Saturday Night Live: “Dakota Johnson/Alabama Shakes” (Episode 40.14)

Comedy Reviews Saturday Night Live
Saturday Night Live: “Dakota Johnson/Alabama Shakes” (Episode 40.14)

Dakota Johnson’s Saturday Night Live debut may not have been as momentous as mom Melanie Griffith’s when she hosted the Christmas show in 1988 (apparently, ex-husband Don Johnson proposed after the show that night, Melanie accepted, and the two got busy making Dakota Johnson), but the Fifty Shades of Grey star at least held her own in a mostly bleak episode. SNL lost its swagger when Head Writer and Weekend Update anchor Seth Meyers left halfway through last season, and though the show manages to find its footing from time to time—most often with bravura core cast performances or guest host star turns—it was not to be the case this week. With Weekend Update now in full, cringe-inducing free-fall, the show seems rudderless, lost, in a panic.

“Giuliani Cold Open” may have been the night’s strongest sketch, ably goofing on “America’s Mayor” and his recent Obama bashing by turning him into Michael Keaton’s desperate actor Riggan Thomson from Oscar-winning Birdman. Taran Killam’s performance is less Giuliani, more Keaton, but the piece succeeds anyway. It’s ambitious, involving complex blocking and multi-layered satire. And it ends up working pretty well. For a moment, the ghosts of SNL Past who lit up 8H two weeks ago are back.

Followed by Dakota Johnson’s serviceable opening monologue, there is the sense that the season’s shortcomings may have, in fact, been cured by exposure to the 40th Anniversary Special, which reminded us why those of us who do, still watch Saturday Night Live. But…the evening’s first ISIS joke, pre-tape “Father Daughter Ad,” lands with a dull thud. Cecily Strong’s Cathy Anne returns, again force-fit into a fractured fairy tale premise (“Cinderella”). We are reminded that SNL40 is a show in the midst of a comedy identity crisis.

Three slight sketches follow, each with interesting moments, but no knock out punches: “Say What You Wanna Say,” an ode to awkward social confrontations is a funnier send up of Sara Bareilles-style inspiration vagaries than polite social graces; “Press Junket” gives us a terrific new Kyle Mooney adolescent; and “I Can’t” delivers literally twenty seconds of laughs. But leave it to a surprisingly lackluster musical guest and dead weight Weekend Update to kill any sense of momentum.

Two years ago, Alabama Shakes gave a career-making performance of “Hold On” on SNL. For many of us, it was the first time we saw the awe-inspiring Brittany Howard perform life, and it was a revelation. “Don’t Wanna Fight” and “Gimme All Your Love” may be fine songs, but neither tune brings the kind of musical energy a Saturday Night Live performance requires. Musicians have to bring more than earnest virtuosity to their performances—they have to deliver a terrific pop song, something so singable, danceable and/or fun that you want to go out about buy the album. You know, like we all did two years ago when the band played “Hold On.” That didn’t happen this time. Even worse, it stopped the momentum of a fading episode dead in its tracks.

So now Che’s actually quipping that Jost’s jokes aren’t funny on air. That pretty much sums up the slow motion disaster that is Weekend Update this season. No amount of Kate McKinnon (as a taunting Ruth Bader Ginsburg) or Jay Pharoah (as a “contrite” Kanye) or Bobby Moynihan (back as Che’s high school homie Riblet) can distract us from the piss-poor joke writing and stunted performances. Update was once a valid, stand-up comedy oasis. Now, the segment is sloppy, sweaty and desperate. Please Lorne Michaels, make it go away.

A tribute to the just passed Leonard Nimoy is nice, but how is Kenan Thompson’s Next Generation-cosplaying surgeon a tribute to Mr. Spock (“Emergency Room”)? I’m no Trekker, but isn’t putting Worf in a Spock tribute sketch a major geek faux pas? After this is a sketch called “Net Neutrality” that completely bypasses a ripe opportunity for political satire, choosing instead to make fun of computer nerds. Both sketches should have been cut at dress rehearsal.

At least we get “Mr. Riot Films” from Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett for suffering through the last 2/3 of the episode. Ostensibly a do-gooder viral video by two clueless teens, “Mr. Riot Films” is another gem for Beck and Kyle’s season 40 bizarre show reel of pre-tapes. The gonzo spirit of a fake prank show animates this offering, which is, ultimately, the episode’s best moment. But it should have been on earlier in the evening. The show was dead in the water a full hour before it aired.

Saturday Night Live has been disappointing before, and it will be disappointing again. Risk and failure is built into the show’s process. Still, it is aggravating to watch a talented cast founder under a lack of clear comedic vision and leadership in the writing room. There are a few current cast members vying for the season’s most valuable player (McKinnon, Mooney, Strong come to mind), but there’s only one Featured Player, head writer and Weekend Update co-host running away with the least valuable player award for SNL40. It’d be rude to call him out, I suppose, but his name rhymes with Colin Jost.

SNL NEXT: (3/7/15): Chris Hemsworth with Zac Brown Band

Chris White writes and directs independent feature films. His latest, a showbiz comedy about looking for Bill Murray, is called Cinema Purgatorio. Follow Chris on Twitter.

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