'SNL' Review: Andrew Garfield Couldn't Save the Day

When I started reviewing SNL three years ago, I was proud to consider myself a defender of the show. Of course, not that the mainstream pop culture institution needed any defending. My frustration was with the show's cynical viewers — online critics, comedy nerds, pretty much everyone in my hometown — who had jumped on the hip bandwagon of dismissing SNL as "not as funny as it used to be." It didn't matter to them that the show is broadcasted live, with each episode written and produced in less than six days. Even if SNL managed to pull off a handful of good sketches week after week, that wasn't good enough.

Critics were too blinded by SNL's tenure to give it the fair assessment they gave fresher sketch shows like Key & Peele and Portlandia. Even worse, they were far too quick to slap grades and scores to sketches without having any practical understanding of sketch structure or game. SNL is staffed with some of the sharpest comedy minds in the business, and the product of their labors deserves better-thought-out analysis than "I laughed so hard," or "I didn't get it."

But man, after three years of trying to be fair — even doing away with my "what hit" and "what missed" breakdowns for being overly reductive — an episode like this one makes me want to join the haters, give SNL a big thumbs-down, and leave it at that.

Any other week I'd be able to make an educated guess as to why some sketches worked and others didn't; how inspired concepts fell victim to poor execution; how a host's charisma magically brought an episode together. But after all the theorizing I've done about Lorne Michaels' mythical thought-process, while watching this episode, I can humbly resign that I just didn't get it. I didn't get how the writers could return after a three-week break without any better ideas than "Celebrity Family Feud" or "Spider-Man and Emma Stone don't know how to kiss." I didn't get how a dynamic host like Andrew Garfield could be limited to such stale premises, or why the episode contained an abnormally low amount of sketches to begin with. I didn't get how SNL could take a golden goose of a news story like Donald Sterling and come back with a cold open that was perhaps the laziest possible take on it. I didn't get why the show would take its two of its most popular characters and run them into the ground within the same five minutes.

I thought I got Leslie Jones' Weekend Update bit, but a lot of people on Twitter apparently did not.

I still love this show. I want it to have good episodes — partially so I can rub it in the haters' faces, but mostly because even after all these years, I think there's still something novel about a 90-minute live broadcast of comedy sketches written a few days in advance, and the TV-lover in me wants to see SNL defy the odds and succeed, as they have done time and time again.

This week… not so much.



'SNL' Review: Seth Rogen Half-Baked

While watching Seth Rogen host SNL for the third time last weekend, I was reminded of two other three-peat hosts from earlier this season: Paul Rudd in December and Jonah Hill in January. Rudd's episode felt like extended promo for Anchorman 2, with the host failing to capture that lightning in the bottle with cast members that made his previous stints so memorable. Hill, however, seemed to enjoy himself every bit as much as he did his first two appearances.

Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, and Jonah Hill are, of course, hugely successful alumni from Team Judd Apatow, but their careers have taken diverging trajectories. Rogen and Rudd have stuck closely to studio comedies and rom-coms, while Hill has attempted to carve out a larger niche for himself, pursuing meatier roles in Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street, and earning Oscar nominations in the process. I have to wonder if Hill's breaking from the pack gave him an edge in his return to SNL; he possessed the calm under pressure of an actor accustomed to playing opposite heavyweights like Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. Meanwhile, Rudd and Rogen both looked like dudes wondering what happened to their old frat buddies – Hader, Samberg, Wiig… you know, the guys! — struggling to recreate the magic with the new cast and clinging to A-list guest stars whenever possible. Rudd and Rogen's pack mentality does them little good if they don't yet accept the new SNL kids as part of that pack.

To be fair, Seth Rogen's episode was a vast improvement from Rudd's, falling right in between that and Jonah Hill's. Yes, Rogen was too often cast as the passive, flustered straight man SNL relegates to weaker hosts, but the episode also gave us one of the most interesting lineups we've seen in a while, with some creatively daring premises, fiery performances, and a few pleasant reminders that Nasim Pedrad and Cecily Strong can still take care of business in sketches. Then again, only half of those daring premises actually paid off, resulting in an episode that felt — forgive me — a little half-baked. READ MORE


'SNL' Review: Princess Anna Kendrick

Whenever SNL producers book a host who seems inexperienced in live comedy, they fall back on a kind of playbook. Stick to popular recurring bits and pretaped videos to take the burden off the host. Give her small, easy stuff that plays to her strengths, then get her out of there. If she can sing, let her sing. The goal is to Bodyguard-cradle the host, letting her enjoy herself while hiding her from the real dangers of the scary sketch comedy world.

