Recapping Saturday Night Live is a bit like reviewing the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Both throw familiar characters on display with little subtlety or surprise, with the occasional musical number tossed in. They’re long-running institutions locked in routine that end with celebratory waving. That works for a once-a-year holiday parade for kids, but rigid repetition isn’t the best way to do comedy.
Still, with a crucial assist from the DVR and/or booze I watch SNL whenever there’s a new episode. It’s a bit easier to handle when you carve out the 30 or so minutes of ads or skip past a particularly annoying musical guest. Every so often there’ll be a flash of what made this show feel special in the past, from a funny new idea that hasn’t been run into the ground yet, or a slight subversion of an established sketch, and those moments have a way of making us forget the bad stuff.
Over the last decade many of those moments have featured Justin Timberlake. At this point the singer/actor is mostly just famous for being charismatic and good-looking, and that charisma and enthusiasm make him a good SNL host. He quickly hit the ranks of first-class hosts alongside older and more esteemed figures like Tom Hanks, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin with a series of lively and committed performances. Timberlake’s episodes aren’t always great, but you know they’ll be more energetic than most.
Timberlake was an obvious pick to host the last episode of the season, a finale that felt disconnected from the rest of the season. Much of the regular cast barely appeared, with Timberlake and Gaga grabbing most of the spotlight. Gaga appeared in multiple skits, Jimmy Fallon popped up for a run-through of the moldy “Barry Gibb Talk Show” skit, and Bradley Cooper ate up a few minutes in an abbreviated “Weekend Update”. It wasn’t a good week to be any cast member not named Hader or Wiig.
Timberlake was as enthusiastic as ever throughout, but in a way that only reinforced how bad most hosts are. If all it takes for a good performance is not staring blankly at cue cards for 90 minutes, then you know a show might have a problem.
Gaga shared Timberlake’s enthusiasm but lacked his timing and acting skills. She had good material in the “What’s That Name” sketch but her delivery was a bit dry. Timberlake’s never subtle, but there’s an effortlessness to his performances that you don’t expect from somebody that isn’t a trained comedy professional. Gaga tried to keep up, but I always saw the words on the page as she recited them. She was still better than many of the recent hosts, though, and at this point I’d be surprised if she didn’t do a dual spot as host and musical guest at some point next season.
“What’s That Name” was easily the best part of the show. They’ve run it once before, with famous or powerful people not being able to remember the names of employees and doormen, but they slightly tweaked the idea this week. Timberlake blanked on the names of a girl he slept with last week and former N’Sync bandmate Chris Kirkpatrick, whereas Gaga knew not just names but intimate family details. It hilariously played with Timberlake’s public persona without overstaying its welcome, which is another frequent problem on this show.
The cold open was the second best sketch of the night, with IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s cellmates bickering over Europe’s money problems. It dealt with a current political story in an unexpected way while also subverting the racial stereotyping that occasionally mars the show. Sure, the two black cast members played convicts in their only speaking roles of the night, but at least these convicts were surprisingly well-informed on global economic issues and the current plight of the IMF. That’s a more positive portrayal then you’d find in any other skit in which Kenan Thompson wears a doo-rag.
The rest of the show was a series of either recurring skits or repeat offenders, depending on your point of view. Bill Hader’s geriatric newsman Herb Welch has always worked so far, but then Hader is one of the most talented and innately entertaining cast members in years. Even when he’s playing a total straight man he can make me laugh with a line reading or facial expression. He also wrings pathos out of the Welch character when he insults the pretty boy anchor and invokes his memories of World War II. And the return of the creepy Merryville Brother amusement park robots featured some terrific physical comedy from Taran Killam, but it lacked the macabre edge the first sketch struck by tapping into the inherent horror of Jim Carrey. Still, I’d rather take that than the millionth run-through of Kristen Wiig’s tiresome, one-joke “Secret Word” skit, or even another Timberlake-as-singing-store-mascot bit.
Overall this might’ve been the best episode of the season, which is more a commentary on how lackluster this year has been. Timberlake was as game as ever but other than a few skits, the material let him down. Even the digital short, “3-Way (The Golden Rule)”, in which the Color Me Badd rejects from the “Dick In A Box” and “Motherlovers” videos tag team a girl they picked up at the Payless (played by Lady Gaga, natch) was a little disappointing. It was as perverse as the first two videos but without the goofy naivete that made them funny. Even the song wasn’t as good.
Now that this lackluster season is over, pundits and fans are already debating which cast members won’t return next year. I won’t get into that, over than to say that the cast isn’t really the problem this show. They’re largely a talented group, and although not everybody has found his or her niche, they all bring something different to the show. And honestly I’m pretty sure they could entirely overhaul the cast and writing staff over the summer and the basic feel of the show wouldn’t change. They’d just have new characters to run into the ground. Hopefully we’ll get a few more years out of Hader, a final season victory lap for Fred Armisen and Kristen Wiig, and more screen time for newer performers like Killam, Paul Brittain, and Vanessa Bayer. Expecting any dramatic changes to SNL at this point would be like hoping to see the Macy’s parade in August.