‘SNL’ Review: Taraji P. Henson Almost Saves the Day

tarajiphensonsnlDespite all the criticisms I’ve made about SNL, I should say that I love this show. And not just what I considered the glory years of the series — the late 90s that I grew up with, or the late 70s that my parents grew up with, or the late 80s I discovered in college, or the late 2000s that inspired me to start reviewing it online — I’ve loved it even during the not-as-great seasons 39 and 40. Even at its worst, SNL remains a fascinating experiment in live TV sketch comedy, and if I’m going to spend a chunk of my week doing something, I want it to be a positive experience. I’ve never understood the hate-watchers, who tune in expecting a train wreck and tweet cruel insults to its cast members. Objectivity be damned… when SNL‘s funny, we all win.

So last weekend, as Taraji P. Henson’s episode began, I crossed my fingers that this would be the night season 40 finally hit its stride. SNL has walked tall this spring with strong showings from Chris Hemsworth, Dwayne Johnson, and Michael Keaton (whose episode deserves more praise than I initially gave it), and Empire‘s multi-talented scene-stealer seemed like a safe bet. Sure enough, the first block came out guns blazing — a hilarious Hillary Clinton cold open, an impressive performance by Henson in the monologue, an amusing fake commercial. This was the SNL I tune in for! Curse broken!

But as the night wore on, SNL fell into the same traps the show always seems to suffer at the end of these three-week runs. The material lacked inspiration, clearly written by people who haven’t slept in weeks: lots of celebrity impressions, less-funny versions of premises we’ve seen before, topical bits that didn’t quite hit. Henson revealed herself as an energetic, dynamic host, but one prone to misreading a scene’s comedic point of view (which, in fairness to the actress, often wasn’t nailed down in the script to begin with). The night saw exciting cameos from alums Darrell Hammond and Billy Crystal, a killer performance by Kate McKinnon, and some pointed satire its back half, but everything in between struggled to stand out. SNL may be on more solid footing as Season 40 approaches its end, but this episode wasn’t evidence of it… as much as superfans like me wanted it to be.

Hillary Clinton Cold Open. After years of a president that’s just too hard to mock with sketch comedy, I’ve nearly forgotten how entertaining SNL can be with a politician with a more defined comedic hook — namely, the maniacal ambition and always-a-bridesmaid insecurity of Hillary Clinton. Kate McKinnon returned with her skilled impression (which we first saw in March), recording her campaign announcement as a selfie video. Clinton’s relationship with her phone has been a proven source of laughs recently, and the writers got in some solid jabs at her struggles to find empathy, calling a high-five “meet my hand in the air” and shouting: “Citizens! Elect me! I am your leader!” The vertical frame was a nifty image to open the show, especially with Darrell Hammond’s classic Bill Clinton sliding in and out of the background. Best of the Night.

Monologue. As common as they’ve become, it’s not really worth complaining about musical numbers in the monologue slot — it’s really just an old trick Lorne uses to pump up the energy at the top of the show. The better ones contain a comedic premise, like Taraji P. Henson’s powerhouse gospel ode to what her career could have been without Empire: “Coulda passed out samples in a grocery store… on Law & Order I coulda played a corpse!” The bit added a fun layer with cast members relieved over their career alternatives, which featured Kenan reminding us of his Good Burger past… always great. Henson came out of the gate with her energy at a 9, and rarely let it drop any lower. That enthusiasm would sometimes do her a disservice in straight-man roles, but as a first-time host, Henson proved to be a confident live performer and skilled impersonator that I’d like to see on the show again.

Depend Legends. It wasn’t quite “Oops I Crapped My Pants,” but this ad struck the same dark, hilarious chords with adult diapers with pictures of beloved icons of the greatest generation: Clark Gable, Jack Paar, all the female DAs from Law & Order. SNL landed a real find with character actor Bill Corsair, who nailed “McCarthy Hearings” diaper bit: “Have you no sense of decency?”

