Look: This past SNL might not be one for the books or anything, but it beat the daylights out of the previous one, so let’s just drink to that for now. Adam Levine co-hosted with a set of cue cards that — when they weren’t being reflected in windows during a Catfish parody or casting distracting shadows while Train and Maroon 5 faced off — sent the script waltzing across the limpid pools of Levine’s eyes as he read (a fellow Grantlander called it “Phelpsian”). That’s OK with me, though, because the energy was up and the material was pretty decent. I was sort of into it! Do you disagree? You probably disagree. But see here: “The Sopranos Diaries” could have been written in Swahili and I still would have laughed at Moynihan’s teenage Tony and Armisen’s Paulie Walnuts (even though I’d probably have cast him as Silvio Dante).
The cold open, which featured Obama (Jay Pharoah) hosting Martin Luther King Jr’s (Kenan Thompson) ghost on inauguration night, was punchy enough: MLK, it turns out, is a dishy ghost bent on discussing Beyoncé’s lip-synching and general swoon-inducing aura (“I thought I was having one of my famous dreams”) and Michelle Obama’s bangs (“What is she, guest-starring on The New Girl?”) with the POTUS. The afterlife has made him silly, a little bitchy, and granted him a weird and affected giggle. This sketch could have dragged, but it was short and sweet. “We’re still waiting for our first black magician” and the first black member of One Direction. Dream harder, America. We can do it.
Maybe the SNL gods heard the public outcry against musical monologues, but even still, it was somewhat surprising to see Levine speak his way through his introduction without a piano or Auto-Tuned bridge. I thought I spied with my little ears a nervous clippity-clop on the stage as Levine shifted his weight repeatedly while he got going, but by the time Andy Samberg swiveled his The Voice chair around to try to lure Levine into choosing him as his SNL-host coach, the giddiness seemed to have settled a bit. This wasn’t a full-on skewering of The Voice — though Cameron Diaz as Christina Aguilera (tiny hat with feathery antennae!) was a nice touch, advising the host to style his hair with Ben Stiller juice for comedy’s sake — but a three-chair chorus, including Jerry Seinfeld as the third coach, who urged the host to “use [his] Jewishness” to stay one step ahead of his audience. The coaches engaged in a debate regarding whether or not Levine should lose his shirt (Seinfeld alone warned Levine to remain clothed). He did, of course, so that lotion Samberg pumped into his hand at the beginning of the caucus didn’t go to waste. The special guests were a good way to keep things dynamic, just in case Levine wasn’t up to the task of delivering a rollicking monologue all on his lonesome.
The Rosetta Stone ad that followed exposed the real purpose behind those $500 language tool kits: learning Thai to commit sex crimes. At first I thought that we were just poking fun at the über-earnest folk who want to learn to “trade recipes with [their] babushkas,” and honestly, that was enough for me. But the spokesman with a blurry face obscured in the interest of confidentiality made me laugh. It was definitely a few steps up the comedy ladder from the previous fake ad (Verquanica, cough).
“Circle Work with Tracy Allstar and Todd Anthony” was a strong sketch for Levine, though it wasn’t my favorite (this episode went pretty heavy on the gay stereotypes). Vanessa Bayer doing her preternaturally skilled smile-through-the-pain character is always welcome, and as Tracy Allstar’s (Thompson) lovelorn pal Dee, I thought she helped elevate this sketch a little bit. Todd Anthony (Levine) committed to some snappy dance moves and dimple-flashing in a wig while he helped the duo solve various guests’ (Nasim Pedrad! Yay!) “straight-person problems” with solutions that were more like explanations: Everyone is secretly gay. Even the husband whose preoccupation with sex resulted in two babies by his wife? “Those babies are beards.” Oh, OK. I wouldn’t have thought that Thompson slowly spelling out most of “gay as a gay goose at a gay geese pride parade” would have worked, but it did.
Celebrity impression dump, I see you! “The Sopranos Diaries,” from the folks who brought you “The Carrie Diaries,” was a great way to utilize Kate McKinnon’s Edie Falco, Cecily Strong’s Lorraine Bracco, and Bobby Moynihan’s James Gandolfini (which I didn’t even know existed until just now). Tone looks pretty good in a sherbet-colored popped collar, by the way. Maybe he should have stuck with that. Levine popped up in a brief cameo as Sal — a.k.a. Big Pussy, which in retrospect is a name that should have found its origins outside of some lockers by the chemistry room — and I can’t find fault in his 30 seconds of suspendered performance. During a lunch table discussion of the “bear people” (Ewoks) of Star Wars, Big Pussy points out that “our planet has bears” to which Paulie (Armisen) rebuts, “Yeah, but on this planet, the bears are the people.” Oh my God, keep going. But they don’t, because Tony’s in the process of beating the hell out of a Rubik’s cube. I loved this sketch. Granted, enjoying Sopranos derivatives is right in my wheelhouse, but it could have gone awry and I didn’t think it did. It may not have been the best test of a host’s abilities, but because Levine was featured prominently during the whole episode, and because shut up I just liked it, I give this one an A-plus-plus.
