It seems like an eternity since the last episode of “Saturday Night Live” aired, but it”s back tonight, with the most beloved member of one of television”s biggest shows as host. Jim Parsons is a semi-unlikely television star, but there are few who don”t know who Sheldon Cooper is at this point, and a large chunk of that goes to Parson”s portrayal of that character. In lesser hands, Sheldon would not be one of the true genuine breakout characters in recent TV history. Tonight, Parsons gets to potentially stretch his wings, in addition to almost undoubtedly delivering “The Big Bang Theory”-related humor as well. Along for the ride is musical act Beck for this, the first show in the post-Seth Meyers Era.
Usually, I liveblog the proceedings, but due to personal reasons, I”m opting for the less taxing task of recapping it after the fact. Things should be back to normal next week, liveblogging-wise. As always, I will be grading each segment individual. As always, most of you will be stunned that these entirely subjective (though internally consistent) grades don”t perfectly coincide with yours. As always, I”ll just sip wine and dance the tango while you lament that a “B” sketch got a “B-“. It”s how I roll.
The Ellen Show: In the world of “Ellen,” the movie “12 Years A Slave” is about her being forced to dance on her talk show. That”s…somehow just as tonally bad as “12 Weeks Not A Slave” in terms of trying to draw comedy from that film. Which is kind of amazing! Also amazing: After nearly a month off, “SNL” opens with a sketch that openly feints away from topicality in favor of dog parks. That is so meta, my teeth hurt. In better news, Parsons makes a pre-monologue appearance as Johnny Weir. Maybe this will make things better…though maybe not. Did you know Weir wore CRAZY outfits at The Olympics? You did? Well, then you know the premise of his appearance. Weir wore crazy outfits at the Olympics. That”s it. Period. Nothing about his fantastically florid analysis, or anything about the defiance behind his outfits. He was just fab, guys, and no context is needed. Yikes. That was the definition of toothless. [Grade: C-]
Monologue: Poor Parsons: He seems terrified. He”s stumbling over nearly every line early on. Luckily, once the musical number “I”m Not That Guy” kicks in, he seems more at home. It helps that other members of the cast come in to help out as other examples of typecast actors like Jaleel White and Jason Alexander. He”s still not particularly comfy onstage, but I”m not watching through my fingers anymore. So, progress? I”m chalking this up to adrenaline versus actual terrors, and assume he”ll calm down. If not…heaven help us. [Grade: C]
Peter Pan Returns: And he brought Tinkerbell”s sister “Tonkerbell” along with him, apparently. She lives in a green-screened world filled with wonder and insults. Meanwhile, Parsons” Peter is looking so directly at the cards that it”s physically upsetting. The crowd is trying to laugh, but even they are already uncomfortable by this debacle. Having Aidy Bryant”s Tonk in a separate set just destroys the chemistry here, since she”s driving the sketch yet isn”t even onstage with the rest of the players. OK, I”ll ask: what the hell is happening? [Grade: D]
The Bird Bible: OK, is it 12:55 am already? This is beyond strange, and appropriate for a much later slot. And yet, maybe because I”m so bummed out by what”s come before, I appreciate having something so left field appear to shake the show from its stupor. Something about the banal line readings by Kate McKinnon and Mike O”Brien just make this work for me. I can see why this would be the least favorite sketch for some tonight. I totally get that. Me? I”m just amazing and impressed it got on at all. [Grade: B]
The Killer Files: This episode”s subject: The Dance Floor Killer. And while Beck Bennett gets hosting duties here, the sketch is really an excuse to show lots of “period” video of programs like “Dance Party USA” and “Soul Train.” Bennett gives this his all, but Parson”s killer is so dour and downbeat that it brings down the pace of the sketch. That”s not on him, but on the premise. It didn”t help that once The Dance Floor Killer”s persona was revealed, the sketch didn”t do a damn thing to vary things up. As with the “Peter Pan” sketch, tonight”s “SNL” features overly complicated set-ups instead of just putting people in a room and letting them bounce off each other in front of a live audience. [Grade: C-]
Oscar Profiles: 12 Years A Slave: A show that has been pressured all year to diversify its cast decides to tackle “12 Years A Slave”…via modern white male guilt. It”s not so much the inherent approach as the execution of it that feels off here. This makes the third time the show has gone to the “12 Years A Slave” well this season (including once in the cold open) and found yet another fairly boneheaded way to approach it. Now, offensive comedy that pushes boundaries is one thing. Offensive comedy that unintentionally demonstrates limitations of perspective is another. Again: there”s certainly a way to have the largely Caucasian cast approach this film. But this wasn”t it. The fact that white Americans have difficulty discussing the film without seeming insensitive? TOTALLY VALID, and worth talking about. (Imagine this as a “Siskel & Ebert”-esque sketch and you have the idea.) But having actors playing actors unwilling to say offensive language? It just feels like the easy, unimaginative way around some thorny, but vital, topics. [Grade: C]
