After a sturdy if semi-unremarkable season opener, “Saturday Night Live” returns with its second episode of the year with host Joseph Gordon-Levitt, back for his second time hosting the show. Will the star of “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Looper” reference his “3rd Rock From The Sun” days at some point in tonight”s broadcast? Will former “(500) Days of Summer” co-star Zooey Deschanel appear alongside him onstage to help promote the Tuesday return of “New Girl”? And most importantly: will we see five separate sketches based on the film “Premium Rush”, or only four?
There”s only one way to find out, as we watch Gordon-Levitt (who I will refer to from here on out as “JGL”, as “Gordon-Levitt” is just far too long to type out dozens of times tonight) weaves his way through the land of live sketch comedy with musical guests Mumford & Sons along for the ride. As always, I”ll be grading each sketch live as they happen. As always, you”ll be angry with at least half of the grades. Why mess with success? Onto the recap!
Live With Kelly and Michael: The Year Of Pharoah continues! He breaks out his Michael Strahan impression for what I believe is the first time alongside Nasim Pedrad”s Kelly Ripa. Strahan is shocked at his luck. “I can”t believe I got hit in the head for fifteen years while THIS was a job!” he exclaims. The only downside? Ripa is apparently far sturdier that her frail frame suggests. “I am dense as a moon rock,” she notes, before giving Strahan a high five that may require him to seek medical attention. Bill Hader”s Robert Pattinson doesn”t make much of an impact, but that”s fine: Pharaoah and Pedrad have great chemistry in what I think is their first extended onscreen time together. We”ll all be sick of this sketch by March, but its great for now. Ah, I love the smell of “SNL” trying new things in the morning. Well, the late night. You know what I mean. [Grade: B+]
Monologue: JGL is here! And…he”s doing some dancing from “Magic Mike”. Because why not? Soon other cast members join him to strip down to their bare chests. Or, in the case of Bobby Moynihan, strip down to another vest. Did this make any sense? Nope. Was it entertaining? Sure. It was random, but well-executed. JGL has energy to spare, which bodes well for the show. [Grade: B]
The Undecided Voter: The undecided voters of America have questions before casting their ballot. Like, really basic questions such as, “Can women vote?”, “What is oil?”, and “Where”s my power cord?” It”s all silly and fairly one-note, but each cast member sells earnest, smug stupidity to great effect. Now, onto the most pressing issue of the night: If anyone can tell me who the Asian-American actor in this piece was, I”d be interested to learn. I imagine he”s a member of the writing staff, but I don”t know. After railing against the show”s lack of diversity last week, I”m not going to let this man”s presence go unnoticed. In any case, we are looking at a really strong start for the show tonight. [Grade: B+]
The Son Of The Most Interesting Man In The World: “He can make a woman cringe, just by entering the room.” I can”t ever remember seeing two pre-produced sketched sandwiched around the first commercial break. Maybe this happened during the Billy Crystal/Christopher Guest days, during which “SNL” had a overload of canned material. But I can”t recall any recent corollary. In any case, here”s a case of JGL going to the writers” meeting and saying, “I can totally do that Dos Equis guy!” The result? A perfectly harmless but amusing 60-second spot. [Grade: B]
Sam Flint, Private Detective: JGL”s cuckolded husband goes to Hader”s private investigator to learn about his wife”s infidelity from…or so he thinks. Instead, Flint presents the “evidence” in the form of caricatures, which confuses things considerably. What could have been a static, repetitive sketch is saved by 1) a increased variety of cheesy art styles that Flint employs, and 2) the relative brevity of the segment itself. A sketch that knows its proper length is my kind of sketch. Not great, but far better than it might have been on other night. [Grade: B-]
The Son Of The Most Interesting Man In The World II: Oh. Guess this is gonna be a recurring sketch. Thus, more douchey behavior. Yay? And yet, just when I start to write off this series, in comes Jason Sudeikis to save the day. What unfolds is an unsurprisingly angry (yet surprisingly deep) history sketched out between the two men. (“Those are my friends!” “They stole from you!”) What makes it even more disarming is the length of the argument between them, which unfolds over a single take. Fantastic performances by both actors here. And to think: had The Most Interesting Man In The World simply attended one swim meet, his son”s life could have been so much different. [Grade: A-]
