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'SNL' Review: James Franco Delivers in an Episode That Doesn't

JamesFrancoSNLLet's face it: over the 40 years SNL has been on the air, the majority of its sketches have not made us laugh. For every "Cowbell," there are a dozen forgotten flat-liners you'd never see on the "Best of Will Ferrell" DVD. At best, the show can hope for a 1:1 hit ratio. That's not meant as a knock against SNL, but as an acknowledgement of its difficulty level. By now, we've gone through enough behind-the-scenes documentaries and oral histories to appreciate the show's demanding six-day production period and the risks of live broadcasts. Regular viewers accept a mixed bag as par for the course.

This season has served as evidence of that inconsistency. SNL has produced some real turds over the past eight episodes (I don't know why Chris Rock keeps bringing up his god-awful "Anniversary Couple" sketch), but it has also proven itself capable of 90-minute hilarity, effective topical commentary, perfect pre-taped pieces, and, as always, returning alum hosts reminding us how great the show can be. And if the writers could spin gold out of Woody Harrelson, one would assume they could do the same with a younger comedy star / stoner icon / three-time host like James Franco, who seemed every bit as game and even more familiar with the SNL process. (He directed a documentary about it, after all.) After a week packed with news Americans need to hear our comedians talk about, SNL was teed up for success last weekend.

And then, SNL turned up a bogey. Despite a few strong pieces in the episode's back stretch, on the whole the night sweated through its segments, relying on every hacky necessary evil in its playbook — forced celebrity cameos, random impression-based setups, pop culture pander, spineless political humor, recurring bits we're all pretty tired of seeing – with little fresh comedy to redeem them. I suppose it made sense to see Franco's second-half Seth Rogen join him on screen so often, even if it reeked of a pressure to promote their upcoming movie. But Nicki Minaj's three appearances were tougher to swallow, especially her excruciating Weekend Update bit covering a month-old Kim Kardashian story… one of many huh? moments during this uneven episode. READ MORE

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'SNL' Review: A Step Back with Cameron Diaz

camerondiazsnlWell, that didn't last long.

Just one week after seemingly proclaiming its transitional era to be over, SNL reaffirmed viewers' perennial skepticism with an episode that made Woody Harrelson's excellent outing look like that much more of a fluke. Cameron Diaz's hosting gig wasn't quite the disaster the show is capable of, but it exhibited all the symptoms of a bland episode that no one will remember by the end of the season: a game-for-anything host that the writers didn't know what to do with (despite this being her fourth time), a dependence on watered-down recurring bits that the actors seem to love more than audiences do, and a general miscalculation by producers on how to use the show's various strengths to create a cohesive night of exciting sketch comedy.

Yes, inconsistency has been an issue throughout every one of the show's 40 seasons — even the ones we remember as being perfect. I still believe SNL possesses all the ingredients it needs to win us over again — a well rounded cast, vibrant writers, an excellent film unit — but Lorne Michaels is still figuring out the recipe (to borrow his metaphor). Whereas last week witnessed a show that clearly understood its strengths and strode confidently from sketch to sketch, this week felt like a series of nervous dice rolls that settled into a sad parade of stock characters that don't contain anywhere near the stamina that previous generations' crutches did.

Still, some of those dice rolls paid off. Still in transition or not, this SNL is at least willing to experiment. And that's something to be thankful for. READ MORE

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'SNL' Review: A Season High with Woody Harrelson

woodyharrelsonsnlFor the past two years, many viewers have described SNL as being in a "transitional phase." This phase began with the departures of Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg in 2012, followed by Jason Sudeikis, Bill Hader, and Fred Armisen in 2013, then by Seth Meyers in early 2014. The old guard was clearing out, and their replacements didn't seem up to the task of continuing that golden era. And while not all of the episodes in this interim period have been bad — in fact, many have been quite good, and the hit-to-miss ratio has remained roughly the same — SNL seemed lost in the woods, with almost weekly PR crises, a dependence on returning alums, sagging ratings, and a vagueness as to how this era would redefine itself.

After last weekend, SNL's transitional era may finally be over.

