Saturday Night Live with host and musical guest Ariana Grande was a risky wager given the current season’s malaise. SNL opened Season 41 with Miley Cyrus attempting a similar double-booking feat, and it was an unmitigated disaster. Selena Gomez was the last pop princess to grace Studio 8H with her presence, and that too was a season low.
But Ariana Grande earns a solid B in her first time hosting the show, and really…none of us should be surprised. Grande got her start in musical theatre and broke through in one of those relentless Nickelodeon kid shows (doesn’t matter which one, you get the idea). Many of our contemporary pop stars come up like this, and by their twenties have more performance swagger than Sinatra did at twice their age.
At the ripe old age of 22, Grande is a showbiz pro, and though Saturday Night Live doesn’t push her too hard, she turns in a fine night of work as host and musical guest.
Saturday Night Live addresses the current race for the White House with more Trump and Bernie and Hillary…as The Totalitarian Boor and The Grouchy Mensch and The Frantic Automaton, respectively. It’s interesting that these impressions of each candidate have not only stuck, but continue to define them. Clichés are trite, but most clichés are true. That’s kind of the point. And no matter your politics, you must admit SNL has captured the feel of each one of these politicians perfectly. With “Carson Endorsement,” “Hillary Campaign Ad” and the first third of Weekend Update, we see these parodies elevated (at times) to satire. And it’s a wonderful thing.
Worth mentioning: Larry David is back as Bernie Sanders. There are plenty of things to parody about Bernie. His disheveled, grumpy old Brooklyn demeanor is only one, though. David’s got that down, but it’s starting to run thin. It would be nice to see SNL dig a little deeper. Still, “I’m not five posts a day great!” and “My message is resonating with a very diverse group of white people” is a fine start.
The episode was worse for its running order. Though “Celebrity Family Feud” never quite fulfilled the promise of its premise, it should have happened earlier in the night. Same goes for “Sound of Music,” the last sketch of the evening (which should have been “Mermaids”). “Kids’ Choice Awards” was a solid piece to kick things off with (post-opening monologue and pre-tape “Hillary Campaign Ad”), but not strong enough to overcome the leaden “This Is Not a Feminist Song.”
Though most of us consume Saturday Night Live in small bits and pieces, days after its live broadcast, the fact that the show still happens live, with a live audience, does contribute to the success of each small part. The show’s running order has been a consistent problem all season. Enough of the right sketches in the wrong places can kill a show. And it certainly held this one back.
“This Is Not a Feminist Song,” a music video satire about modern American women trying to come up with a unifying anthem for their own empowerment, never gets any lift. It’s ultimately crushed under the weight of its over-complicated premise. The idea that women are diverse, that they have trouble agreeing on the political and social goals of feminism…that an inspiring song and video will be just the thing!...there’s something to all that. But successful SNL musical parodies tend to be very simple, very straightforward. Last season’s best sketch was the music video “Wishin’ Boot,” an absurdist country music anthem about a wish-granting cowboy boot—simple as that. The ideas behind “Feminist Song” would have been better dealt with in a sketch.
“Mermaids,” a “tale from the sea” about three sailors who survive a violent storm thanks to the rescue of three magical female sea creatures, is a mid-level, throwback style SNL sketch, elevated by Kate McKinnon’s performance and makeup. To see her “Shud” is to love it. And it’s good to see last year’s breakout star back in fine, character-crafting form.
Here’s what you need to know about Weekend Update: Riblet. If you are a Riblet (Bobby Moynihan) fan, you’re in for a treat. Michael Che’s so-called friend from high school who works at Friendly’s but thinks Che’s job is too easy crashes Update again…this time bigger than ever. But there are those Riblet detractors out there—good people who just can’t stand Bobby’s bluster and bombast. Look. It’s a Riblet world, folks. Look away if you must, but at least give it one more shot before you reject the Rib forever. As for me, I stand with Riblet.
Ariana Grande was mediocre at best performing two forgettable, corporate pop songs: “Dangerous Woman” and “Be Alright.” But let’s not hold it against her or Saturday Night Live. Grande’s opening monologue was spot-on, her entire appeal perfectly captured. Grande is an actress…a stagey comedian-type with a terrific singing voice (re: the cloying “Tidal” sketch). She’s used the corporate pop princess platform to get your attention. And now, with this appearance on SNL, she has it. And it’s clear: her career intentions have very little to do with music. Saturday Night Live recognizes this. That’s why they double-booked her. And all things considered, there’s really no harm in having an Ariana Grande on Broadway or in cheesy network sitcoms. It’s her music that’s banal, not her.
So no, this episode of SNL wasn’t terrible. That deep-felt horror we all felt upon hearing those dreaded words—“Ariana Grande as host and musical guest”—well, it turned out okay. No harm, no foul. Now, if we can just hold our sky-high expectations for Peter Dinklage as host in check…
SNL returns April 2 with Peter Dinklage and Gwen Stefani.
Chris White writes and directs independent feature films. His latest is
a southern gothic comedy starring Patti D’Arbanville and Michael Forest. Follow Chris on Twitter.