The Burgundy Room: JGL is a Vegas hypnotist who picks Taran Killam”s tourist out of the crowd as part of his act. Killam”s tourist plays along and pretends to be actually hypnotizing, either to make the hypnotist feel better or just be a huge jerk. It plays like gangbusters either way, with Killam”s energy playing well against JGL”s pomposity. “I”m not really hypnotized!” he tells Kenan Thompson”s terrified tourist before the former dry humps the latter while wearing only briefs. “Well then SHAME ON YOU!” retorts Thompson. What feels like a cheap last-minute swerve (Killam”s character apparently revealing something against his will) turns into a great final note, as we learn the tourist”s wife enjoys playing the same game as her husband. I”m not sure I”d want to be friends in real life with this couple, but I enjoyed my brief time with them in this sketch. I”d don”t want to curse things, you guys, but “SNL” is putting on a solid show tonight. [Grade: B]
G.O.B.: More pre-produced comedy! This one is for a tampon “…designed with all the knowledge of the female anatomy that only comes from being a 60+ conservative man.” Here”s the type of commercial that would have starred Kristen Wiig one year ago. Now? It”s Vanessa Bayer, and she”s fantastic in the role. Election years tend to bring out the sharpest writing for “SNL”, and this attack on the Republican Convention”s reproductive health care planks is a good way for the program to showcase its political satire skills. There”s plenty of room for sketches like this alongside ones including Obama, Romney, and other notable political figures. In fact, focusing on the private citizens affected by the policies of those public figures can be even more potent when done correctly. [Grade: B]
Mumford & Sons take the stage to perform “I Will Wait.” If you”re not onboard with this band”s vibe already, this song probably won”t change your mind. (It”s not like they suddenly turned to dubstep on their second album or anything.) The most remarkable thing about this band? Lead singer Marcus Mumford always has the exact same expression on his face during live performances, somewhere between “intensely focused” and “quite sleepy”. In terms of songcraft, “I Will Wait” isn”t really on par with “The Cave” or “Little Lion Man”, but there”s a passion to each song the band plays that still comes through regardless of relative quality. Many of you undoubtedly enjoyed this, and just as many of you are thinking that the pop-folk revival can”t end quickly enough. [Grade: B]
Weekend Update: Seth Meyers introduces a new segment, “What Are You Doing?” Meyers asks President Obama why he”s speaking in public at all while Romney”s campaign is in tailspin. He then compares Romney”s campaign to the sixth season of “Lost,” which means Meyers is now dead to me. DEAD I SAY. Afterwards, Bashar Hafez al-Assad”s two best childhood friends (Bayer, Fred Armisen) appear to defend him, because I clearly jinxed the show with my earlier praise and their presence is proof of this. I”m so sorry, you guys. Luckily, Kate McKinnon shows up to stop the tailspin as Ann Romney. She made a wordless appearance in this role on Thursday”s “Weekend Update” special, but here”s her first real crack at the role. Just her pronunciation of “Beyonce” is enough to make me laugh, but there”s layer upon layer to this performance that”s simply astonishing. It”s a star-making performance, one that should definitely raise her profile in the general pop culture consciousness. (On a personal note, can Kate McKinnon please play Katee Sackhoff in a sketch before she leaves the show? Please?) And because this “Weekend Update” will apparently never end, Pharoah appears as ESPN”s Stephen A. Smith to discuss the Marc Sanchez/Tim Tebow controversy. It”s an unsurprisingly uncanny vocal impersonation, but what makes the impression works is Smith”s overly cozy relationship with professional athletes. It”s unclear how many in the crowd actually knew who Stephen A. Smith is, but this ESPN-watching recapper certainly appreciated the veracity of the performance. [Grade: A-]
Four Guys In London: Hey, it”s this sketch! If Sudeikis is indeed leaving in January, he couldn”t very well leave without another iteration of this, one of his signature recurring sketches. The premise is simple: each person in a four-man group tells an increasingly horrifying story that culminates in the chorus of a song being concurrently played. Tonight, we get Mumford & Sons as a cover band performing The Beatles” “You”ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”. What really gives this sketch an energy other iterations lack is the way the ENTIRE BAR seems to sing along with the chorus, giving the proceedings an almost cinematic feel. Yes, I”m talking about “cinematic feel” in regards to an “SNL” sketch. I”m in a darn good mood tonight. Sue me. Only Hader”s Sandusky-related anecdote actually lands as humor, but I”ll give points here for energy if not actual comedy. As for breaking the fourth wall at the end…I could have lived without it, but that was for those in-house, not those at home. (That parade through the crowd could also have been a “goodbye” to this sketch as well.) [Grade: B]