Teacher Trial. Mary Kay Letourneau was back in the news this week, and SNL‘s response was this amusing but familiar courtroom scene with Pete Davidson as a student who’s overly stoked to have slept with his attractive teacher (Cecily Strong). “People being OK with kid hooking up with hot teacher” is such a common twist (see: South Park‘s famous “Nice…” episode) that it initially didn’t strike me as unusual, but I enjoyed the directions this sketch went in, with Kenan as the judge chuckling over the kid’s “extra credit” joke, and Pete’s long list of nicknames he earned around school: “Fred Pimp-stone,” “King of the Teachers,” and “Supercalifragilistic-this-be-such-a-dope-kid.”

Home 2. The first of two unnecessary impression-based sketches was this trailer for a sequel to Home — that Jim Parsons / Rihanna animated movie your friends with kids wasted their money on. This sketch seemed mostly an excuse for Taraji P. Henson to show us her great Nicki Minaj, but it also gave Jay Pharoah some much-needed airtime, with a solid take on Kendrick Lamar. The rest were mostly the faithful impressions we’ve seen before this season… a leftovers vibe that affected this entire episode.

QVC. I didn’t know quite what to make of this QVC infomercial parody, with Kate as a Liza Minnelli-esque designer of a three-way poncho who can’t remember the third way to wear it. Sure, not every SNL sketch needs to adhere religiously to the “one unusual pattern” approach to sketch comedy, but with a key detail not coming out until the 2-minute mark, and Kate and Taraji both playing over-the-top characters, this scene came off as a confusing sendup to a dated TV format, with the only big laughs coming from Aidy’s glorious wig and “perfect square” costume.

Game of Thrones: South Centros. This Boyz n the Hood approach to Game of Thrones had an inspired premise and amazing visuals by directors Matt & Oz (I especially loved the opening titles animation of the hood rising out of the map), but there weren’t enough Venn diagram overlaps between the two worlds to earn this parody enough laughs… even with a drive-by on horseback by Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). SNL has made some excellent takes on Game of Thrones in the past, but this one missed the mark.

Weekend Update. One of the signs of improvement on SNL this season is Colin Jost and Michael Che, who now appear more comfortable behind the desk, with the two beginning to improvise a bit between the punch lines, and the cameras staying on them long enough for it to work. Che’s joke about white college students rioting without consequences, followed by Jost’s “white guy” wave, scored a big laugh. Kate made an enjoyable return as Spanish artist Cecilia Giminez (II), whom we last saw defending her “monkey face” Jesus fresco, now weighing in on that scary Lucille Ball statue, happily comparing it to a lesbian from Brooklyn and Paulie from The Sopranos: “Her big mouth, so funny! Her mouth say, I kill you! I kill you in your sleep!” Vanessa Bayer closed out the block with nervous Passover punchlines from Jacob (VI). I’m not sure Jacob hits as hard with Che as he did with Seth Meyers, but Vanessa looked positively thrilled when Billy Crystal joined her as her pediatrist father, Dr. Henken. Crystal, an SNL legend who narrowly missed out on being one of the Not Ready for Primetime Players and later dominated the 1984-85 season, so effectively mirrored Vanessa’s schtick that I couldn’t help but think a Crystal hosting return is long overdue.

Hollywood Game Night II. This second unnecessary impression-based sketch seemed mostly an excuse for Taraji P. Henson to show off her so-so Wanda Sykes impression — the rest were too many bits we’ve seen before (only two weeks ago for Taran’s Vin Diesel). Kate continued dominating this episode with her amusing Jane Lynch, and Jay again made the most of his screen time with a funny take on Common, soapboxing on Selma and making Chris Pine cry again.

How 2 Dance with Janelle II. Another reprise of a sketch from earlier this season was Sasheer Zamata’s dancing teenage vlogger who’s unaware of the sexual leers she’s getting. Chris Rock (who appeared in the first version) mentioned this sketch as a sign of normalization of diversity on the show, because it features black actors in a setup without racial themes. I agree; however, Taraji P. Henson’s take on the mother character — one-upping her daughter’s inappropriate sexuality rather than bristling at it, as Rock did — muddled this premise, though it led to the great image of Kyle ricocheting between his crush and her mom. SNL has chosen to shoot this sketch as a live stream, much like “Jarret’s Room” or “Wake Up Wakefield,” but I wonder if a Good Neighbor pre-taped approach, with choppy editing that’s more consistent with actual YouTubers, might have helped this premise translate.