Woody Harrelson's triumphant episode wasn't just a win — it was a bellwether win for the show. While most episodes take on a tentpole structure, with strong pieces holding up weaker ones, this episode was a full 90 minutes of clever writing and assured performances, from cold open to Weekend Update to the 10-to-1, all without a desperate reliance on recurring bits and pre-taped videos, or the tendency for live sketches to fall flat, or a returning alum host to carry the night. While Bill Hader's dazzling return last month worked largely because of the host's made-for-SNL talent, Woody Harrelson presented less of a guarantee, with a more limited range of comedic personae and a 25-year gap since his last appearance on the show. And yet, the staff made it work, smartly casting Harrelson in a mix of gruff authority figures and loopy substance abusers, while giving the likable goofball freedom to enjoy himself.

But more importantly, for the first time in season 40, SNL looked confident. Will that confidence still be there next week, with Cameron Diaz hosting? We'll see. But for now, it seems Lorne Michaels and his team have finally figured out how to make this generation of SNL shine. READ MORE

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'SNL' Review: Chris Rock Underwhelms

chrisrocksnl

Wherever you stand on SNL, it's safe to say that season 40 has shown a noticeable step forward in quality from last season (regardless of lower ratings and the ever-present hate in many corners online). One of the reasons for this improvement has been the fact that all five of this season's hosts have been performers known for their work in comedy. Chris Rock, Jim Carrey, Bill Hader, Sarah Silverman, and Chris Pratt are all stars we're accustomed to laughing at, so we don't have to deal with that annoying "faculty follies" effect the show tries to employ with athlete or musician hosts.

And yet, not every comedian's humor translates to SNL, and each of those comedians earn their laughs in very different ways, from very different fan bases. Bill Hader, for example, is a prototypical sketch comedy wunderkind who enjoyed a long, healthy run on SNL. Chris Rock, meanwhile, is a vibrant standup and film star who was often relegated to the sidelines during his three seasons on the show's unapologetically whitewashed 1990s. SNL's cast is far more diverse now, theoretically giving Rock more freedom to explore the provocative material he's famous for. But the comedian's pacing was still as mismatched as a first-time host's would be, despite having hosted an episode in 1996. Rather than the dominant crowd killer he proved himself to be after he left SNL, Rock transformed back into the caged-bird featured player struggling to fit in on a show that was always too small for him.

The result was an at times very difficult episode to watch, even for someone willing to give SNL the benefit of the doubt. READ MORE

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'SNL' Review: Jim Carrey Dances Like Everybody's Watching

jimcarreysnl2014When Jim Carrey last hosted SNL in 2011 (the first episode I reviewed for this site), I worried the 1990s comedy icon best known for playing manic cartoons from In Living Color, three comedy blockbusters in 1994, and a well regarded SNL stint, would fail to connect with the show's modern lineup. Thankfully, Carrey proved me wrong, blending nicely with Fred Armisen's eccentric subtlety and showing us how much fun a (then) fresh-faced Taran Killam could be to watch. Carrey's performance was a testament to the fact that while SNL may evolve, with increasingly eye-popping production value and an emerging struggle to make its live multicam elements work, some things will always just make us laugh. And Jim Carrey is one of them.

This episode was largely the antithesis of that notion. Once again, the night played to Carrey's strengths, with an abundance of live sketches giving him plenty of freedom to take the reigns. But this time, the actor struggled to produce the same chemistry with today's cast members (the exception being Taran Killam, who has become even more of a Carrey-esque alpha performer over the years). Depending on your outlook on the show, that may be a matter of a subpar cast failing to keep pace with a true comedy genius, or an example of a comedian from a bygone era relying on over-the-top schtick that doesn't quite resonate with 2014 audiences.

Whatever the reason, this episode lacked the redeeming charm that makes a comedy powerhouse like Jim Carrey an enduring star. Rather, the effect was that of a beloved cartoon being transported into the real world… without anyone knowing quite what to do with him. READ MORE

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'SNL' Review: Bill Hader's Master Class

billhadersnlYou can judge how great a past SNL cast member was by the void they refill when they return to the show. Maya Rudolph's hosting gig in 2012 reminded viewers not only how irreplaceable of a triple-threat talent Rudolph is, but how colorless (in every possible meaning of the word) the cast seemed in her absence. Andy Samberg's return last May revealed the cast remained short of a goofball viewers seemed to like, even if the show could still produce amazing video content without him. If SNL needs to know what it's missing, it needs only bring back an old cast member to highlight the weak spots.

