There are times when you can reasonably guess the quality of an episode of “Saturday Night Live” by the host. It doesn”t yield a particularly reliable prediction of what unfolds, but it”s a fairly good rule of thumb all the same. Christina Applegate hosting? One could reasonably assume a solid show. Daniel Craig? One could reasonably assume a shaky show. Neither assumption directly related to the result, but expectations were raised or lowered accordingly ahead of time. But with a host like Bruno Mars? All bets are off. It could be the best show of the season thus far. Or the worst. Or somewhere in the middle. Anything is possible, which is both thrilling and terrifying. Mars” musical chops are known. His comedic chops? Far more unproven. But hey, Eli Manning was also unproven, and he led one of last season”s strongest episodes. So let”s err on the side of optimism until proven otherwise.
As always, I”ll be rating the sketches in real time. As always, you”ll be doing a Google search to discover where I live so you can bring the pitchforks to my place of residence rather than the comments section. Why mess with success?
Presidential Town Hall: Aidy Bryant sighting right away! After an episode that featured nary a Bryant sighting, she leads things off as Candy Crowley. Rather than take direct aim at the candidates, this sketch chooses to mock those asking the questions from the audience. Jason Sudeikis and Jay Pharaoh have great energy in their interactions, but it”s a fairly childish take on their testy interactions during the debate this past week. Kate McKinnon gritting her teeth together in near-mad ecstasy is always good for a laugh, but mocking Long Island residents over the candidates themselves seems like weak sauce. When the sketch goes after Obama and Romney (such as during the question about assault rifles), it finally gets some teeth. But it”s too little, too late. Adding Tom Hanks to the mix feel like a way to distract from the meandering quality of the sketch rather than an exclamation point to a strong cold open. As for Pharaoh”s sketch-ending mic drop, it plays like fanfic versus actual political analysis. [Grade: C]
Monologue: “I have no acting experience at all, not even a shampoo commercial,” says Mars, who wonders if he should even be hosting at all. (We wonder as well!) The show instantly puts a microphone in Mars” hand to croon a song about his lack of qualifications for the hosting job. Well, it”s best for the show to address the elephant in the room rather than pretend it doesn”t exist. Early fears on Bruno”s part give way to confidence in his own abilities, but his stage skills were never in question. As entertaining as this monologue performance is, we don”t get a sense of how he”ll function inside a sketch. Still, credit where credit”s due: Nailing a musical monologue isn”t a given, even with someone of Mars” skill. [Grade: A-]
Brad Pitt For Chanel: Taran Killam brings back his fantastic Pitt impression to re-enact the crazy fragrance commercials featuring Mr. Moneyball himself. It”s over before it starts, which either means the show had the good sense to cut things short or has a series of increasingly incoherent pieces lined up to sprinkle throughout the episode. There”s almost nothing to grade here, so I”ll balance quality of impression versus actual content and move on. [Grade: B-]
Haters: BobbyMoynihan in drag? Sign me up. Mars soon joins the drag party as Moynihan”s daughter. Cecily Strong”s increased presence on the show as a whole lands her the hosting gig in the first post-monologue sketch. Tim Robinson appears as a psychologist trying to help the mother-daughter duo, but after he joins in the persistent butt-wiggling onstage…the sketch just ends. That was totally strange. Apparently the writers got as far as “audience boos bootyshaking” and then stopped, thinking that was solid premise for a sketch. They…they were incorrect. There was the kernel of a good segment here, and I definitely looked forward to see its second phase. But that phase simply never came. [Grade: C-]
Brad Pitt For Chanel, II: Called it! Here”s another short take on the Chanel commercials, this time switching gears and having Pitt push Taco Bell products. Hearing Killam say “Dorito Taco Loco” alone justifies the repetition. But there”s so little meat on the bone (with or without a Doritos shell encasing it) that it”s hard to give these a particularly high grade. [Grade: B-]
Pandora Headquarters: A power outage leaves the service unable to stream its Green Day station with Billie Joe Armstrong”s vocals. So leave it to Mars” intern to provide vocal accompaniment live to backing tracks while the generators reboot. After that, he impersonates Aerosmith”s Steven Tyler, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, Louis Armstrong, and Michael Jackson. The crowd eats up each vocal performance, and with good reason. A series of musical-based sketches isn”t the best way to stretch his comedic horizons, but why try to stretch horizons if you can keep putting the host into his or her wheelhouse? This is karaoke more than actual sketch, but it”s very entertaining all the same. Sudeikis” incredulous reactions to the listener who keeps skipping Michael Jackson songs is a comedic highlight, but Mars” energy and vocal range is the showcase here. How will he top this when it comes time to perform his own music later? [Grade: A-]
Sad Mouse: This is the most “Digital Short”-esque thing that “SNL” has produced this season so far, even if it has the tinge of a “Louie” episode. (Maybe that comparison rings true after the show announced tonight that Louis C.K. will be hosting the show in November.) It”s dark, weird, beautifully shot, and kind of hypnotic. It even tells a coherent story from start to finish, something that Lonely Island-produced sketches never concerned themselves with achieving. Having the titular mouse find companionship with an equally-grieving woman in a lizard costume was actually touching. This short established a unique tone from minute one and carried it through all the way to the finish. It felt unique unto itself, and felt like a new flavor for “SNL” as a whole. I can see this short film dividing people, but I loved it. “Sad Mouse” took a chance and hit a home run. More of this risk-taking, please. [Grade: A]