Given how little we saw of Anna Kendrick this episode, you'd think Lorne was standing nearby off stage, ready to dive in and take a bullet.

I can't really fault SNL for being so cautious, especially when you consider how often the playbook works. Earlier this season, Josh Hutcherson made it through the night looking like a pro without doing all that much, and the Lady Gaga episode succeeded after the writers protected Gaga from the sketches — and the sketches from Gaga. Anna Kendrick was the latest beneficiary: the Pitch Perfect star shined by singing/dancing in five of her eight appearances, while playing two different Disney princesses. Forget Kendrick's extensive musical theater training — any teenage girl who sings karaoke showtunes probably could have played her part this episode.

But was the playbook necessary? In the three sketches Anna Kendrick had to deliver actual jokes, she surely hit her mark. A month ago, Lena Dunham carried a much heavier burden despite being a first-time host and a far less-experienced performer than Kendrick. Of course, we'll never know what goes on behind the scenes during the week at SNL — some hosts may be less willing to try more demanding material. Whatever the reason, this episode cast Anna Kendrick as an old-school Disney princess: a pretty smile, a lovely voice, but ultimately, never the hero. READ MORE


'SNL' Review: Louis C.K. Is Still Hilarious, In Case Anyone Was Wondering

When Louis C.K. last hosted SNL in November 2012, there was magic in the air. A week after Superstorm Sandy walloped New York, with huge parts of the city still without power, it just felt appropriate to see a comedian so emblematic of the New York spirit, with its gritty nature and heartfelt sincerity, serve as the face of the show that week. And to see him kill it as he did, with a hilarious parody of his FX show Louie starring Abraham Lincoln, was a magical moment for comedy nerds, like watching Conan O'Brien hosting the Emmys in 2006 or witnessing Joss Whedon's The Avengers win over both critics and worldwide audiences. Sooner or later, all of America will love our ginger cult comedy heroes as much as we do, and to see them crowned as megastars provides a sense of justice rarely felt in the comedy world.

I knew I wouldn't be able to say the same for this week's episode. C.K.'s past success hosting SNL was largely circumstantial — though he's a master of uncomfortable tension and honest straight-manning, the comedian stays safely within his comfort zone. (With Lena Dunham and Jim Parsons before, we haven't seen an SNL host successfully play an off-type character since Melissa McCarthy, two months ago.) Moreover, this season's "rebuilding year" jitters seemed to have gotten in the heads of the writers and actors, with the only risk-taking happening with ambitious pre-recorded video sketches. Unless the editing bay turned out another gem like "Louie Lincoln," this episode was going to feel like a slight step down from last season.

And while on the whole the spark wasn't there, when one looks past the overall episode at the sketches individually, one finds few missteps. Nothing from this episode will likely make anyone's "best of Season 39" lists, and the cold open and news segment felt uncharacteristically sloppy, but the sketches this week proved effective, with Louis C.K. mixing nicely with the cast and forming an even stronger chemistry with the SNL folks than his first time hosting.



'Kroll Show's Second Season Evolves Into "Sketch-uational Comedy"

As far as character showcases go, it doesn't get much more elaborate than Kroll Show.

When Nick Kroll's sketch series on Comedy Central returned for its second season in January, it was clear that he had set his sights firmly on the pseudo-celebrity culture of reality television, with a lineup of characters inspired by the most despicable monsters that crawled out of the Jersey Shore and Real Housewives muck: the Guido womanizer Bobby Bottleservice, the psychopathic publicists of "PubLIZity," the man-child toilet-baby C-Czar, the self-destructively vain Rich Dicks, etc. But if the first season served to introduce the freakshow, the second season unleashed them out into the world… and onto each other. The result was a series of interweaving narratives within a rich, ever-expanding alternative reality TV universe, for which Kroll offered a term when he last spoke with us:

There’s a term that Seth Meyers coined when he did an interview with us, half-jokingly, but I think is very good, which is “sketch-uational comedy.” It sounds kind of cheesy, but it’s actually a really good way, I think, to describe what we’re doing with the show, which is sketch but it’s really more narrative and long-form storytelling.



