Athletes and “Saturday Night Live.” They don”t go together exactly like oil and water, but they don”t exactly mix, either. And while Eli Manning has proven himself on the field (as much as it pains this Patriots fan to acknowledge that), there”s no proof he has the ability to even perform competently in a pre-recorded piece, nevermind live onstage. But who knows? Maybe tonight will be as improbable the Helmet Catch that has haunted my dreams for the past five years. More likely? Rihanna will look amazing and perform the third act of the “Shy Ronnie” trilogy. That will be something. But will it be enough? Only one way to find out!
Fox and Friends: We start out with a catch-up sketch, touching on some of the topics that have unfolded since last the show was on the air. The anniversary of Osama bin Laden”s death, Hologram Tupac, and developments in the Rupert Murdoch scandal are all covered. It feels very much like “Weekend Update” dressed up as a sketch, with only a suggestion to have the Ghostbusters capture Tupac”s image actually eliciting laughs. As always, the best part of “Fox and Friends” is the “Corrections” segment, which quickly apologizes for earlier remarks by assuring viewers that “Mormons breath air” and “Nowhere in the Bible does it mention Garth Brooks or Chris Gaines.” I”m starting to think “SNL” intentionally stages a lame political sketch before each episode. Why? Only Lorne Michaels knows. [Grade: C]
Monologue: Manning admits that he”s a bit out of his element, but also feels like he”s finally a true New York citizen at this point. He offers up advice to tourists in the audience about having an authentic “New York” experience. And know what? He”s not bad! He”s reading the cue cards as if taking his eyes off them will result in the murder of his entire family, but it”s hardly the train wreck I expected. If ever there was a time to bring on half the cast in order to make him feel less exposed, this was it. But he acquitted himself well. God, that physically pains me to say that. C”mon, McGee, you can do this! Be strong! Be professional! [Grade: B]
Mother”s Day Gift: I should have seen the “Fifty Shades of Grey” joke coming, but lo and behold, it surprised me as much as the men in this commercial. Each iteration was great: the mother in bed with her “microphone,” the woman in the bath wielding the rubber cleaning gloves, and the grandmother washing clothes with both the book AND a picture of Joel McHale were all fantastic. (“No, it”s your dad. Get out!”) Here”s a digital short that probably won”t age well, but will definitely be one of the most played clips online over the next week. [Grade: A-]
Madden Motion Capture: Normally, sketches like this grow weaker as they grow longer. It”s essentially a one-note joke–Eli Manning is incapable of performing a touchdown dance in the motion capture studio–but it”s helped by the fact that they last few variations were by FAR the best ones. Having him drink water? Boring. Have him throw a grenade like a scared infant? Brilliant. His line reading of “That”s how I throw a grenade!” was actually perfect. I don”t know what it means that his pantomime of eating a sandwich he accidentally dropped on the ground made me laugh out loud. Maybe I”ve gone insane. It”s entirely possible. This wasn”t a top-to-bottom winner, but “SNL” really avoided a crash-and-burn sketch here all the same. [Grade: B]
Bananagram Murder Trial: That”s not what this sketch is called. But boy, it tickles me all the same to type it. The first third of this sketch was a slow build to the inevitable punchlines, but also served the purpose of establishing the back-and-forth rhythms between Jason Sudeikis” lawyer and Manning”s accused murderer. Manning certainly seems game for anything tonight, and that lack of hubris yields a character who isn”t a murderer but certainly is a sad, lonely, horny man. Having him essentially spit his monosyllabic responses into the microphone certainly helped punch up the jokes, and his willingness to try and actually recreate emoticons with his face didn”t hurt either. Not every joke worked, but far more landed than missed. I”m sure this is the low expectations talking, but this has been a pretty solid show so far. [Grade: B]
Little Brothers: Here”s the spiritual sequel to Peyton Manning”s “United Way” promo from 2007, with the twist that Eli”s charity also helps him work out some of the demons that have come from being the former”s little brother. (Dude, you have twice as many Super Bowl rings now. I think you”ve won at life at this point.) Having that personal edge makes this more than just a mere retread, and also gets Andy Samberg to stand in for the worst punishment doled out. (“My name isn”t Peyton!” “Whatever!”) Maybe Little Brothers can battle Chang”s Youth Army over on “Community” at some point during sweeps? [Grade: B+]
WXPD News: Herb! He”s back! He”s covering the newest batch of “Occupy New York” protests, with Manning as one of the organizers on the ground. Whereas most of these sketches have an oddly endearing quality to them, this one is just…mean. As such, there is a near-constant edge to the sketch that really kept the in-house audience at arm”s length. Most of Welch”s insults depict him as a man from another time and place, which makes lines like “Go work on your website!” funny. But his repeatedly racist remarks to his female anchor went beyond funny to simply being offensive for offensive sake. It didn”t help this sketch that the OWS protestors were as generic as possible. Oh well. Can”t win ’em all. [Grade: C-]
Rihanna is onstage, and she apparently wants to turn off the dark with this performance of “Talk That Talk.” Whatever you might think of the song…this is some seriously great production design. I want to talk about the design since the song isn”t one of her strongest. At all. It”s forgettable the second it ends, without any musical or lyrical hooks lingering after the fact. But man, those lasers looked cool, huh? [Grade: C]
Sketch: Kristen Wiig (live onstage for the first time tonight) appears as Patricia Krentcil, aka the “Tanning Mom.” She notes there are plenty of men in New Jersey ready to “snap into this Slim Jim.” Usually Seth Meyers doesn”t outright insult his “guests,” even if he”s making fun of them, but comparing her to “a baseball glove” fits in with the rather mean streak of the last fifteen minutes of the show. After that, SachaBaron Cohen makes a surprise appearance in-character as Admiral General Aladeen. QUICK, EVERYONE HIDE RYAN SEACREST. Oops, nevermind, because apparently he”s already kidnapped MartinScorseseand wired his testicles to an electrical current. There”s some great star power onstage, but Lord you can feel the sweat coming off the stage. And not in the good, sexy way.Also? “You”ve Got Mailbomb” isn”t subversive. It”s just dumb. [Grade: B-]
After “Update,” “SNL” aired a short tribute to the late, great Adam Yauch by showing a clip of The Beastie Boys” performance of “Sure Shot” from December 10, 1994.
