7.5

Saturday Night Live Review: Blake Shelton (Episode 40.12)

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<i>Saturday Night Live</i> Review: <i>Blake Shelton</i> (Episode 40.12)

With the addition of affable host and musical guest Blake Shelton, Saturday Night Live is putting together one of its most diverse seasons in decades. To date, the show’s host and musical guest list reveals an eclectic mix of both breaking and made celebrity entertainers. This is a risky programming tactic, as it may leave would-be fans scratching their heads. But deep into its fortieth season, these risks are worth taking. Blake Shelton and his band performing red state radio-ready “Neon Lights” may not be your parents’ SNL, but it exhilarates the show. This was the rousing episode Saturday Night Live needed after a few sluggish weeks. Shelton’s presence inspired that.

Which is not to suggest the episode was not without its problems. With the Weekend Update ship mostly righted (assuming co-host Jost leaves the anchor desk to Che next season), SNL needs to turn its attention to the withering Cold Open. The segment has been a cringe-worthy disaster all season long. (Could it be that ripped-from-the-headlines satire is better handled by the daily comedy talk shows?) “Deflategate” is the right topic this week, but the sketch itself coasts along without much form or clear intent. With the exception of Taran Killam’s crack about Aaron Hernandez (“Remember how my former teammate Aaron Hernandez allegedly murdered three people? That seems like a huge story!”), this is yet another limp start to an otherwise solid episode.

Blake Shelton is a pop country superstar and judge for NBC’s The Voice. And he seems to have a good sense of humor about both claims to fame. From his opening monologue tribute to hillbilly comedy classic Hee Haw, to the episode’s final sketch, an offbeat piece called “Magician,” he seems to relish all the self-parody the SNL writing staff dishes out.

In “Farm Hunk,” SNL spoofs the alleged romance of The Bachelor culling through a bevy of desperate female suitors, with Shelton delivering vacant sweet nothings like a champ. As the women grow more desperate—everyone boasting that she is from Hollywood with a background in the porn industry and is fine relocating to Iowa—Shelton is a rock of ambivalence. Perfect.

“Wishin’ Boot” is the night’s best by a mile… and perhaps the best pre-tape of the entire season. A parody of inspirational country ballads (and country music videos), “Wishin’ Boot” gives us Shelton as drugstore cowboy lead singer for a pop country trio with Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon in support. The premise, that in times of need a magical old cowboy boot shows up to lend a hand (“It’s hope in the form of a little ol’ dirty boot.”), is gonzo comic madness. Everything about the piece works beautifully: art direction, costuming, hair and makeup, editing, the players’ acting. But it’s the writing that most impresses. Really, SNL, bylining sketches is way overdue. We want to know who wrote this!

A new Bobby Moynihan character, spotlight-grabbing, mic-dropping boy from the hood Riblet, is worthy of recurring status on Weekend Update. Moynihan’s Drunk Uncle and Anthony Crispino have grown a little stale on the Weekend Update circuit. It’s nice to see something new from the talented performer. Also worth mentioning, Pete Davidson’s return to Adam Sandler-esque form with a confessional monologue about his anxiety about possibly being gay… which he explains would be a disaster for him because he’s not attractive enough to get guys: “I’m a straight five, and a gay one.” (To Jost he adds: “You’re a straight eight, and a gay ten!”)

The episode wanes a little, post-Weekend Update with the serviceable “Parole Board” and one-joke “My Darlin’ Joan,” but Shelton’s second performance of the evening, pop country hit “Boys ‘Round Here,” keeps the show light on its feet, fun.

Fun. In a word, that’s what Blake Shelton brought with him into Studio 8H. And in retrospect, that’s what’s been missing from SNL40. The pressure to deliver a big season with few established cast stars has been palpable since Sarah Silverman’s opening monologue in the season’s first episode. Perhaps, as we cross over into the latter half of the season, a settling has occurred, a confidence. No, this is not your parents’ Saturday Night Live. But it is a pretty fascinating live television comedy experiment, ongoing—still evolving, still stretching, still finding its footing week after week on one of network television’s last big stages.

SNL NEXT WEEK: J.K. Simmons/D’Angelo

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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