'SNL' Review: Lena Dunham, Guest Stars, and Lots of Impressions

This time last year, Megh Wright and I compiled a list of 10 first-time SNL hosts we'd like to see someday. The list included Stephen Colbert (right?) and the now-sadly-late Philip Seymour Hoffman, but decidedly not Lena Dunham. She was one of the first people we discussed, and we both agreed to pass over the Girls creator/star in favor of figures who might make better hosts. I told Megh then that Dunham would be a person people like us would want to see host, but by the time the episode started, we'd quickly realize, "Oh, this wasn't as good an idea as we thought." Dunham doesn't strike me as a closet Vaudevillian with endless tricks up her sleeve (as Joseph Gordon-Levitt or Christoph Waltz turned out to be) as much as an anti-establishment wunderkind who balked at the hoops and found her own vehicle to express herself.

Indeed, after burning Jim Parsons at the stake last week for his limited range, it would be remiss of me to spare Lena Dunham the same treatment. To be fair, we never expected the actress to be able to play anyone other than thinly veiled versions of herself. Between Girls and Tiny Furniture, Dunham has spent her entire professional career playing the same semi-autobiographical character. With one or two exceptions, last Saturday night was no different.

However, I'll risk joining the legions of smarmy Girls defenders critics and admit that I was smitten with Lena Dunham's charm, as unpolished as her performance as host ended up being. Not since Jimmy Fallon in December have we seen a host have so much fun in sketches — and while I realize that intangible is lost on several viewers, it nevertheless smoothes over rough patches in sketches and keeps the energy afloat throughout the night, especially when the host is as tuned in to a sketch's premise as Dunham managed to be.

Of course, Dunham isn't a perfect performer and neither was this episode. Oftentimes, it wasn't clear who was even hosting, with Dunham wallflowering behind the other cast members and so many other surprise guest stars stealing the moment — Liam Neeson, Jon Hamm, Fred Armisen. And if there weren't enough celebs, the episode relied heavily on impression-based bits, with hit-or-miss takes on President Obama, the cast of Scandal, the cast of Girls, Matthew McConaughey, Katt Williams, Jared Leto, Harrison Ford, and, naturally, Lena Dunham. Yes, celebrity cameos and impressions are part of the SNL tradition, and the image of Liam Neeson threatening Vladimir Putin from the Oval Office is too good to pass up, but so many of them in one episode can feel a little easy, as if someone suggested, "Hey, Jon Hamm is in the building! Let's see if he wants to do something!"

As a watcher of both SNL and Girls, I'm happy to call Dunham's hosting stint on the show a moderate success — though I'm not sure I'd put her up there with our 10 SNL Hosts We'd Like to See Again just yet.



'SNL' Review: Jim Parsons Broadens His Range to Nerdy Guy

The alternative comedy scene has never been very kind to Jim Parsons. He's best known for playing Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory — the current leader of the pack of broad, Chuck Lorre sitcoms that are dismissed by critics and comedy snobs but beloved by industry insiders and pretty much everyone else across the country. To comedy nerds, Parsons is the ever-popular prom king who's not in any of our classes: "Who the hell is this guy, and why do people love him so damn much?" He has been showered with Emmys (winning for lead actor in 2010, 2011, and 2013), beating out Steve Carell in his final season of The Office (and ensuring he never won an Emmy for the role of Michael Scott) with his hacky, stereotypical nerd schtick. Sheldon Cooper is Community's Abed Nadir for the Jay Leno generation.

Of course, we're too hard on Jim Parsons. His is a schtick he does exceptionally well, with killer timing and excellent deadpan delivery. Creating a television icon was never something we held against Jerry Seinfeld or Megan Mullally. We don't know what Parsons' post-BBT career will look like, but for now, this is his time in the sun, and he has earned every bit of the praise he's received. Yes, I would argue his agent and Chuck Lorre's casting director deserve a huge chunk of that praise, but I'm sure they're satisfied with all those acceptance speech shout-outs.