Mars takes the stage with his extremely energetic band to perform “Locked Out Of Paradise”. The verses are far more hook-laden than the chorus, but it”s also possible that the song doesn”t completely connect with me because this song hasn”t been drilled into my skull like every Bruno Mars single from his first record. It”s a good song, but nothing instantly as earworm-y as “Just The Way You Are”. That”s hardly a crime, mind you. The biggest takeaway here? Either Mars” band is super tall or he”s a Hobbit. When they all line up together, he looks four feet tall. [Grade: B]
Weekend Update: Seth Meyers talks up some “Debate Do”s And Don”ts” for the upcoming third and final showdown. Calling the Winter Olympics “48 different kinds of sliding” is harsh, but wow, kinda accurate! Still, let”s get to the good stuff, y”all: STEFON IN THE HOUSE! He”s back to talk about Halloween joy in the Big Apple. He gets a hero”s welcome from the crowd. After weeks in which Bill Hader has been on the periphery, it”s great to see him back in the forefront. Also? I really wanna meet his dog, Bark Ruffalo. I”d love to know why “Sidney Applebaum” made Hader crack up so much, but then again, maybe I don”t. Hader and Meyers going back and forth about the nickname “Slimer” is great, but overall, this wasn”t an iconic Stefon installment. Funny? Yes. It”s not that the rose is off this character. It just didn”t enter into its usual state of comedic transcendence. [Grade: B]
The Merryville Brothers: You know what? If you rent Tom Hanks, you get him for the whole night. This sketch is all about the execution of the animatronics, and Mars fits in well with the crisp physicalization of Killam and Hader. The verbal interactions between Pharaoah and Vanessa Bayer are boiler-plate for this recurring sketch, but they are also besides the point. This is all about the Merryville Brothers creeping me out and haunting my dreams for weeks to come. And given that this is the last episode before Halloween, I”m OK with that. I”m less OK with Hanks trying to cop a feel, but maybe this is just foreshadowing for “Cloud Atlas”. [Grade: B+]
Brad Pitt For Chanel, III: Forget what I said about The Merryville Brothers haunting my dreams. Now the idea of dogs wearing condoms will. What. The. Hell. [Grade: C+]
Wilderness Lodge: Here”s a tonally bizarre sketch that took far too long to get going, and then couldn”t really live up to the darkness of its premise. I”m not sure at one point basing a sketch around Yeti sexual molestation seemed like a good idea, but this made it to air regardless. I”m assuming Bill Hader”s creepy, crazed employee had a lot to do with it making the episode, but it did nothing to overcome Mars” wasted manager, the never-funny stares at the camera, or the wasted Sudeikis and Bayer, who barely got time to act as the straight men to Hader”s lunatic. This must have played much better in the dress rehearsal, as it”s hard otherwise to understand how this became one of only five (five!) live sketches to air thus far. [Grade: C-]
Brad Pitt For Chanel, IV: I”m guessing the Dr. Zizmor gag played better to those in New York that are familiar with what I assume is a real advertisement in MAT terminals. Otherwise, I”m really hoping this is the last iteration of this tonight. [Grade: C-]
Stefon introduces Bruno Mars back to the stage, where he performs “Young Girls”. It”s a gorgeous ballad, one that connects in ways that “Locked Out Of Heaven” simply didn”t. Part of this could have to do with the sound mix tonight, which favors the sparse, simple arrangement of “Girls” over the complex, overlayed “Paradise”. It feels like Mars can write these types of songs in his sleep, but that”s a tribute to his craftsmanship rather than a swipe at him being derivative. [Grade: A-]
Donkey Punch The Ballot: Well, I”ll take any Nasim Pedrad I can take, even if it”s in the last sketch of the night that happens to be preproduced. Did you know Ass Dan had a brother, Butt Dave? Now you do, right after they both died. Again. A lot of the political-based jokes fall flat, but the idea of restaging the Lincoln-Douglas debated with Linkin Park and Buster Douglas is pretty inspired. Another highlight? Using Apple Maps as a festival guide to ensure maximum confusion. I enjoy these “Under-Underground Records” bits, but I still can”t get over the fact that “SNL” only produced five live sketches tonight (in addition to monologue and “Update”). That feels wrong. Or, more accurately, it feels like the last show in an uninterrupted three-week stretch. [Grade: B]
Best Sketch: “Sad Mouse”
Worst Sketch: “Wilderness Lodge”
Biggest Surprise: That Tom Hanks showed up, and was a distraction more than an asset. Look, Hanks is a legend, and rightly so. Atop his film career, he has a long, illustrious career hosting “SNL”. And if he wanted to come back to play, I understand why the show inserted him when possible. But his presence only served to distract from Mars, who did a more than commendable job hosting. Plenty tonight failed to work, but little was his direct fault. I didn”t enjoy “Haters” or “Wilderness Lodge”, but those had writing problems, not host problems. While the show itself ended up being middle-of-the-road, the show”s choice in picking Mars to host seems justified after seeing his performance. The show learned from its mistakes with Daniel Craig. Rather than crowbar hosts into spaces that aren”t in their respective wheelhouses, why not cater to their strengths?
What did you think about Bruno Mars” hosting job tonight? Did the lack of live sketches bother you, or is it about quality of material regardless of its timing? Did “Sad Mouse” feel like a bold step for the show, or feel too separated from the rest of the program? Sound off below!