’s joke during Update) and has already been expertly parodied by ex-SNL player Mikaela Watkins. Director Rhys Thomas successfully translated Sarah Koenig’s audio-only reporting into a documentary on the “mystery” of Santa Claus, cleverly using found footage, courtroom sketches, and excellent impressions by the cast (Cecily Strong as Koenig, Kyle Mooney as Santa/Adnan, Aidy Bryant as the defense attorney). Bryan Tucker’s script slowly but steadily earned its laughs — a nice win, considering past attempts to mock the This American Life world were cut at dress. Best of the Night.

Girlfriends Talk Show VII. In its seventh appearance in two and a half seasons, SNL may have officially killed its once-favorite “Girlfriends Talk Show” (though I doubt it’s the last time we’ll see it). Not only were we forced to endure the obligatory cameo by One Direction — each of whom were given multiple lines, maximizing their opportunities to torpedo the sketch’s pacing — Cecily Strong’s Kira has devolved from dismissive cool girl to straight-up cruel towards Aidy Bryant’s loom-art-lover Morgan, publicly shaming her by inviting the dance squad captain on as a guest. And as twisted as Kira’s “my boyfriend’s crazy” anecdote may be, even a casual viewer can see this gag coming from a mile away at this point.

Office Christmas Party. SNL seems hell-bent on keeping the tradition of hopefully-viral music videos alive, despite lacking the Lonely Island’s ear for catchy hooks. Occasionally the show has been successful (“Twin Bed,” for example), but mostly the attempts have been uninspired — like this music video in which Jay Pharoah and Pete Davidson as a couple of it-doesn’t-matters listing off the typical sights one would see at an out-of-hand office party.

Weekend Update. If nothing else, Colin Jost and Michael Che are doing an effective job reading funny jokes and finding the laugh — Che with his amusing direct appeal to “Kimberly” Jong-Un, and Jost with a deadpan that suggests he, like us, is wondering why he still looks so awkward behind the desk. Bobby Moynihan did a brief Kim Jong-Un impression that was immediately greeted with laser scopes (and tellingly without the Asian accent that once accompanied the character), and Kenan Thompson got a lot of laughs as Willie, a holiday optimist trying to ignore his rough situation: “Like the doctors always say: I don’t know what that is, Willie, but it’s spreading!” Kristen Wiig returned with Fred Armisen in tow as Garth & Kat (X), a bit that made sense to do when Wiig hosted in 2013, but now seemed like overkill, considering the two got more screen time than several of the current cast members. Still, watching the two giggle through their improvised lyrics was as fun as always.

A Very Cuban Christmas. The night hit rock bottom with this painful TV special featuring various Cuban stars celebrating the improved diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba — at least, I think that’s what this was supposed to be, instead of what it was, which was a parade of random celebrities and fictional characters with the loosest of connections to Cuba… and none of them played by Latino actors (except Fred Armisen, who made another cameo as Raul Castro). If not for Kate McKinnon as swimmer Diana Nyad smack talking Elian Gonzalez or Beck Bennett as a puppet Fidel Castro, this sketch would have been a total bust.

Singing Sisters. This bizarre setup saw Amy Adams, Cecily Strong, and Kate McKinnon as the Dundy Sisters, a trio of flirty dames in a 1940s night club who offer to chew on garbage in exchange for drinks. This sketch gets points mostly for the crazy twist at the end, which is exactly the kind of nonsense that’s fun to see late in an episode.

Cat Rescue Commercial II. This bit — which consists of Kate McKinnon as an old cat lover picking up adorable kittens and saying horrible things about them — never got enough attention when it first appeared in last season’s hugely underrated Charlize Theron episode, so thank god SNL brought it back. This second version played up more of the sexual tension between McKinnon and her new girlfriend (Amy Adams), giving us the line of the night: “I think you know where the cat ends and my boobs begin.”

Additional Thoughts:

  • Big thanks to the wonderful Megh Wright for covering for me last week. She gave me list of everyone who misbehaved, and I’ll be talking to each of you.
  • A commercial break peek-in revealed a camera run down that listed the following sketches as “cut after dress”: “Christmas Song,” “Christmas Romance,” “Audition,” “Lift Line,” “Frosty the Snowman,” “Nativity Action Playset.” I don’t know what those sketches were, but I’m sure any of them would have been better than “A Very Cuban Christmas.”
  • Best: “Christmas Serial.” Worst: “A Very Cuban Christmas.” You’ll See It Online: “Dr. Evil Cold Open,” “Asian American Doll.” Worth It For The Jokes: “Christmas Jammies,” “Cat Rescue Commercial.”
  • Despite what many commenters online continue to claim, Cecily Strong is not Latina. Her first character on the show in 2012 was a Latina “Get Out The Vote” volunteer, which is likely the source of this confusion. (It was clarified in a Chicago Tribune interview shortly thereafter.) So while Strong may be convincing in her portrayal of Latino characters, it’s nonetheless another example of SNL having no problem casting white actors in roles of different races (other than black ones) rather than respecting the importance of hiring minority performers.
  • Garth’s excuse for being late to Weekend Update: “Sorry, it took me longer than usual to manscape.”
  • Kate McKinnon received the most screen time this week, while Sasheer Zamata was limited to singing a Christmas carol in the monologue. Zamata, along with Vanessa Bayer, Beck Bennett, and Leslie Jones, each received less screen time than Kristen Wiig and Fred Armisen. I’m all for showcasing past alums from the good ol’ days, but this current cast is brimming with talent that desperately needs daylight to grow.
  • I’ll admit I have a soft spot for animals appearing in live sketches, for no other reason than that they present the chance for something to go wrong in the tightly controlled SNL stage. They also allow for exchanges as hilarious as this one, from “Cat Rescue Commercial”: “This cat thinks he’s people, and I’m not sure he’s wrong.” “It’s something in the eyes, and the way he looks me in the eyes, and says, HELP ME BARBARA! I’M NOT A CAT, I’M A MAN! I’M A MAN!”
  • Considering he’s pretty much the star of the show these days, it’s not like Taran Killam needs any more praise. But damn, he nailed that Sam Smith impression at the top of the show, hitting all the tough notes that actual-singer Smith hits. I guess I always considered Killam more of a dancer.
  • The non-ending of “Christmas Jammies” reminded me of a passage I came across recently while reading the new edition of Live From New York, in which Buck Henry sheds light on SNL‘s long history of letting sketches gas out rather than ending with a deliberate “button”: “On the first show I hosted, I made a suggestion for an ending for a sketch, because I came up in the school that says you end a sketch with an ending. And I heard one of the writers behind me say to the others, ‘Hmm, 1945.’ And I nodded inwardly. ‘I see. I get it.’ It was considered really corny to go for a joke. They thought somehow it was like Carol Burnett.” In other words, to the original SNL writers, ending a sketch on a laugh wasn’t considered hip. Hmm, 1975.

I’ll see you January 17, 2015, when Kevin Hart will return to host.

Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He performs at the iO Theater on the house teams Wheelhouse and It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way.

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