When it comes to Jim Parsons' performance on SNL, however, we can be a little more critical. For an actor with so many Emmys under his belt and a long career in live theater, Parsons showed remarkably little range, rarely straying from the geek persona he has permanently cloaked himself in, playing such challenging roles as "Sheldon as Peter Pan" and "Sheldon shits his pants." In his monologue, he mocked the parallels between Sheldon Cooper and his real self, singing, "I'm not that guy." But based on his performance, Jim Parsons has trouble playing anyone but that guy.

But that's hardly a nail in the coffin for an SNL episode. Parsons survived the night with grace, and even after a shaky start, the episode took a turn for the best with a nice hot streak in its middle stretch. The episode also witnessed the debut of Weekend Update co-host Colin Jost, who had a superb start despite lingering questions over the show's trajectory as it heads into the back half of season 39. READ MORE


'SNL' Review: Melissa McCarthy and a Farewell to Seth Meyers

Some episodes of SNL are bigger than the host. For example, this season's premiere spotlighted the show's record six new cast members, while host Tina Fey shone in serviceable roles, like her pep talk to Cecily Strong in the latter's first time co-hosting Weekend Update. Similarly, last season's finale focused less on Ben Affleck's career comeback than it did on saying goodbye to Bill Hader and Fred Armisen (and Jason Sudeikis, though his departure hadn't been officially announced at that point). It's an awkward position for the host to find him or herself in, because not only do they feel the pressure to satisfy viewers tuning in to watch them deliver the goods, they also have to dance around some other elephant in the room: favorites leaving, unknowns arriving, diversity controversies, national tragedies, etc.

Melissa McCarthy is an interesting choice to host Seth Meyers' final episode. No host has been as formidable a presence on the SNL stage in the past few years than McCarthy — the actress has been the most electric performer the show has seen since Chris Farley. She doesn't need her hand held… she just walks into a sketch and blows it up. However, on a night when many viewers' minds are wrapped up in Seth Meyers' run on the show coming to a end, it's a little difficult to get on board with a Melissa McCarthy Variety Hour, as hilarious as it may be.

It's not as though McCarthy's performance was any less explosive than usual. She worked her ass off — flipping around on high wires, crashing through windows, smearing her face with barbecue sauce, even letting out SNL's first expletive since the Jenny Slate F-bomb in 2009. However, the Groundlings alum is at her core a live performer who feeds off the energy from the studio audience, and from those of watching at home, the crowd seemed a little lukewarm. Of course, you should never blame the house (unless it's filled with 14-year-old girls who scream at everything Justin Bieber says, in which case, yes, you should), but it's fair to question the selection of a host known for being the most memorable thing about an episode on a night we want to remember for something else. If recent Golden Globe winners Amy Poehler and Andy Samberg are available for a cameo, it begs to reason that the show could have celebrated Seth Meyers' swan song by booking an alum he has more of a history with, and saved ace-in-the-hole Melissa McCarthy for a week when Meyers is gone, when SNL will need her the most.

But it's not fair to nitpick with hypothetical alternatives, especially when the show hasn't even booked a host for its next episode on March 1. At the end of the day, this was another delightful, well-written episode, with a nearly flawless first half, a few nice pieces to close things out, some unforgettable moments from a golden Melissa McCarthy, and a fitting farewell for Seth Meyers. READ MORE


'SNL' Review: Jonah Hill's Award-Worthy Performance

Anytime I begin to think Jonah Hill might be overrated, I only need watch him host SNL. Yes, it's still pretty weird to think that the guy from Superbad has spent the last few years scoring Oscar nominations and hanging out with Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Martin Scorcese. And it's easy to say the industry might be a little too infatuated with a comedy star who can surprise with a nuanced performance in a movie academy voters actually care about.

