Recap: ‘Saturday Night Live’ – Dakota Johnson and Alabama Shakes

I get it: There are more than a few concerned fans worried that tonight”s “Saturday Night Live” might be a less-than-stellar edition. Most know host Dakota Johnson from her most recent film role, which isn't exactly a “Bridesmaids”-esque romp. But think of it less as one hosted by the star of “Fifty Shades Of Grey” and rather one hosted by the former lead of the late, great FOX comedy “Ben And Kate.” Dakota Johnson might be more (or near-exclusively) known for the former, but she was straight-up funny on the latter. And while we”ll probably see more references to Christian Grey than Ben Fox, I just don”t have the same hopeless feeling I did before Blake Shelton took the stage in January.

(Also? I'm never going to see “Fifty Shades Of Grey,” but this recap is going to be a sarcasm-free when it comes to that book/movie franchise. Johnson deserves to be judged on what she does tonight, not due to her association with a movie many of us have not nor will ever see.)

If anything, I”m worried the show as a whole will be slightly rusty at this point, having taken off the entire month dedicated to producing then recovering from the fortieth anniversary special. (Quick review: Yay audition tapes! Boo “The Californians”!) I have low expectations but high hopes. But if we get a “Girlfriends Talk Show” that involves bondage, then we are probably in for a long night.

Only one way to find out: By liveblogging the proceedings. Come back starting at 11:30 pm EST, when I”ll grade each sketch as it happens. Share your thoughts in real time throughout the episodes. And if things get bleak, you can always look forward to seeing Chris Hemsworth and Chris Hemsworth”s biceps in Studio 8H next week.

Real Story With Gretchen Carlson: Rudy Giuliani has “Birdman”-esque feelings about his recent comments about President Obama. Mostly, it”s a chance for Taran Killam to do his Michael Keaton, which is killer. (Well, his facial impression at least, as Beck Bennett does the voice.) Unfortunately, the audience is totally dead for this, not even popping for Johnson”s pre-monologue appearance. (It”s possible they didn”t even recognize her?) Of all the ways to come back after a month off, “in almost total silence” probably wasn”t the way this show wanted to do it.  [Grade: C+]

Monologue: Ah, the ol” “Q&A” approach, this time with ball gags! Johnson is definitely nervous, but maybe that”s because her parents (Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith) are in the crowd. Either way, she”s barely present during the monologue, seemingly embarrassed by both the film and landing a hosting gig based on it. The energy is just plain strange.  [Grade: D]

Isis Recruitment: OK, if you”re gonna do a sketch about Isis, this is way better than the horrid “Shark Tank” parody back in the Chris Rock episode. There”s not much other than the reveal, but it”s a pretty great reveal, and a great parody of the recent US army recruitment commercials. [Grade: B]

Cinderella: Wow, I never thought I”d see this Cecily Strong character, which debuted in the “Magic Troll” sketch last December. And given the audience”s semi-groan upon seeing her, I take it they can”t believe it either. I”m all about Strong getting more screentime, especially in light of her being somehow ignored during the fortieth anniversary “Weekend Update” montage, but not with this, her least funny character to date. That”s too bad, since there were some flashes between Johnson and Killam that suggest a decent sketch without Strong's character in it. [Grade: D]

Brave: OK, this is more like it: The repeated use of Sara Bareilles” “Brave” gets funnier with each iteration, with various women just dropping truth bombs left and right. At first, I thought this was a sketch about celebrating introversion (which I”m a total fan of, as someone who writes on the internet), but eventually it expands into a celebration of selfishness in the guise of honesty. It”s a pretty cutting sketch, one offset by the joyousness of “Brave” itself. I”m really curious how this sketch played to other people, as it”s designed for multiple interpretations. [Grade: A-]

Fifty Shades Of Grey Press Room: Kyle Mooney is a middle-school student asking Johnson about the film. She expects softball questions, but he has some hardcore queries. God bless Kyle Mooney: He does the “childlike character that tugs at your heart while saying blasphemous things” better than anyone in recent memory. Andy Samberg could do childish characters, but rarely ones that had emotive power. But Mooney, my vote for most improved performer this season, nails it effortlessly. A line like, “Because of artists like you, my father and I get a little time together,” is so darn unexpected that it disarms both those in-sketch and those watching at home.  [Grade: B]

Winter Office: Did you know that the word “literally” often is used incorrectly? I can”t even when people use that word when things aren”t literally true. On the plus side, Johnson seems alive and alert for the first time all night onstage, playing off of Strong and Bobby Moynihan as if these three were recurring characters. It”s not enough to totally salvage the sketch, but it”s certainly a positive that I hope carries through into the latter half of the show. [Grade: B-]

Weekend Update: Ruth Bader Ginsberg (Kate McKinnon) appears to discuss her desire to stay on as Supreme Court Justice for the forseeable future. She”s basically doing the Jean K Jean routine, with the catchphrase “Ginsburned!” repeated throughout the segment. Later, Kanye West (Jay Pharoah) explains his tweeted apology to Beck. But his apologies don”t stop there: He wants to have the Greatest Apology Of All Time, which he delivers in impromptu song form. Finally, Riblet (Moynihan) makes his triumphant return to the “Update” desk to mock Michael Che for his “easy” gig. His second appearance here is worth it for the sound effects when Riblet takes off his hair extensions. As for Che/Jost: They had a few zingers (especially Che”s delivery about the one million African-Americans in jail for marijuana), but they still haven”t found a way to make “Update” work for them in a more natural way. They feel constricted by the format, even this far into the season. Breaking free should do wonders for them, should they (and the show) choose to go that route. [Grade: B-]

Worf M.D.: Ooooooooh boy. Let”s just pretend like this never happened. Congrats, “Cinderella”: You”re off the hook as the worst sketch of the night. Between the ill-conceived premise to Johnson breaking throughout, it was a train wreck from start to finish. There”s probably a great morbid sketch to be mined from a doctor who kills a patient for not breaking character, but that type of humor rarely works on “SNL” without a Will Forte or someone of his ilk to properly contextualize the humor. [Grade: D-]

Net Effect: I love “SNL”. That goes without saying. But man, the show really, really, really doesn”t like bloggers, commenters, or anyone online. It paints a singular, angry brush across everyone without any room for nuance or positivity. There”s a pervasive streak of vitriol directed at those people that it used to reserve for politicians and foreign officials. “SNL” could actually deliver an interesting case for net neutrality, as it derives a lot of its current popularity through online video distribution. Instead, it wants to paint bloggers as people obsessed with emojis. Awesome. Aside from the one unexpected “Fifty Shades” reference (“Harder!”), I didn”t so much as grin once, nevermind laugh. [Grade: D]

Mr. Riot Films: Two men try to use hidden-camera techniques to root out injustice, but find themselves rejected at all turns. It”s another Bennett/Mooney pre-taped segment, but their interactions with (what sure appear like) non-actors never hits the level they want. While the first set-up is semi-believable, and thus gets decent reactions, everything else plays like the sketch is begging for attention, not the characters inside the sketch. It”s a subtle but crucial difference, and one that ultimately undercuts this segment's effectiveness. [Grade: C-]

Best Sketch: Brave

Worst Sketch: Worf M.D.

How was Alabama Shakes? Less is more with this band, and so “Gimmee All Your Love”, stripped down to the basics and free of backup singers and horn section, really worked for me more so than “Don”t Wanna Fight”. Also, their bass player looks like George R.R. Martin, which is a good thing in my book!

Overall: Youch. Let”s just move on and hope Thor can save us next week.

Was I too harsh? Or not harsh enough? Sound off below!