Cookie Visits Sesame Street. SNL‘s relationship with the Muppets had a rough start in the 70s with the awful “Land of Gorch” sketches, but it has led to some wonderful collaborations in recent years, with Big Bird defending PBS from Mitt Romney and Kermit joining Seth Meyers in a “Really?!?” segment. Taraji P. Henson strutting around Sesame Street as Cookie (the first time she appeared as her Empire character this episode) gave us some fun moments — chewing out Bert and Ernie, snatching a cookie from Cookie Monster nom-ing it down — but other than her coat made of Elmo fur, the bit was tame enough to be more likely seen on Sesame Street than SNL. That’s not surprising, considering the Jim Henson folks are known to be careful about how their characters are depicted, and probably would have needed to approve the script before allowing SNL to shoot in its studio.

Their Own League. This parody of A League of Their Own saw the players of the All American Girls Professional Baseball league awkwardly turning away black women: “We kinda already have the woman thing, you know? Don’t really want to complicate it.” It was a nuanced, challenging piece of racial satire that SNL handled effectively, with the cast eventually winning over the crowd with lines like, “While our husbands our away, we’re the racists.” I loved seeing Bobby pop up as the Rosie O’Donnell player, also because he tends to be OK taking on dicier lines. I wish the writers wouldn’t spend so much time in the setup bumpers for these sketches, despite how much they love writing for Kenan.

Connectatron. I loved the production effort that went into this 10-to-1 Power Rangers parody, with Taraji P. Henson as a moody team member who refuses to attach her ship to form a giant robot to save the day. It was an amusing setup that rushed through the jokes and ended abruptly — and if you’re wondering why, the script was shortened last minute from a funnier and much better paced dress rehearsal version, which is the version SNL put online. Another example of the challenges of working on a live broadcast like SNL.

Additional Thoughts:

  • I would be curious to see SNL putting all of the dress rehearsal versions of sketches online, considering the studio audience for the live broadcast sounded particularly dead. The night’s “big laughs” felt more like “amused approval,” and judging from the silence that greeted Jaime Lannister’s cameo in “Game of Thrones,” this seemed like a crowd that didn’t watch much TV. I still think weak writing is more to blame for this week’s problems, but a less generous studio audience certainly didn’t help.
  • Seeing Darrell Hammond as Bill Clinton in the cold open made me wish he would do the opening credits in the voice of the former president. As the announcer, Hammond appears to be nearby if the show ever needs someone to play Mr. Clinton, but I wonder if Lorne will pass the role along to someone like Taran or Beck.
  • Best: “Hillary Clinton Cold Open.” Worst: “QVC.” You’ll See It Online: “Cookie Visits Sesame Street.” Worth It For the Jokes: “Their Own League.”
  • It was announced that Scarlett Johansson will host the next episode on May 2. There are a few reasons I’m nervous about this. For one, Johansson is a lousy live performer, and her rough 2010 episode is something I don’t think any of us want to relive. Secondly, her booking was obviously timed with the release of the Avengers movie, making it a clear publicity gig, not a creative move. The only way Season 40 could annoy us more would be to get January Jones to host the finale. (For the record, I’m praying for Will Forte and Jon Hamm to take the last two episodes in May.)
  • “Michael, go rake the garbage!”
  • Kate McKinnon dominated the screen time this episode, with Kyle Mooney in the fewest roles. However, I get the feeling he was inside one of those Sharkasaur or Connectatron costumes. (And I like to think Billy Crystal was in the other.)
  • Taraji P. Henson’s eyes suddenly popping open during the bump-in still late in the episode (the one used at the top of this post) was just too terrifying for a guy watching TV alone at 12:30 am. That’s some Tilda Swinton shit right there. (Wait for it…)
  • Billy Crystal was great as Jacob’s father, but I always hoped we’d see Jon Lovitz appear in the role. (May he rest in peace.)
  • “You’re watching QVC, which means your a cat whose owner’s at work! Hi, little guy!”

I’ll see you on May 2, when Scarlett Johannson will host. Sigh.

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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