But then Jonah Hill comes back to host SNL, and suddenly it makes sense. Not only is the guy the real deal — he seems like a delight to work with. He's one of the three-peat hosts that still delivers, like Melissa McCarthy, Jon Hamm, or Anne Hathaway, as opposed to Charles Barkley, Lindsay Lohan, or — as it turned out — Paul Rudd. After giving the episode an explosive start, Hill's flexibility throughout various types saved the episode's shaky back half. It was a performance worthy of the laurels Hill has been receiving, and a second consecutive win for SNL as it makes its way into 2014. READ MORE


'SNL' Review: Drake Gives 2014 a Fresh Start

Season 39 has not exactly been kind to SNL. As we explained in our midseason review, the show seems to have surrendered to its "transition year" label, playing it safe as if dragging a stone of shame, rather than saying "screw it" and taking creative risks as if dragging a stone of triumph. Not all of it has been bad — in fact, a lot of it has been quite good — but we've been waiting for the show to win us back with a resounding victory. December's midseason finale with Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake came close, in that it provided the show with a jolt of energy it had been missing over the past months, but fans still complained that the sketches weren't up to par. Indeed, with so many bits from past seasons and impression-based pieces, the episode was far from a testament to originality.

Last weekend's episode, hosted and musical-guested by Drake, might have given us that win. SNL has had a recent love affair with booking music stars to pull double duty — this being the third instance this season, after Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga. Drake certainly outperformed those two — unlike Cyrus and Gaga, he avoided pandering to the frantic fans in the crowd, and he brought supportive energy to every sketch without upstaging the premise — though I remain hesitant to give him a standing ovation after prematurely doing so for Adam Levine this time last year.

The bigger story this week was the addition of Sasheer Zamata, the show's first black female cast member in seven years. While I always thought the accusations of racism toward SNL a little overblown, I have to admit that Zamata's presence seemed to set the cast and writers a little at ease. This wasn't a showcase episode for the actress — her frequent appearances in minor roles were enough to remind viewers of her existence without exploiting her token status, as a meta gag in the cold open or Weekend Update would have done. But seeing Zamata get laughs as Rihanna, dancing in opening credits of Blossom (or "B'Lossom"), gave me hope that SNL is once again a show that can make fun of celebrities like Rihanna (or Michelle Obama, Beyonce, Will Smith in drag, etc.), and do sketches where a black host can play a father to a daughter who's having a slumber party… without everyone feeling awkward.

Aside from Drake and Zamata, this episode gave us plenty of reasons to celebrate, from Kate McKinnon's hilarious take on Justin Bieber to Aidy Bryant's crushing slumber party girl to Vanessa Bayer's fun Jacqueline Bisset bit during Weekend Update to the delightful return of Mornin' Miami. SNL began the new year with a fresh start, giving us a night that we might as well remember as a season premiere — that is, if the show sticks to its resolutions. READ MORE


'Kroll Show' Season 2: Good TV Making Fun of Bad TV

The second season of Kroll Show premieres tonight on Comedy Central, and by the looks of things, Nick Kroll has no intention of changing course. When the first season debuted a year ago, the series appeared to be a showcase of Kroll's larger-than-life characters, like Bobby Bottleservice, who at that point had already been pushing his roofie necklace on us in online videos for months. Indeed, his characters were the centerpiece of the show, but rather than growing thin throughout the eight-episode season, they delivered the goods. That's because Kroll's characters don't exist for their own sakes — they're vehicles for the show's bigger target: reality television and the nature of celebrity.

No sketch show gets reality TV quite as well as Kroll Show does. By centering his series around endearing monsters like Bottleservice, the Liz'es of "PubLIZity," Dr. Armond, and C-Czar, Kroll demonstrates how low the bar has sunk, and how easily we embrace obnoxious personalities with no discernible talents as celebrities, thanks to flashy editing and contrived scenarios. The Real Housewives and Jersey Shores and Duck Dynasties have created a vast pseudo-celebrity subculture, with scores of ambitious hacks cashing in with their own spinoffs, talk show appearances, book deals, and perfumes. They're famous for… well, being famous. And awful. Networks are happy to pick up the tab — it's much cheaper to produce a reality show than it is to write a scripted one (especially on a cable budget), and if the next Honey Boo Boo emerges in a pan of rocks, then the payoff is well worth it. That's the hand that Kroll Show bites, and in Season 2, he's hungry for more. READ MORE


Checking in with 'SNL' Halfway Through Season 39

We've reached the midpoint of SNL's 39th season — one that has optimistically been called a "transitional year," but one more commonly known as "the year the shit hit the fan with that whole black woman issue." Despite the fact that the bulk of the SNL coverage in fall 2013 has zeroed in on the show's diversity controversy, SNL has given us plenty of other things to talk about, from new cast members and emerging stars on the show, to surprise cameos and celebrity hosts who defied our expectations — in good and bad ways.