Bill Hader returned to find his seat at the table still very much empty. To be fair, that's largely a credit to Hader's uniqueness. A master impressionist, star character performer, and eager utility player until the end, Bill Hader's value to the show only seemed to increase as time went on… even after he left the cast. Bill Murray recently praised him as having done "the best work anyone ever did on that show," and it's true — not only did Hader's characters rarely show the gray hairs that other cast members' recurring bits quickly formed, he exhibited a Phil Hartman-esque cohesive quality of a performer who legitimately loves the people he works with. Seeing Hader share the screen with Kristen Wiig in The Skeleton Twins reminded me how much I've missed watching SNL performers try to make each other laugh, as opposed to aiming to play their individual roles as efficiently as possible.

It was a night of few surprises and little new material, and perhaps that's a good thing. There's a certain joy to watching someone do something they were made to do. And no one alive was made to do SNL moreso than Bill Hader was. READ MORE

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'SNL,' the Groundlings, and the Parallel Thinking Excuse

snlgroundlingstinaturnerMembers of Los Angeles' famed Groundlings theater company have made headlines by accusing SNL of lifting their sketch during last weekend's Sarah Silverman episode. The piece in question, "River Sisters," featured Silverman, Cecily Strong, and Sasheer Zamata as a Tina Turner tribute act performing "Proud Mary" on a crummy river cruise, which many have noticed bears a strong resemblance to a sketch that has been running at the Groundlings for several weeks, with Kimberly Condict and Vanessa Ragland as identically-dressed Tina Turner lookalikes, similarly bemoaning their careers to the song (except in a casino). Groundlings teacher Ian Gary claimed that SNL writers have plagiarized "many, many" of the theater's bits in the past, with victims too intimidated to ruffle the feathers of the gatekeepers that could one day give them their dream jobs. Splitsider mentioned the similarity in our review of the episode, and several other sources (Deadline, AV Club, Good Morning America) have more or less rendered a guilty verdict for the show.  SNL hasn't responded, other than to take down its Twitter and Instagram photos of the sketch. Meanwhile, a source close to the show attributed the sketches' similarity to "parallel thinking."

Of course, this isn't the first accusation of joke thievery we've heard directed at SNL. Many of them, in retrospect, appear to be baseless. In 2010, when the show featured a tiny hat gag in a 10-to-1 sketch, Tim and Eric pointed out that they had done a similar bit in 2007, essentially trying to claim ownership over the idea of tiny hats. (The controversy has been mentioned in a few articles covering this recent dispute.) Then, a year ago, comedian Iliza Schlesinger accused the show of lifting a joke she had about airport boarding zones for a sketch in the season premiere, despite the fact that air travel is regular comedic fodder for SNL (and, hell, everyone). And let's not forget the few similar premises that aired on Key & Peele and SNL in the same week… though those never made headlines.

Some accusations have been proven valid, however: former cast member Jay Mohr admitted in his 2004 memoir Gasping for Airtime that he stole a joke from New York comedian Rick Shapiro and turned it into a sketch. Add Mohr's admission on top of the well documented examples of joke stealing by comedians like Carlos Mencia and Dane Cook, as well as Patton Oswalt's elegant clarion call against the practice, and it's no wonder why people might roll their eyes at the "parallel thinking" excuse. READ MORE

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'SNL' Review: Sarah Silverman's Racy Return

Sarah Silverman SNLSNL shifts into a different gear when a comedian hosts the show. In the early days, comic-hosts like George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Steve Martin were every bit as much a part of the show's countercultural brand as the cast members were. 40 years later, SNL has become part of the mainstream, with a product so formulaic that today's most innovative comics define themselves by how different they are from the comedy institution and the network TV legacy it represents. Popular comedians often struggle to bridge the gap between their delivery and the SNL machine, where the multicam format and demand for immediate laughs often leave little room for nuance. Sometimes the two are incompatible, like when Jerry Seinfeld brought in his own writers or Russell Brand's larger-than-life persona outshone everything on screen. Other times, the two sides meet in the middle, producing such delightfully offbeat fusions as Zach Galifianakis in "Darrell's House" or Louis C.K. in "Lincoln."

