After a slow start to 2015 (anniversary special excluded), the last two weeks of “Saturday Night Live” have been a return to form. Both the Dwayne Johnson and Michael Keaton episodes were excellent, now the show has the chance to complete the trifecta with Taraji P. Henson as host. There”s bound to be at least one “Empire”-centric sketch tonight (probably involving musical guest Mumford & Sons, because why not), but personally? I”m hoping Taran Killam gets to bust out his amazing Brad Pitt impression opposite Henson in a parody of “The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button.” (Those banking on a “Person Of Interest” parody might be disappointed.)
Still, there”s far more than parodies planned tonight, and as per usual, I”ll be covering them in liveblog form. Follow along starting at 11:30 pm EST, and leave your comments throughout the show as I grade each segment in real time.
Clinton Announcement Cold Open: Hillary Clinton practices her social media skills in anticipation of her announcement that she”s running for President. Inevitably, it goes off the rails immediately. (“Citizens! You will elect me! I will be your leader!”) Darrell Hammond reprises his role as Bill Clinton, much to the delight of the audience. If he”s available for this on an ongoing basis, that”s a huge thing for the show and provides the kind of continuity that will help down the line as Kate McKinnon deepens her portrayal of Hillary. But while the future is promising, the actual sketch itself wasn”t that remarkable. But who cares? As they say at the end of the sketch, “The Clintons are back!” “SNL” has had no idea what to do with President Obama, but they have historically shown they know what to do with the Clintons. [Grade: B-]
Monologue: “After twenty years in show business, white people finally know who I am!” Henson is here, and she”s gonna sing about it in gospel form with the tune “I”ve Made It”. The song itself isn”t all that funny, but the testifying from the cast is pretty great. (Pete Davidson “making it” by doing this show instead of going to college and being well-adjusted was particularly great.) And once the cast joins the choir, the energy of the endeavor goes off the chart. The best part? Henson”s terrified face at Leslie Jones” testimony, which made me laugh extremely hard. [Grade: B]
Depend Legends: Whoa: That's totally the guy from the “Oops, I Crapped My Pants” parody commercial, right? Wow. That's some serious continuity in the world of “SNL” adult diaper commercials. This time, he”s doing his business into the faces of past celebrities (like Clark Gable) and current ones (like “all the female D.A.”s from “Law And Order). It”s a one-note joke, but mostly I still can”t get over the fact that I”m 99% sure that”s the guy from “Oops, I Crapped My Pants”. [Grade: B]
Hot For Teacher: Pete Davidson is great as a student on trial for sleeping with his teacher. The list of his nicknames engendered by his tryst is fantastic, as is the reaction from his fellow students. (“It was like the movie ‘Rudy”…and I was Rudy!”) Henson gets little to do here, as she”s primarily the straight man to Davidson”s overly proud teenager. Kenan Thompson gets in a few fist bumps as the impressed judge, but really this was The Pete Davidson showcase, and as such was probably his best sketch performance of the year. To this point, he”s primarily shined in “Update” or pre-taped bits. If he can get that talent into sketches on a consistent basis, he”ll be the breakout star many of us predicted when he was initially cast. [Grade: B]
Home 2 Sneak Peak: It”s Impression Time! Kendrick Lamar, Missy Elliot, Nicki Minaj, and Sofia Vergara lend their voices to the sequel. This was…fine. It was short. Probably for the best, as the concept wasn”t fully fleshed out beyond, “Hey, let”s do some impressions.” [Grade: C+]
QVC: Kate McKinnon is channeling Molly Shannon via Liza Minnelli as the pitchwoman for a “three-way poncho” that”s essentially…a poncho. Henson as host of this QVC show and the host of “SNL” does yeoman”s work here keeping this sucker afloat. But while I”m one of McKinnon”s biggest fans, I would not be upset if this character doesn”t get a second go-round. This was just awkward all around. [Grade: C-]
South Centros: This “Game Of Thrones” parody seems like a slam-dunk, can”t-miss concept upon its introduction, but the actual execution couldn”t be less interesting. It is languid, loose, and seemed content on simply throwing Ice Cube against The Wall and letting that be enough. Michael Che”s mini-rant on the length of the story shows a bit of promise, but then gets cut off before it gained steam. Nikolaj Coster Waldau”s drive-by is amusing, but that was about it. Previous “Thrones” parodies on “SNL” have been excellent. But this was a huge swing and miss, and a rather surprising one at that. [Grade: C-]