What Is This?: Huh, here”s a twist: It”s a game show sketch, but Bill Hader isn”t hosting it! Abby Elliot gets the duties this time, and it”s clear why she”s doing so when the game show turns out to be a way for her to determine the status of her relationship with Manning”s contestant. Whereas the Madden sketch earlier gained momentum as it progressed, this one basically ground to a halt about halfway through. That”s too bad, since the premise is pretty fantastic. But the tension deflated instead of escalated throughout its running time. I almost would have preferred a sketch about Hader”s contestant, who called the moon “nighttime sun” and seemed like the craziest dentist this side of “Little Shop of Horrors.” [Grade: B-]
Helga Lately! Wow, is it 12:55 am? Because this is one weird-ass premise for a sketch. I wouldn”t be surprised if this was a character Kate McKinnon brought with her to “SNL”. If you”ve never seen “Chelsea Lately,” this sketch made ABSOLUTELY NO SENSE. For those that HAVE seen “Chelsea Lately,” well, this makes about as much sense as…”Chelsea Lately.” Honestly, through most of this I kept thinking that I was watching a Swedish remake of “Battlestar: Galactica,” since McKinnon looks like a dead ringer for Katee Sackhoff in that wig. I admire the show for trying a foreign-language sketch, but I”m not sure this worked even for those that did understand what it was trying to parody. [Grade: C]
Rihanna returns to the stage, which has been transformed into a Cleopatra-inspired room for “Where Have You Been”. The keyboards during the soaring chorus sound like they were ripped from “Only Girl In the World” to break up the Moroccan-inspired club beat. Rihanna also proves that Shakira”s got a run for her money when it comes to hip shaking. I really enjoy when artists push the limits of what the “SNL” stage can actually do. Even if the music should ultimately matter, this is a case where the staging actually brought out elements of the music that the “normal” set might have not elicited. Here”s a case where the performance definitely increased my overall enjoyment of the song. [Grade: B+]
Illusions: Ooooooh boy. Here”s the type of sketch I feared when I heard Eli Manning might host. The idea of an angry drag pageant contest raising hell is fine. But Manning isn”t the type of performer to actually pull that off. Luckily, the sketch barely started before it ended. Let”s all just pretend this never happened and move on. [Grade: D]
TCM: The Essentials: Cheech and Chong apparently had a third member: Richard. Richard”s a squuuuuaaaaaarrreeeee, maaaaaaaan. Manning is actually pretty great as the wet blanket, but the premise is so poor that even Hader”s excellent Tommy Chong impression can”t salvage this. It”s almost like “SNL” realized they only had an 80-minute show, and prayed that time travel might be invented during its airing in order to skip over the final ten. Sadly, they had to air these last two sketches anyways. Bummer. [Grade: D+]
Best Sketch: Mother”s Day Gift
Worst Sketch: Illusions
Biggest Surprise: Manning was a perfectly competent host, and when the show wrote to his strengths, he was even a good one. Unfortunately, his range was so limited that it in turn limited the number of concepts the show could attempt.
Biggest Surprise #2: That felt like the least amount of onscreen Wiig we”ve seen all year, right? That will surely spark some debate as rumors about casting turnovers linger in the air. But her absence meant much more air time for Bayer, Elliot, and Nasim Pedrad.
Worst Surprise: I have to imagine that Herb Welch sketch played better in dress rehearsal. But on-air, it played a lot like Leslie Knope”s initial stabs at Bobby Newport in last week”s episode of “Parks and Recreation.” The audience just didn”t relate to Herb at all, and even in a three-minute sketch, that matters.
Next Week: Will Ferrell and Usher. Following that, the season finale with Mick Jagger.
What did you make of Manning”s performance? Did he surprise you? If so, in a good or bad way? Did Rihanna”s stagecraft impress or seem like a distraction? Did the star-studded “Update” work for you or feel like promotional pandering? Sound off below!