Recap: ‘Saturday Night Live’ – Louis C.K. and Rihanna

This is the third season in a row in which Louis C.K. has hosted “Saturday Night Live.” As he speeds towards his membership in the Five-Timers Club, “SNL” comes to the close of an overall excellent season. While there have been natural peaks and valleys, it has also felt like the strongest overall start-to-finish run since I started covering the show five years ago. Given that long-time head writer Seth Meyers left last season, and given all the attention and effort that the fortieth anniversary special incurred, it”s pretty miraculous that this season was even passable, nevermind actually, legitimately good. But that”s what makes the show so special: Just when you count it out, it roars back and reminds you why it”s lasted this long.

As always, I”ll be liveblogging the show all night long, grading each segment as they occur. As always, you”re encouraged to comment throughout the show, so we”re all reacting in real time. As always, thanks to all of you who have read and commented all year long.

Come back at 11:30 pm EST when things will properly commence.

Summer Time Cold Open: What seems like a fun, meta ditty about the end of the “SNL” season turns into a Hillary Clinton promotion in which she attempts to reach a key demographic. “Hey there, 18 to 25 year olds…how does it all hang?” This is all about getting Kate McKinnon some reps as the Presidential candidate, which makes sense: Starting next Fall, the show is going to lean heavily on her in this role. Also? This song is catchy, but if I hear anyone singing it tomorrow, I am not responsible for the violence that will ensue. Also also? Seeing the entire cast sing “Live from New York, it”s Saturday Night!” made me a little emotional. That was fantastic. [Grade: B]

Monologue: When you don”t have a stand-up comedian hosting, you have to think of some creative way to fill this segment. When you DO have a stand-up, you let them do his or her thing. And Louis C.K.”s thing is about as good as stand-up gets these days. How else to explain how an entire segment about child molestation absolutely kills, even while simultaneously and consistently one misspoken word away from potentially ending his career live on television? That sentence makes no sense. AND YET. [Grade: A]

The Shoemaker And The Elves: So it”s “Fifty Shades Of Elves”? From a pure staging perspective, this is actually pretty good, especially in terms of timing the spankings. But the idea of ending the season on a sketch based on defecating on tiny creatures? And then introducing the idea of a call-in number allowing the audience to vote on whether or not to sexually dominate the elves? It”s some risky stuff, and Lord knows after that monologue there”s going to be some of that tonight. But there”s a difference between describing something and dramatically depicting it, and I think the latter approach here, especially with Louis C.K. constantly breaking character to look right at the audience, just pushes into “hey, we”re getting away with something here, aren”t we being NAUGHTY”. So it”s not particularly offensive, but it IS kinda smug. [Grade: B-]

Sprint Store: Louis C.K. and Leslie Jones going toe-to-toe in a sass-off? Sign me up! Louis” new employee gets caught making fun of the new boss, and to cover it up, he insists that”s how he really talks, and has to keep up the ruse for years. The time passage works since it results in a fantastic payoff in which Jones” boss finally catches Louis” employee in the long-gestating lie. It”s especially cathartic since Jones nearly derailed the sketch before it had a chance to even start, so seeing her confidently end things was great. [Grade: B]

Buy Wood Products: The crying lumberjack will recur, yes? Until he does, I won”t assign a grade. [Grade: N/A]

Weekend Update: Tom Brady (Taran Killam) appears to speak about DeflateGate. Brady goes on the charm offensive, which works immediately on Jost but rankles Che, who wants direct answers to his questions. Brady almost turns into his own Anger Translator at one point, which is the most interesting part of an overall tepid segment. Rounding out the season, Pete Davidson ends the season as he began: Doing a talking head segment on “Update.” He laments certain things about turning 21, such as “Harry Potter”. But the most amusing part is Davidson insisting he”ll spend the summer learning how to actually be on “SNL”. Finally, Riblet saves Michael Che from making a Malaysia Airlines joke previously cut from another episode. I DECLARE THIS THE SUMMER OF RIBLET. WE SHALL FROLIC AND NOT WORK AT OUR JORBS. [Grade: B+]

Hip Vacation Resort: I didn”t expect to see this spiritual sequel of a sketch, especially since Louis C.K. is taking over Dwayne Johnson”s function here. Still, hearing Cecily Strong intone “Shrimp And Bubbles” over and over again is amusing as hell. Not sure that Louis C.K. doing a Michael Rappaport impression is the best way to go here, but overall it”s an incredibly interesting dynamic at play here, one that actually deepens when viewed in conjunction with the first iteration of this sketch. There”s some continuity in the way that Kenan Thompson and Vanessa Bayer”s characters are constantly jostled out of their complacency by people tangentially related to them. Am I overthinking this? HELL YES. But the text and subtext are there all the same, and I like the show providing interest in recurring characters beyond mere catchphrases. [Grade: B]

Police Line Up: Four actors are brought in for a line up, and all treat it like an audition. (“First off: Love the script!”) I”m torn: This is a pretty weak premise, but the four actors (Taran Killam/Beck Bennett/Kyle Mooney/Louis C.K.) are having so much fun that it makes up for the lack of strong material. Bennett in particular is fantastic here, channeling the energy from the “Grow-A-Guy” segment last Fall and delivering one of his best live performances to date. What the hell: It”s the finale. I”m feeling generous. [Grade: B+]

Buy Wood Products: RECURRING!  It”s stupid, but like the jalapeño joke from “Update,” it”s so stupid that it”s actually pretty great. There's just too little here to give both any higher a grade than… [Grade: B-]

Forgotten TV Gems: “Whoops! I Married A Lesbian!” is the focus of this recurring segment. It feels like the spiritual sequel to “Dyke & Fats,” with Bobby Moynihan”s incredible 1950″s actor thrown into the mix for extra awesome. It”s light as a feather, with as much emphasis on Thompson”s hapless host as the show-within-a-show content. But it”s fun all the same, primarily for the same reason that “Dyke & Fats” was so potent: It feels like it comes from a real point of view rather than a simple comedic construct. Both those in front of and behind the cameras have something to say here, and it gives the frothiness some weight. [Grade: B]

Best Sketch: “Monologue”. This was an episode where a lot of material was fine but very little truly soared.

Worst Sketch: The Shoemaker And The Elves

How Was Rihanna? Anytime an artist uses the small Studio 8H stage in creative ways, I”m going to rank it favorably. Between the staged car chase of the first number (“Bitch Better Have My Money”) and the multimedia oversensory load of the second (“American Oxygen”), Rihanna was never less than riveting during her time onstage.