Due to the Olympics, it’s been a month since we’ve last seen Saturday Night Live and that usually allows for an overflow of great writing, followed by a quick crash in the second episode. Yet considering how long of a break SNL has had, man, “Jim Parsons/Beck” really falls apart quickly. I’m glad to see Jim Parsons getting a chance to try out some comedy that isn’t related to Sheldon Cooper, since I really like Parsons but can’t stand The Big Bang Theory, but the poor guy didn’t stand a chance with some of the material he was given.
It never hurts to start out an episode with Kate McKinnon, especially with her strong Ellen Degeneres impression. McKinnon plays Ellen with an overabundance of joy—just like the real Ellen—but with an undercurrent of “god, what purgatory am I stuck in hosting this daytime talk show?” It’s a perfect balance that McKinnon nails, like when she admits that she hates dancing and regrets doing it on the very first show. It’s also one of the rare times a host shows up in the cold open, even though it’s become more of a thing this season, but it’s not all that funny with Parsons appearing as Johnny Weir. They should’ve saved that for if Tom Hiddleston ever hosts. (The similarity is haunting between those two.)
The opening monologue went to the old reliable of a song, with Parsons proclaiming he is not Sheldon, backed by a group of similarly typecast character actors like Jason Alexander, Jaleel White and Henry Winkler. I don’t think he really proved he is going to break out of that pigeonholing with this episode though.
Parsons then played Peter Pan in the next skit, accompanied by Aidy Bryant playing Tinkerbell’s half-sister Tonkerbell. I really like Bryant, but I fear she’s limiting herself to the same sassy type character. I also would’ve much rather seen a skit about Tonkerbell’s relationship with Gus the mouse from Cinderella.
For the next two segments, SNL got successfully weird, providing the two best bits of the night. First was the only commercial parody of the night for a picture Bible of stories recreated by birds. It’s so over-the-top dumb, I couldn’t help but love it. I mean “The Last Supper” recreated by birds? I’ll pay $800 for that. This was followed by Parsons’ best part of the night, which was surprisingly also his most Sheldon-like character, where he played a man known as The Dance Floor Killer. He basically shows up on popular dance shows on the ’80s and ’90s and stares at people dancing around him that he plans on killing. It’s Parsons’ stillness that makes this one eery, but also a winner.
With the Oscars this weekend, SNL made it a huge part of their night. The best use was of an Oscar profile for the casting process of 12 Years a Slave. Brooks Wheelan and Mike O’Brien are expectedly nervous about improvising with the script, but I must admit, the highlight was Kenan Thompson’s perfect Steve McQueen impression. Also, this was the second mention of 12 Years a Slave joke of the night, yet no mention of Taran Killam’s role in the film? For shame.
But regardless of the episode’s writing, you still got Beck! Showing up for his seventh time, Beck always makes the most of his performances. Remember the time he set up a fake Italian dinner for “Clap Hands?” His first song “Blue Moon” was gorgeous and featuring Father John Misty in the background. (Misty joins Kendrick Lamar on the list of fantastic musical guests who have just sort of popped up this season.) His second song, “Wave,” featured a beautiful string orchestra accompaniment. No wonder Beck is one of the few musical acts in the Five-Timers Club.
Weekend Update gave us our first glimpse of Colin Jost, who understandably hasn’t found his groove yet. It feels like Cecily Strong is still trying to get a handle on it, so finding what dynamic works between these two needs to happen soon. Jost’s first appearance behind the desk, he was joined by some strong guests. First, Thompson and Jay Pharaoh as Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal, who are more fun at just making each other laugh than actually doing their impressions. Then came Killam’s Jebediah Atkinson, who has already become one of the better guests. Most of that comes from Killam’s reactions, like when he throws a card in a peculiar way that takes him by surprise, or his frustration with the audience. But c’mon, you brought him out to talk about Oscar films and still no mention of his role in 12 Years a Slave? I’m so disappointed in you SNL.
From here though, things got particularly bad. A murder mystery dinner had Parsons playing a weirdo against his will that never quite worked. The return of Spotlightz, this time taking on Oscar films, didn’t work quite as well as the first time. Vanessa Bayer’s delivery still is right on in that incredibly awkward child actor way, but it is already diminishing returns.
The last two skits just seemed to drag on really dumb ideas without ever going anywhere particularly funny. In one, Parsons plays a boss on a elevator trying to cover up that he pooped his pants out of fear earlier in the day, and the second, he plays a cowboy trying to plan a surprise party. Neither goes anywhere, and neither knows how to end.
I wish Parsons would’ve been given stronger material to bust out of that Sheldon mold, especially given the long break, but sometimes like Urkel and the Fonz, you might be stuck in that role. Here’s hoping Lena Dunham gets some better stuff to work with next week.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter. Jim Parsons will always just be a fast-food knight to him.