Beck takes the stage to perform “Blue Moon”. It sounds like a song from “Sea Change,” but with a slightly more anthemic tinge. It”s the kind of song most Mumford And Sons knockoff bands would sell their souls to write. It”s downright gorgeous, and reinforces his position as a kind of post-modern Neil Young. I forgot Beck had a new album out, and I”ll definitely be downloading it if the rest of the album has this sense of melodic construction and earnest lyricism. [Grade: A-]
Weekend Update: The Colin Jost Era Begins! First up guest-wise: Charles Barkley and Shaquille O”Neal. They start off somewhat shakily (with Pharaoh missing his cue something fierce at one point), but things picks up when Shaq mistakes blinking for taking a one-second nap. Afterwards, Jebediah Atkinson returns to give his thoughts on this year”s Best Picture nominees…and the nominees from every year that the Oscars have handed out awards. That leads to the first link between “Citizen Kane” and “Cool Runnings” ever, which is something! Also something: the Woody Allen joke, which is surprising if only that it”s the first “dangerous” joke since the 2012 Presidential debate sketch in which both Obama nor Romney agreed to do nothing about further banning assault rifles. As for Jost: well, he seemed like Seth Meyers in terms of temperament and approach, but without the decade of experience behind the desk. And that”s fine! He”ll need a few months and/or years to get there. Hopefully, along the way, we start to see what makes him different rather than similar to his predecessor. [Grade: B]
Murder Mystery Dinner: Parsons” husband does not like his character: “Simply Dudly,” a harmless, oversexed nutball who drops his pants instead of solving the mystery. Instead of Parsons” misunderstanding leading to comic frivolity, it just makes him look like a huge jerk. This is another writing problem, not a performance problem, since the premise doesn”t create conflict but rather produces pure meanness. The character”s lack of imagination alone might have produced some laughs, with the others trying to draw him in and then seeing his unfortunate attempts. But this really felt like the last act of an already crumbling marriage between a vivacious woman and a miserly, miserable man. So it was hilarious, is what I”m trying to say. [Grade: D+]
Spotlightz: It”s another Oscars-themed sketch, this time going back to Spotlightz and Vanessa Bayer”s fantastic child actor for laughs. But there”s other fun stuff going as well: Parsons mouthing the lines of his acting partner, the way Sasheer Zamata sings, “This is my ship now!” during “Captain Phillips,” and the awkward look Taran Killam and Aidy Bryant have after kissing in “Her.” None of this was particularly hysterical, but when compared to the rest of the show, it was downright awesome. It”s been that kind of night. [Grade: B]
Beck returns to perform “Wave,” this time with a string section in lieu of his regular band. With that hat and suit, he looks like a singer in an old-time congregation rather than a rock star. The level of echo employed on Beck”s vocals are the really striking thing tonight: Rather than have them be part of the overall mix, as in records past, they have a resonance that soars above it. It”s a small choice that really makes a big difference. This was more mood piece than actual song, but it”s a heckuva mood piece all the same. [Grade: B]
Mr. Conrad”s Soiled Underwear: That”s almost definitely not the name of the sketch. But it”s as succinct a way as possible to describe the level of humor deployed here. Nothing wrong with puerile humor, and while it”s not my favorite brand of comedy, this sketch does take the premise and build it up to ridiculous levels by the end. So I give it points for execution, even if I didn”t actually find any of it particularly funny. [Grade: B-]
Dwayne”s Birthday: Four cowboys try to get a fifth one a birthday present. Three want to personalize his gun, but Parsons” character wants to set up an increasingly elaborate prank. Apparently, someone thought it was funny to hear Jim Parsons say the word “springs,” and we got this sketch. It”s the only explanation. On the plus side, it ends with a really fake dummy flying at Beck Bennett. Actually, there”s no real plus side here. Let”s all just forget this ever happened. Not just the sketch, but the show. [Grade: D+]
Best Sketch: “The Bird Bible.” Yes, it really was that kind of night. Though I still stand by this one all the same.
Worst Sketch: I”m lumping in the rest of the show, outside of “Update,” as the worst. Just an unfortunately poor episode all around, and easily one of the worst I”ve covered in my four years here. Parsons deserved better. We deserved better. I”d say Jost deserved better on his first night, but he”s also co-Head Writer and therefore this whole debacle”s ultimately on him.
Next Week: Lena Dunham hosts, and the comments will be totally civil.
Thoughts on tonight”s episode? Was I too harsh, or not harsh enough? Sound off below!