Recap: ‘Saturday Night Live’ – Reese Witherspoon and Florence and the Machine

Promoting one”s movie is par for the course for hosts of “Saturday Night Live.” So what happens when that movie (one you also produced) has horrific critical buzz and has already all but tanked at the box office? Soldier on ahead and pretend like nothing has happened. So let”s see how well Reese Witherspoon can do that in this, her first hosting gig in nearly fifteen years. (Her last and only other appearance? The first post-9/11 episode, in which the immortal “Can we be funny?”/”Why start now?” solidified the show”s place in the popular consciousness anew.) Last week”s ScarJo episode was a bummer, so let”s hope things improve this week before heading into the Louis C.K.-hosted finale.

As always, I”ll be liveblogging the episode, assigning grades to each segment. As always, I invite you to participate, commenting along in real time as well. We only have two more episodes this season, so let”s make them count. See you at 11:30 pm EST when the show begins.

Cold Open Southern Republican Leadership Conference: Republicans can be cool! And being cool apparently involves playing the “ESPN Jock Jams” CD as Cecily Strong”s DJ introduces the candidates. It”s a fairly weak premise, but I could watch Bobby Moynihan dance for about a week, blacklight or not. And if Marco Rubio goes far in the campaign, Taran Killam will have one helluva character on his hand to play. Just like the voters, “SNL” is just getting to know these candidates, so the real test will come next Fall as the campaigns really heat up. For now? A forgettable cold open with a few fun moments. [Grade: B-]

Monologue: Witherspoon introduces real mothers of the cast are back so they can hear apologies for things they did as children. It”s a great idea, since it does something the show rarely does: Emotionally connect the players to the audience. Sure, we get to know them as performers, and can admire/despise them accordingly. But how much do we REALLY know about what makes these actors tick? I don”t need to know every fact, but little glimpses like this goes a long way. (“Hi mom! It”s Kyle!” damn near killed me.) Throw in the home movies at the end, and you have something that paves the way for getting the audience engaged with “SNL” on a whole new level. [Grade: A]

Be Scene in L.A.: The greatest trick that “SNL” pulled was putting the cast”s mothers onstage, because now I am going to feel bad whenever I give a sketch a bad grade. And yet, I have to give this hot mess of a sketch a less-than-stellar review. There”s something here with the clueless production assistants, but they get too little screentime. Instead, we get Cecily Strong”s flopsweat and Reese Witherspoon”s cougar host farting into a microphone. I”d rather have had four minutes of Jay Pharoah”s exasperated sound engineer. He was great. The rest? Not so much. [Grade: C]

Picture Perfect: A game show sketch? Eh. A game show sketch involving a Carl Winslow impression? Now you have my attention. The Prophet Muhammad joke absolutely kills in-house, and allows Moynihan and Kenan Thompson to use their comic fear to expert affect. Throw in Taran Killam”s suitable smarmy host (with increasingly odd ulterior motives) and you had a surprisingly great segment. It only had one joke, but it was a GREAT joke, and the sketch milked it for the maximum amount of time before bowing out. [Grade: B+]

Mr. Westberg: Well, I”ve asked Beck Bennett to stop using his stoner persona in pre-produced segments. And here we are, with something probably too disturbing to actually be funny. Still, that”s the point, so my lack of laughter isn”t necessarily a bad thing in this case. The real confusion comes within the context of “SNL” as a whole: Whenever it goes to this level of dark humor, it creates dissonance between it and everything else in the episode. Sure, the show delves in all types of humor, and variety is key. But that variety usually exists within a certain standard deviation, and this sketch was juts straight up off the reservation. Bennett”s actually really good here, and the closed door at the end is almost chilling. I”m not saying the show can”t or shouldn”t do this type of sketch. But the audience was confused, largely because “SNL” has taught them to watch the show a certain way. I”m all for throwing out the playbook and going for broke. But the show will need to commit fully to that type of anarchy for it to truly work. [Grade: B]

Weekend Update: Relationship expert Leslie Jones returns to the stage, and nothing hurts. She reads aloud a love letter to a four-year booty call. Why a love letter? Because he blocked her on all social media. Jones is so, so, so, so good on “Update,” and she”ll probably never be an anchor, and that makes me sad. If nothing else, she should have a David Spade-esque recurring segment, since the performer and the outlet are a perfect marriage. Jost/Che get in on the Mother”s Day act as well, reading jokes their moms texted them. (It works just as well for them as it did for the rest of the cast.) Later, because they are apparently joined at the hip, Strong/Witherspoon appear as Two Girls You Wish You Hadn”t Gotten Into A Conversation With At A Party. If the goal was to make me wish this once-interesting character would never appear again…mission accomplished! Finally, recurring character Willie returns to drop some “optimistic” messages for graduating students. (“It”s like they always say: You”re supposed to be wearing clothes under those robes, Willie!”) Overall: A really strong “Update” for the first half, and then it gasped for air in the second half. Still, Jost/Che were engaged and focused and seemed to be having fun rather than looking awkward/terrified. If this is the combo next year, there”s a chance it will finally turn into what it should have been since mid-Fall. [Grade: B]

High School Theatre: I did NOT expect to see this again. I”m delighted and terrified: How do you top what was essentially a perfect sketch the first time around? By dedicating this one to John Lennon and Shonda Rhimes, apparently! All the beats are there, but the surprise is gone. That doesn”t mean this is suddenly terrible, but it does lose some of the freshness. That happens with most recurring sketches, but it”s particularly acute here. Everything was just a little too familiar and executing a little more sloppily. I actually want to see if they can do this a third time, because this is a sketch that I completely identify with this cast, and it”s actually a supple concept that can be used to reflect teenage attitudes towards current topics. This one didn”t work, but that”s a matter of circumstance rather than concept. [Grade: B-]

Southern Housewives: File under “This Undoubtedly Killed In The Writer”s Room Only To Die Live On Television”. Or “Five Characters In Search Of A Point”. Or “Why Didn”t We See The Demon Coma Guy, He Sounded Kinda Interesting?” [Grade: D]

Water Slide: Bennett/Moody brings their stoner personas to the live stage as two water park employees fawning over Witherspoon”s lifeguard. In the time it took me to write that sentence, the sketch ended. What the hell just happened? Did I black out? Was four minutes of the sketch cut between dress rehearsal and now? There was absolutely no shape to this sketch. I”m guessing the set was so expensive to build that they had no choice but to put this sketch in the show. I can”t think of a single other reason why this just happened. [Grade: D-]

Whiskers R” We: Another recurring sketch, but this one has kittens, and therefore is TOTALLY ACCEPTABLE. Plus, McKinnon”s character is fantastic. (“His greatest discovery? His own butthole!” sent me to the floor.) It”s just a series of non-sequiturs (one cat is a registered sex offender, another is a cult leader) and sexual tension (“If you want shingles, keep fiddling, girl!”). But it”s also more welcome than the Ex-Porn Stars at this point, if only because McKinnon”s finding nuances to play that suggest we”ve only scratched (pun intended) the surface here.  [Grade: B+]

Best Sketch: Monologue

Worst Sketch: Water Slide

How was Florence and the Machine? Very, very, very, very earnest.

What did everyone else think? Sound off below!