Sarah Silverman is a unique case. The megastar comedian is also a returning SNL cast member, which often lends itself to a specific kind of episode, with the host playing old characters and reuniting with contemporaries. However, Silverman was only on the show for one season, with no classic bits fans were expecting to see again. This freed Silverman to be her provocative self — at least, as much of her provocative self that the NBC censors would allow – and push SNL out of its pander-y, predictable comfort zone into some more dangerous territory. The night's first half featured Silverman in a Fault In Our Stars parody as a girl with Ebola, followed by Silverman as the late Joan Rivers, followed by a video about whites sad over losing their racial majority, followed by a sketch skewering society's fixation with watching women tear each other apart. And while not all of the daring concepts paid off, overall, Silverman's rep as a blue comedian gave SNL permission to play with fire. Hopefully that will be something it stops waiting for permission to do. READ MORE

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'SNL' Review: A New Hope with Chris Pratt

chrisprattsnlThe seasons have certainly changed at Saturday Night Live. The show's 40th season began with an episode that hardly resembled a season premiere, with little pomp or circumstance over SNL's impressive four-decade lifespan, and in its place a straightforward night of comedy that reflected a show well adjusted to its new lineup. Nerves did occasionally get the better of the performers — especially first-time host Chris Pratt, who coasted on his signature goofy charm, flashing that Andy Dwyer "oops" face a few times – but overall the episode charged forward with a leaner (and more colorful) cast, and a greater confidence in its sense of humor.

We aren't out of the woods just yet, though. SNL's live sketches suffer from the same issues that plagued them last season: those low-hanging fruit gags, punchlines overwhelming the premise, the tendency for characters to randomly walk out of a scene without the sketch actually ending, etc. Also, the show has yet to reclaim its satirical edge, and with John Oliver so thoroughly setting us straight on Sunday nights, it's doubtful progressive America will look to SNL for its comedy any time soon.

But for the first time in a while, we have reasons to look forward to the future. Pete Davidson's masterful Weekend Update set gave SNL the newcomer starpower it seemed unable to locate last season. Michael Che and Leslie Jones' frequent on-camera appearances suggest the show might actually try to embrace its diversity, rather than use it as a quota. And a few clever sketch setups found their way into the set list, giving us hope that SNL can still do comedy outside of the format of a talk show parody.

If those little "40"s in the opening credits and interstitials become the only on-air milestone celebrations we see on the show over the next months, Season 40 may be a year SNL steps proudly into the next generation, rather than again be overshadowed by its glorious past. READ MORE

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What to Expect From 'SNL' Season 40

snlseason40mckinnonprattSNL returns for its 40th season this Saturday, with host Chris Pratt, musical guest Ariana Grande, and pretty much the same cast — minus a handful of people we rarely saw in sketches anyway. Following a lackluster season, Lorne Michaels is now sticking with the tools he's got, replacing five departing cast members with only one newcomer — standup Pete Davidson — and promoting writer Michael Che to co-host Weekend Update. Meanwhile, Colin Jost will remain at the desk after taking on the job last February. It's a conservative approach, compared to last year's throw-everything-against-the-wall casting strategy, which resulted in a cast so overpopulated that some remained literal faces in the crowd at the season's end.

Counting its blessings isn't the worst move for SNL right now. Viewers warmed up to returning cast members during last year's transitional season, with Taran Killam, Cecily Strong, and (Emmy-nominated) Kate McKinnon emerging as bankable scene-carriers. Meanwhile, the show has been on a hot streak of video content — which now makes up a full third of SNL's sketches. With Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett staying on board, and the third Good Neighbor alum Nick Rutherford now joining them as a writer, producers appear to be doubling down on this transition. The rotation of Michael Che and Cecily Strong reflects a show carefully evaluating its strengths and how best to use them.

