The questions isn”t whether Dwayne Johnson will be a good host (since he excelled during his first two times in Studio 8H), but whether or not “Saturday Night Live” can finally start regaining some of the momentum that propelled it through its Fall run. That was possibly the strongest stretch during my five years covering the show here at HitFix, but 2015 has been marked by less-than-stellar episodes and a less-than-ideal production schedule. As such, “SNL” has been spotty both in terms of quality and production. But maybe tonight will be a turning point as the show heads into this season”s home stretch.
As always, I”ll be liveblogging each segment in real time. I”ll give that segment a grade. I highly encourage you to not stress too much about the grades. The Rock Obama will get angry if you stress about the grades. See you at 11:30 pm EST when things kick off properly.
Cold Open: The Rock Obama: President Obama has had enough with Republican interference near the end of his second term, so it”s time for The Rock Obama to return. Well, they wasted no time with this one. It”s essentially just Johnson throwing people out of windows, but it”s a crowd-pleaser all the same. The big difference this time around? First Lady Michelle Obama (Sasheer Zamata) gets her own version of an alter-ego in the form of She-Rock Obama (in the form of Leslie Jones). Hey, remember when host Kerry Washington had to leave the stage in order for “SNL” to portray multiple African-Americans in the same sketch? Those were bad times. These? These are good times. [Grade: B]
Monologue: Johnson is one episode away from The Five-Timers Club. Feast on that for a second. He says he is “Franchise Viagra,” and has a song to prove his point. (I”d watch “Zero Dark Thirty-One, in which Johnson kills Saddam Hussein”s ghost.) It”s a fun idea, but the song itself isn”t particularly catchy. It sounds like an outtake from the Lawrence Welk sketches. But anytime a Stephen Hawking-esque voice spits out The Rock”s signature catchphrase, I can”t get THAT angry. [Grade: B-]
Pep Boys Dialogue: Inspired by Starbucks, the car repair franchise asks its employees to talk about gender and sexuality topics with its customers. This had the potential to be a complete homerun and yet ended up an infield single. The idea is brilliant, but the execution feels like a tepid first pass. Here”s the kind of premise that a show like “Inside Amy Schumer” or “Broad City” would absolutely nail within their respective comedic universes. Oh well. Maybe we'll see those versions in the near future. [Grade: C-]
Wrestlemania Promo: I refuse to believe Dawyne Johnson can give a bad promo. This defies logic. And yet, here we are. (“You can”t have sex with anyone without a TALK first!”) It turns out that Johnson”s wrestler hired a private investigator to dig into his opponent”s real-world past, which is a brilliant idea. But unlike in “Pep Boys,” the quality of execution matches the quality of premise. (“That”s right…I catfished your ass!” “That”s so intricate!”) Also, for some reason, Taran Killam as a modern-day, smartphone-obsessed “Mean” Gene Okerlund clone absolutely kills me. This is easily going to end up in my ten favorite sketches of the season. Totally brilliant from start-to-finish, with an ever-increasing escalation of insanity. [Grade: A]
Bambi: Here”s the latest real-world adaptation of an animated classic, filtered through the “Fast And Furious” prism. More like “Fast and The Furry-ious,” amirite? Sorry. I”m not proud of me either. Not much here past the initial gag (though the “Deer Xing” joke was pretty good), but it”s a great initial gag that didn”t overstay its welcome. [Grade: B]
Anniversary: Johnson as “The Situation dating what seems like Victoria Beckham”s stunt double” gives it his all here as a man who runs into someone from jury duty and subsequently ruins their anniversary dinner. Seriously, if Johnson hosted every year, I wouldn”t mind. Nor would the crowd, who absolutely LOVES his character here. His chemistry with Cecily Strong, especially during the “Banana” song, is off the charts. This took a while to really rev up, but Johnson”s confidence and charisma carried this sketch through its initial rough patches. [Grade: B]
Escape From Jungle Island: You see, it's funny, because it's dudes being intimate. Because in 2015, this in and of itself is somehow supposed to be funny as opposed to lazy at best and ignorant at worst. [Grade: F]
Brogaine: The one-letter switch isn”t particularly funny, and I”m about done with the Bennett/Mooney mumblecore at this point. They can do more than this, and yet so rarely do lately. [Grade: D]
Weekend Update: My future second wife, Olya Povlatsky, appears to talk about the resurgence of the Russian ruble. Naturally, she spends most of her segment complaining about her life via slightly outdated pop culture references. (“We can”t spend the money, because like Kelly Rowland, we just don”t have it!”) Later, Michael Che”s optimistic neighbor Willie stops by to celebrate Spring. Unfortunately, Willie gave all his money to a con man, so now he”s homeless and sharing memories of his father”s plot to kill Mickey Mantle. The Colin Jost/Michael Che interactions inspired by the Starbucks RaceTogether campaign had promise, but ended way too early. For being real-life friends, they seem oddly reluctant to show that chemistry onscreen. However, Jost”s takedown of the opening credits to “The Jinx” was damn brilliant and potentially paves the way for him to find a signature voice on the show. [Grade: B]
Cooking With Paul: Paul”s a sex offender who inexplicably has a cooking show and an inability to stay off the internet. Unlike Will Forte”s sketches involving sex offenders, this one is oddly cuddly, which I don”t think was the intent. But it gives off an even creepier vibe, which stunted any possibility of dark humor here. Johnson nearly breaks several times at Kenan Thompson”s line readings, but this is a misfire from moment one. Man, when tonight's episode is bad, it's REALLY bad. [Grade: D+]
Improv Tonight: Robert Durst (Kate McKinnon) gets called up during an improv show and shares disturbing facts about his life. And then…the sketch ends. I get that Durst isn”t exactly the best source of comedy, but this felt like “SNL” did a sketch based on “The Jinx” because that”s what people were talking about during the recent hiatus and not because it had anything particular it wanted to say about it. I wouldn”t be surprised to learn this was twice as long at dress and got slashed for broadcast. And while it's far from unprecedented, it was odd not to have Johnson even in this sketch at all, especially since he's been tonight's MVP. [Grade: C-]
Interrogation: Vanessa Bayer and Johnson play “Good Cop, Bad Metaphor Cop” to Taran Killam”s criminal. (“Your glass of water is in the garbage can, which is also where your house is!”) Once again, Johnson has energy to spare, even if he trips over the lyrics to the theme song from “Friends.” This episode is a lot like the season itself: Really strong first half and then a subpar second one. The sketch itself wasn”t good nor bad. It simply was. Only Johnson's constant praise of his partner's boyfriend Jeff made me chuckle at all. [Grade: C]
Circus: Kyle Mooney”s awkward interviewer is back, this time under the big top. While I”m not into Mooney/Bennett playing awkward with each other, this variation of Awkward Mooney works because of the unscripted aspects and Mooney”s innocence. He”s never trying to make anyone look bad. If anything, he”s fine being the butt of the joke. (“I'd like to think we”re all rooting for you.” “I doubt that.”) The father who gets increasingly angry with his son for not having a particular favorite part of the circus almost tips this into an uncomfortable place, but it”s also what gives the segment some bite. Another ten seconds of that interaction would have been too much, but Mooney pulls back at just the right time. [Grade: B]
Best Sketch: Wrestlemania Promo
Worst Sketch: Escape From Jungle Island
How Was George Ezra? I feel bad, in that “Budapest” is a catchy song that also makes me want to drive into incoming traffic. But that”s on me, not George. “Blame It On Me” suggests my problem is with that song and not with Ezra.
Next Week: Michael Keaton and Carly Rae Jepsen
What did everyone else think?