Weekend Update: “Portrait-fixer” Cecilia Giminez returns to the “Update” desk to discuss that horrifying, nightmare-inducing Lucille Ball statue in Celoron, New York. The artwork analysis is kinda lame, but her description of Colin Jost”s hair is PHENOMENAL. (“Get me outta here! I gotta go home! I gotta pick up my kid from school!”) Later, Jacob The Bar Mitzvah Boy returns to do what Jacob do. This time, he explains Passover, using the phrase, “Don”t quote me on that!” over and over. Billy Crystal makes a surprise appearance as Jacob”s father, and his character is equally awkward as Jacob. Half of that was intentional, and half of that came from some bad timing. We came VERY close to getting one of Crystal”s signature “SNL” phrases, but it turned out to be a tease. Michael Che had a great night overall, and there was a general looseness to the Jost/Che presentation that”s been lacking for most of the season. It really was a tale of two “Updates,” the first I can remember in which the talking heads were the weaker part by quite a bit. [Grade: B+ Jost/Che, C+ for the guests]
Hollywood Game Night: Kate McKinnon cannot be stopped tonight: She is everywhere, and she”s back in the lead of another sketch as host Jane Lynch. Much like “Family Feud,” this segment spends half the time simply introducing the participants. Killam”s excellent Vin Diesel is back after his inaugural appearance two weeks ago, and Henson”s Wanda Sykes impression is absolutely incredible. (“He looks like a big toe in a t-shirt!”) The approach here is pretty much the same as “Celebrity Jeopardy,” as it”s apparently endlessly funny to see celebrities being dumber than bricks. Which, you know, sure, I suppose. This is pretty forgettable, but fine enough in the moment. [Grade: B-]
How 2 Dance With Janelle: After leading a great sketch last week, Sasheer Zamata gets another shot at this recurring premise, last seen when Chris Rock hosted in the Fall. Kyle Mooney (almost totally absent this week thus far) is along as a pining boy in her class, perpetually in the Friend Zone. Henson plays Janelle”s mom, helping her daughter learn some new moves. Janelle is skeptical of said moves. (“It looks like someone”s trying to punch your spine!”) In terms of actual jokes, there are very few. But this is a sketch built on energy, and Henson hasn”t had a lot of chances to be flat-out silly so far tonight. We know she can command the screen, and that”s what she does here. There”s a small but easily delineated world here between Janelle, her friend, her family, and her viewers that feels supple enough to support a few more tries at this sketch in the future. [Grade: B+]
Sesame Street: I almost predicted this. I should have. Instead of Cookie Monster, there”s Cookie from “Empire.” She steals Cookie Monster”s cookies! She makes a coat out of Elmo! She obtains the rights to the theme song to “Sesame Street”! I get why the sketch doesn”t get TOO crazy (although killing Elmo qualifies, I suppose), but it did feel like punches were pulled in the name of brand protection. That speaks to the viral nature of “SNL” in the digital age: Pre-YouTube, maybe this is more adult-themed. Now? My seven-year old nephew works an iPad like a pro. In theory, he and others could see this. So I get it, even if I don”t particularly like it. Oh well. This will be THE sketch that gets linked on blogs and discussed on the morning talk shows. They can't show Snuffy getting snuffed out. [Grade: B-]
Their Own League: Women can play baseball, so long as they aren”t black, according to this “lost” classic. “Here”s the thing: While our husbands are away, we”re the racists!” exclaims McKinnon”s character, explaining to Henson and Leslie Jones why they can”t join the team. As far as three-minute screeds against both sexism and racism go, this was pretty damn impressive in terms of being succinct and sharp all at once. What seemed initially like a sketch about Bobby Moynihan not-so-secretly playing in a ladies” league as a man turned into something much richer and much more surprising. [Grade: B+]
Connectatron: This “Voltron”-esque team has internal strife mid-fight. Yawn. I”m guessing this was a 5-minute sketch shrunk down to two minutes due to timing. Why nearly 60 seconds were dedicated to the intro, I”ll never know. These things happen. Oh well. [Grade: D+]
Best Sketch: Their Own League
Worst Sketch: Connectatron
Best “SNL” Call Back: That Adult Diaper Dude
How Was Mumford & Sons? Well, it wasn”t Bob Dylan going electric at the Newport Folk Festival, but it was pretty shocking all the same. I”d heard “Believe” before, but “The Wolf” was a full-throated rocker that didn”t just feel like an evolution of their sound but a deconstruction of it. If anything, I”d point to something like U2″s “Achtung Baby” as a comparison. The band seems invigorated by this approach. I”m curious what fans of the band think. I”ve no horse in this race, so I”m good with the band not churning out two dozen records that all sound like their debut album.
What did everyone else think? Sound off below!