If replacing the late Don Pardo with sound-alike Darrell Hammond is any indication, SNL appears less interested in reinventing the wheel in its 40th season. And maybe that's a good thing. READ MORE

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'SNL' Firing New Cast Members Displays a Show Still Deeply In Transition

snl-season-39-640x480Word has come down this week that SNL cast members Noël Wells, John Milhiser, and Brooks Wheelan have been let go from the show after one season, with Nasim Pedrad also leaving to work as a regular on Mulaney (a move that has long been anticipated) and Mike O'Brien's status currently in talks. Their departures don't come as too huge a shock — as we recapped at the end of last season, the three saw little screen time and had few memorable moments during the season. And while it must come as a disappointment to those actors and their fans, let's not forget that at least a third of everyone who has ever appeared in the SNL cast has done so for only one season, putting the three of them in the company of one-and-done cast members turned comedy stars like Ben Stiller, Sarah Silverman, Damon Wayans, Rob Riggle, Jenny Slate, and Iron Man. Considering Season 39 saw the largest cast SNL ever had, and first-year cast members are always on the chopping block, it's not surprising that a few cast members would get axed. We look forward to seeing what they do with a year of SNL exposure under their belts.

This casting change takes place well into SNL's transitional era, which began when Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg left in 2012, followed by Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis, and Fred Armisen in 2013, followed by Seth Meyers in 2014. At the start of last season, the three (possibly four) recent cuts joined the cast along with Kyle Mooney, Beck Bennett, and, later in the season, Sasheer Zamata and Colin Jost, making it one of the largest cast increases ever. Mooney, Bennett, and Zamata each had average first seasons, occasionally providing the show with the spark it hopes for from its newcomers, even if they didn't immediately capture viewers' adoration like Cecily Strong and Kate McKinnon did in their early episodes. However, the fact that SNL is firing half of the new talent it intended to replace its departed stars indicates that Lorne Michaels is still figuring out what the show's future will be. In other words, the "rebuilding year" enters Year Three. READ MORE

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Breaking Down Each Cast Member's Contribution to 'SNL' Season 39

With SNL's 39th season coming to a close, we're taking a look at the past season with a series of posts examining the highs, lows, and other memorable moments from the past eight months. Here, we look at the performers that make up SNL's current cast, including their overall contributions to the show, memorable roles, relative screen time, and prospects for returning next season.

SNL's 39th season was a crowded one. Record-breaking crowded, even. Six new hires, plus a seventh midseason, rose the total to 17, making the current cast the largest SNL has seen during its entire four-decade run, topping even the infamously bloated 1990-1991 season. That season only had 16 at its peak, including a lineup so stacked with Hartmans, Carveys, and Farleys that few fans complained. SNL finds itself in a much different situation now, with many viewers still having trouble telling apart its five white male freshmen — which started as a joke this season but has proven to be a legitimate problem. It's a matter of supply and demand: while the number of actors has increased, the number of sketches in any given episode — and thus, the number of roles available — has remained the same. As a result, cast members had fewer opportunities to carve out their niches on the show, making it even more difficult to win over fans. This was especially true for the newcomers, some of whom are still trying to form strong partnerships with writers.

With longtime stars Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis, and Fred Armisen leaving the cast last year (along with Tim Robinson, who was moved to the writing staff), producers have mostly turned to Taran Killam, Cecily Strong, Kenan Thompson, and Kate McKinnon to carry the torch. With Bobby Moynihan, Aidy Bryant, Vanessa Bayer, and Jay Pharoah also proving to be perfectly reliable players, there's certainly enough talent to fill the void. But the fresh-faced starpower that Killam, McKinnon and Strong brought in their first years has been tough to make out from the new class, whose scramble for airtime has kicked up such a dust cloud that voices like Nasim Pedrad have been completely drowned out. Indeed, we're a long way away from the lean, mean, seven original Not Ready for Prime Time Players.

That isn't meant as a criticism of any of the current cast members. No one in the cast isn't talented enough to work on SNL, and I find it a little too mean spirited to outright call for any of them to lose their jobs just because Lorne Michaels bit off more than he could chew. Every cast member had great moments on SNL this season, regardless of how familiar fans are with them or what future may be in store for them.

While we wait for the official word to come down about next season's cast (which usually comes later in the summer), taking a look at each the individual screen time breakdown from this season gives us some indication of much the show has relied on each cast member. As I did for Season 36 in 2011, Season 37 in 2012, and Season 38 in 2013, once again I have tediously kept track of every on-air appearance and calculated — weighting major roles more than quick walk-ons — each cast member's relative "share" of screen time. And as if that wasn't enough of a huge, nerdy waste of time, I made a pie chart: READ MORE

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How 'SNL' Addressed Race in Season 39, as Shown in 11 Sketches

With SNL's 39th season coming to a close, we're taking a look at the past season with a series of posts examining the highs, lows, and other memorable moments from the past eight months. Here, we look at the show's shifting tone on race over the arc of this season.