Unfortunately, few of those topics have gotten much ink in fall 2013 (outside of sites like this one, at least), with only a handful of strong episodes, and the rest of the weeks sustained only by one or two truly great sketches. The cast's six talented newcomers have only begun to win over a fan base infamously skeptical of change, while the rest of the cast, once stacked with fan favorites Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis, Andy Samberg, and Fred Armisen, now seems relatively thin, supported heavily by the collective charm of Taran Killam, Kate McKinnon, and Cecily Strong — who has been filling in nicely so far at the Weekend Update desk, even if it means we won't ever again see her Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started A Conversation With At A Party. However, this temporary rut is a situation SNL has found itself in before, and despite the "rebuilding year" mindset, the show keeps turning out a solid product… some weeks more successfully than others. READ MORE


'SNL' Review: Jimmy Fallon's Christmas Miracle

Boy, did SNL need a win. The months following September's successful season premiere with Tina Fey saw a mixed bag of lackluster hosts, unmemorable sketches, and distracting media scrutiny. Even Kerry Washington's enjoyable November episode was overshadowed by the show's diversity controversy — Washington's hilarious performance only seemed to underscore SNL's lack of a black woman in the cast (an issue that will apparently be resolved in January). Furthermore, when beloved comedy stars Paul Rudd and John Goodman produced surprisingly disappointing episodes over the past few weeks, and with the coming departure of head writer Seth Meyers, SNL's future was looking grim.

Then came along Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake. To be fair, we can't give the two men all the credit — the regular actors and writers stepped up with delightful performances and clever scripts, which was a true sight for sore eyes for beleaguered fans looking for something to look forward to in 2014. However, the success of this episode was less about the fundamentals than it was the intangibles, namely, the jolt of energy provided by Fallon and Timberlake, whose on-stage chemistry on SNL and Late Night has been a bottomless well of comedy for viewers for years now. With NBC's late night lineup undergoing major upheavals, from the Tonight Show to Late Night to SNL, Jimmy Fallon (with his second half) is one of the network's few sure bets.

While Fallon's return to SNL fell slightly short of his Christmas episode two years ago, it was nonetheless a resounding win in a season that has seen alarmingly few of them. READ MORE


Talking to Will Forte About 'Nebraska', 'MacGruber 2', and Never-Aired 'SNL' Sketches

Will Forte is a busy man. Upon leaving SNL in 2010, he starred in MacGruber, a film that received mixed reviews but is nonetheless considered a cult classic in many circles. He has also played recurring roles in numerous shows, among them the buffalo-straddling Ted Turner on Conan, the cross-dressing Paul L'Astnamé on 30 Rock (for which he was nominated for an Emmy), and voicing various characters on The Cleveland Show. His most recent project has been Nebraska, a celebrated indie comedy directed by Alexander Payne, in which he plays David Grant, a man who escorts his elderly father (played by Bruce Dern) on a road trip to claim a bogus sweepstakes prize. Forte took some time to chat with us about the film, which has been nominated for numerous Golden Globe and SAG awards and is gaining Oscar buzz. He also gave us the latest updates on a rumored MacGruber sequel, shared with us some memories from his SNL days, and offered a preview for the upcoming Late Night with Seth Meyers.

Congratulations on Nebraska piling on all of these Golden Globes nominations! Did you expect going into it that it would get this kind of reaction?

Oh, it was really exciting to hear. I've learned to not have any expectations with that stuff, so that you can only be pleasantly surprised. This has felt like a really special movie to be a part of, so it was really exciting to get the news of all the different nominations yesterday for the movie. It’s been so exciting to be a part of this movie.

What drew you to the project?

I read the script and loved the script from the moment I read it, and, obviously, it’s Alexander Payne. I mean, this guy is one of my directing heroes, so to get a chance to be in this movie was the most unexpected surprise of all time. I contend that I have no shot at getting to do this again, and I’m so excited that I somehow wormed my way in here. READ MORE