The Finer Things: Pharaoh and Thompson are Sway and Fort Knox, two rappers who explore and extoll the world of hip-hop high fashion. (They also want you to know about their recent mixtape, with songs such as “Champagne, Bentleys, and Quail Hunting”.) JGL plays Jake Thrillah, the fashion designer for their line “Unstankable.” Now, here”s how good the show is tonight. On any other episode, this would be a sketch that would stop the show”s momentum cold. And indeed, the first ninety seconds or so are semi-dire. But then, this sketch has these characters not only name dropping notable designers like Marc Jacobs and Helmut Lang but also providing credible analysis of their recent fashion lines. Their enthusiasm is matched by their knowledge, somehow ennobling both worlds simultaneously. By the time Moynihan”s wine glass charm reporter bemoaned that all-too-frequent moment in which one absentmindedly places his/her glass of Pinot Grigio down at the club, I was fully into the proceedings. (“This one got a tiny lighthouse on it!”) Even I can”t curse this show tonight, apparently, no matter how hard I praise it. [Grade: B+]
Mumford & Sons are back. Um, I”d like more of that funny comedy, please! No? OK, I”ll let you play “Below My Feet” as contractually guaranteed, I suppose. The sparse arrangement puts the group”s tight vocal harmonies at the forefront before the song builds with electric guitars, which adds an extra weight (if not depth) to the chorus. I prefer the quieter moments of the song, even if I appreciate the new tonal color that the electric guitar brings to the band”s material. [Grade: B]
Presenting Evelyn: After being in nearly every sketch last week, Tim Robinson finally makes his first big appearance this week as a man unwittingly set up with his coworker”s daughter. That daughter? JGL, who looks smashing in a sundress/bulging biceps combo. Armisen and McKinnon present their daughter Evelyn with a musical number that careens between pageant fare and dance pop. Sadly, neither version is melodic or funny. Oh well. I guess expecting the show to throw a perfect game was too much. Still, there are some high marks here, especially McKinnon noting that Evelyn was once “hiding inside me” but “now she”s outside me”. Had the words Armisen and McKinnon sang been more consistently clear, this sketch might have gotten a higher grade. But since comprehension was at a minimum, I focused most of my energy during this sketch towards trying to decipher the lyrics of the song. [Grade: C-]
Powers Reality: Have we seen Pedrad since the opening sketch? I don”t think we have. At least we now know she wasn”t kidnapped during the monologue. She and Robinson appear as a married couple to beg people to stop defacing their real estate company”s ads across town. It”s a one-note premise, but the inflections and rhythms that Pedrad employs makes the sketch rise above the semi-turgid premise. (“First of all, no. Second of all, don”t!”) Right after JGL appears as their son/sign vandal, the show abruptly cuts to commercial during what feels like the last line of the sketch. It”s an awkward end to a fairly stellar show. [Grade: C+]
Best Sketch: “Weekend Update”. There were no pure home runs this week, but tons of doubles and triples. While the second iteration of “The Son Of The Most Interesting Man In The World” had the best exchange of the night during that long take, I”ll always give the nod to material delivered live.
Worst Sketch: “Presenting Evelyn”
Biggest Surprise: The show”s consistency. That was one of the strongest top to bottom shows I can remember in a long time. I”ll have to check my old recaps, but this one might have gotten the best overall grades of any episode I”ve covered over the past 2+ years.
Biggest Takeaway: Producing original material with a cast full of stars eager to break out can yield some fascinating and funny results. Nearly everyone in the core cast contributed to the overall effort, with many sketches featuring tandem work that favored collaboration over solo performances. But Kate McKinnon will be what everyone is talking about tomorrow, thanks to her Ann Romney performance during “Update”. Last week”s effort wasn”t bad, but this iteration was far superior in almost every way. Had this episode featured a PTSD-suffering puppet, it might have been perfect.
For still *more* of Ryan McGee’s thoughts on “Saturday Night Live,” check out the Not Yet Ready For Primetime podcast.
What did you think of tonight”s show? Am I overpraising it, or not giving it enough credit? How did JGL do as a host? Did this feel like the start of a new era for the show, or just lucky happenstance? Share your comments below.