This has not been an easy year for SNL to talk about race. From the moment the show announced its six new cast members — the largest turnover in more than a decade — and viewers noticed that not one of them was a person of color, SNL once again became a target of progressive viewers calling for the cast to diversify. We've had a black president for 5 years now, they argued, so why, still, does SNL have no one to play the First Lady? While this argument wasn't new, two other developments were. For one, the show was in the midst of a rebuilding year with plenty of uncertainties about its future. Critics of all kinds sniffed the blood in the water and amassed collective pressure to force the show to explain why that future seemed so stubbornly white. The second shift was that SNL responded. Jay Pharoah said the show needed to "pay attention," while Kenan Thompson (now the senior-most cast member) stood by SNL, saying producers "just never find [black women] who are ready."

Suddenly, SNL's diversity problem became a national headline, with news outlets and former cast members alike weighing in. Splitsider did a write-up on the issue, in which we examined the show's long history of racial controversies and pointed out that its recruitment pools are even more whitewashed. The criticism became so loud that SNL made the out-of-character move of addressing it in a cold open with Kerry Washington. While funny, the piece did little to temper the criticism, which finally seemed to subside in January, when the show announced its hiring of a black female cast member, Sasheer Zamata, and two black female writers, Leslie Jones and LaKendra Tookes.

But the controversy didn't end there. Despite a larger representation of black actors and writers on the show than ever, SNL couldn't even talk about race without a flood of angry tweets calling the show bigoted. Writer (and soon to be Daily Show correspondent) Michael Che, who has penned most of the show's race-related material, has butted heads on Twitter with viewers furious over bits like "Black Jeopardy" or Leslie Jones' Weekend Update appearance. Lucas Hazlett wrote a wonderful piece for Splitsider on Jones' routine and the misplaced outrage it incited, which has gotten so vicious it seems the only acceptable way for SNL to address race is to make fun of white people.

Dave Chappelle ended his Comedy Central show partially because he grew concerned that audiences were drawing the wrong conclusions from his racy material. SNL's live studio audience presents the same problem. When a sketch like "Black Jeopardy" airs, how do we know if the crowd is laughing at the sketch's commentary about the disconnect between black and white culture, or if they're only laughing at the black stereotypes the sketch uses to make that commentary? Unlike Key & Peele – whose pretaped, laugh-track-less sketches allow them to make it very clear via timing and reaction shots exactly what idea they're trying to convey — SNL race sketches often leave us wondering whether any groups have been unfairly exploited. As a result, for many, the discussion over whether or not a joke is offensive drowns out whether or not it is funny. (And yes, a joke can be both.)

Below, we look back upon 11 moments race came to the forefront this season, and how the piece reflected SNL's gradually shifting tone as more diverse voices entered the mix. READ MORE

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The Episodes of 'SNL' Season 39, Ranked

With SNL's 39th season coming to a close, we're taking a look at the past season with a series of posts examining the highs, lows, and other memorable moments from the past eight months. Here, we look at each episode as a whole, ranking them in order of overall success and positive resonance with viewers.

Obviously comedy is subjective, and everyone watches SNL looking for different things — this list is just one of many you can find online. As far as we're concerned, things like musical guests, surprise cameos, and drama surrounding the show are less important than the plain-and-simple comedy aspects of an episode: How many sketches had clear, clever premises versus how many followed the same, predictable pattern we've seen dozens of times? And of the good material, how strong and memorable was it compared to the highlights from other episodes? Did the host blend in seamlessly and appropriately complement the cast, or did he/she stick out like a sore thumb and come off as distracting or diva-ish? How well did the writers structure the episode around the host's talents — did they effectively navigate the host's strengths and weaknesses, or did they use him/her as little as possible? And simply, does the average viewer remember anything about this episode?

With those criteria in mind, here is our ranking of the 21 episodes of SNL Season 39. READ MORE