Saturday Night Live’s 41st season is likely to be remembered as a transitional year where no actual transformation happened. Not arriving…not really even trying to…has become SNL’s most defining characteristic this season. Off-balance shows, hit-and-miss writing, a cast that’s never quite jelled—these are telltale signs that the middle-aged show doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be anymore.
Bringing in actor Peter Dinklage to host seems like a season-defining, course-correcting move. Before being enveloped in George R.R. Martin’s sword and dragon fantasy world, Dinklage was one of indie cinema’s most reliably amazing leading men. And still, at least to some extent, he steps into Saturday Night Live with the kind of hard-won actor street cred that is rare in the show’s guest host history.
Peter Dinklage is an artist. And by choosing him to host, Saturday Night Live tees up for greatness. Unfortunately, he’s given a bevy of dick jokes to tell…which ultimately diminish both him and the show.
Once again, the running order of the episode’s sketches seems off. The evening’s strongest material is buried post-Weekend Update, late in show, while far less successful sketches take the top slots. “Winnie the Pooh” is mid-show funny, while “Undersea Hotel” is top-of-the-show funny. (“Trendy Restaurant” is just not funny.)
The result is another completely forgettable SNL—one or two bright spots, but mostly not worth the watch.
A bright spot: cast member Taran Killam, who has elevated his game this season. To date, Killam has mostly existed to fill the classic, SNL bland white guy spot (i.e. Jason Sudekis, Kevin Nealon). But Killam is better than that. He’s a strong actor. He’s got great physical comedy chops. Sure he still plays all the bland white guys, but he’s also pushing, creating new and surprising characters.
Killam brings life to a dead body floating in a coral reef outside of an aquarium-style resort window in “Undersea Hotel.” He stretches a thin premise to its limits, playing pitch-perfect off Dinklage’s narcissistic rage in “Corporate Magic Show.” He shines impersonating Iain Glen in “Game of Thrones Sneak Peek” and Christopher Robin in “Winnie the Pooh.” Not to mention, he turns in an excellent bland white guy in “Vacation Nightmares.” Killam is all over the episode, and every time he shows up, he makes things better.
Similarly, Kenan Thompson’s David Ortiz is on fire sharing his post-retirement plans on Weekend Update. Thompson’s happy-go-lucky Dominican slugger is one of his best, most enduring creations. And the writing behind these appearances continues to be exceptional. Another bright spot.
But oh…oh Leslie Jones. Who doesn’t want to like a woman who, when Saturday Night Live’s first cast her, was the show’s oldest hire at age 47? But man. Why does the show insist on making a cartoon out of this woman? As we see (again) in “Naked & Afraid: Celebrity Edition,” the funniest thing anyone at SNL can come up with for this remarkable talent is big, loud and horny. Seriously, it’s getting offensive. (All the while Kate and Aidy are given seriously hilarious turns as reality TV re-enactors in “Vacation Nightmares.”)
But not nearly as offensive as “Trendy Restaurant” where the baguettes are served through glory holes and gobbled up by hip New York gourmets. The offense here isn’t in the crude and juvenile sexual content (okay, when Beck Bennett drops trou and bends over at the end…yeah, that was pretty offensive). No, the most offensive aspect of this lame sketch is that it’s so unimagined, lazy, slapped-together. Does nobody realize that Peter Dinklage is standing there watching this embarrassment? Oh. I guess they do. The script they wrote for him has him licking butter off a pumpernickel baguette.
So Gwen Stefani’s back. Had anyone really missed her? She certainly does a serviceable job performing the completely inoffensive “Make Me Like You” and “Misery”—and I suppose it should be noted that while Stefani hits all the prototypical pop princess notes, she also demonstrates what a seasoned performer can bring to forgettable pop music: precision. But still. Like Saturday Night Live, Stefani the pop singer doesn’t quite make sense anymore. Who is this singer/show for? What does this singer/show have to offer to the culture at large?
Perhaps Saturday Night Live can amble on into it’s golden years as a kind of comedy talent lab…in effect, a content training camp for future TV actors and writers. I think we’d all be okay with that, right? If SNL can spawn more Conan O’Briens and 30 Rocks and Parks and Recs and Documentary Nows it may actually be worth year after forgettable year of “live from New York its Saturday Nights.”
NEXT WEEK: Russell Crowe and Margo Price
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.