I spent much of the next sketch, “Firehouse Incident,” trying to figure out who Bill Hader’s crazy, screaming Bryce was borrowing from. Around the two-minute mark, I realized that he was totally reminding me of Frank Sweeney from Real World/The Challenge. Without this reference, I probably would have hated this skit, but because I have invested way too much of my time in viewing Frank’s melodramatic outbursts from my sofa and hating him quietly from afar, I projected this investment onto Bryce and found myself riveted. Jerry (Adam Levine) is the catalyst for the formerly subdued, chill fireman’s rage attack, having struck up a conversation with Bryce’s ex, Rula (Rula?). Levine’s job was to essentially disappear into his flannel shirt, which he did with aplomb. I also appreciated the h/t to the regrettable cancellation of Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 (“Not the b! That’s BONKERSSS!”) and the fact that Hader broke while he wrapped his fur stole with legs around his neck. If this sketch had been snipped by a minute, it would have been better; if it turned you off, watch it again with Frank Sweeney character-study goggles and see if that makes any difference.
I think it may have been too soon to reintroduce the digital short — it hasn’t even been a year since “Lazy Sunday 2” — and though it’s never a shame to see Danny McBride doing cocaine or anything, I felt as though I had just said a very melodramatic good-bye to a party guest only to see them reappear an hour later, having forgotten their keys. The Lonely Island has a new album coming sometime this year, so I guess that explains it. “YOLO” featured Levine and musical guest Kendrick Lamar (delivering accountant rap, my very favorite genre) and warned against the perils of hanging out in the vicinity of children (“they have mad lice”) and advised us to “cook [our] meat till it’s done.” You only live once, but “you oughta look out.” I enjoyed it — but I wasn’t crazy about the timing, maybe because I liked it so much. While a lot of fans have spent most of this season nostalgically reflecting on better eras, the appearance of a digital short at this point almost felt as though it were a life raft. I hope that something equally awesome will take the short’s place in the future if we can’t have its old incarnation for keeps.
Kendrick Lamar performed “Swimming Pools (Drank)” with a live band that stuck around for his second song, “Poetic Justice” (my only complaint: Where was Drake?). The set was pared-down but completely enjoyable; whereas usually I’m a sucker for SNL musical guest theatrics (to paraphrase my recap of Rihanna’s fractal-heavy performance: panty-dropping!!!!), I appreciated Lamar’s straightforward approach and thought he delivered on both appearances. Nice work.
“Weekend Update” recovered from last week with visits from Arianna Huffington (Pedrad, who thankfully showed up more this week than she has in recent episodes and who addressed Seth as “Sex Meyers”) and a weepy, moody Ray Lewis (Thompson, nailing it), who looked forward to “ascend[ing] into heaven” by way of the Superdome if he claims victory at the Super Bowl. Normally, the copyright-protected sketch that isn’t available online is the pick of the litter, but not this time: I was disappointed in the Train vs. Maroon 5 vs. Jason Mraz vs. John Mayer skit, though Taran Killam’s Pat Monahan and Bill Hader’s John Mayer were pretty dead-on portrayals. Levine was a good sport, poking fun at being included in the company of Hootie (Thompson, sans Blowfish) & Co., but I felt like this one never really got off the ground. Maybe it’s time for SNL to tackle the White Guy with Guitar epidemic that’s sweeping the nation. We’ll have to see who comes out on top on American Idol this season. That’s a showdown I would like to see.
I’m so happy that we’re finally talking about how skin-crawly Catfish’s Nev Schulman is. Every time I have tried to innocently check out an episode of Catfish or to get past the first 10 minutes of the film Catfish, whomever I’m with at the time has grabbed the remote like I just doused it with gasoline and was about to set it on fire. I have come to understand that this is for my own good, and SNL’s parody illuminates all of the reasons why: Nev’s pervasive narcissism, the misleading sizzler clips that precede commercials, and the highly annoying credits at the beginning. Neev. Neeeev. Neeeeeeev. I get it now. Levine delivered a great impression, though check out the cue cards reflected in the window at 3:47! Way to graffiti neon letters that say HELLO, I AM HERE on that (albeit flimsy) fourth wall!
Oh, the strange sketch. I glimpse your weird face peeking at me from behind Janet’s (Bobby Moynihan) matronly glasses and feathered hair, dropping a Law & Order tune and setup on me and then abandoning it like you forgot what sketch you were writing, and pinning somebody behind a Murphy bed and leaving them to die without even a peach Snapple to stave off dehydration. In typical end-of-the-night fashion, this sketch relied on an improbable and uncomfortable scenario (Levine has been drugged by a superfan who clicks and tuts and keeps entreating him to sit on her face or allow her to sit on his), orbiting the sun and then burning out. Levine fondled Janet’s fake breasts and flopped around gamely, but I bet he was pretty glad to get out of that apartment and the bizarre world of Danny Glover posters and houseplants he’d been trapped in for four minutes.
At least he got to wash the taste of Janet out of his mouth with a brief appearance as Neil Diamond in the final sketch of the night, “Biden Bash.” Sudeikis’s Biden is a delight, but with no recent noteworthy Biden high jinks to work with, it was a bit stale (the VP does kung fu, Jimi Hendrixing the national anthem, and squaring off with opponents in “a game [he likes] to call ‘Do You Think You Can Jump Higher Than Me?’”). Hey, at least what happens in Delaware that’s it. What happens in Delaware.
All things considered, I’m just glad that this week didn’t leave me feeling like Jay Sherman again. It’s kind of funny that Jennifer Lawrence’s episode would be unfavorably compared to Adam Levine’s, and probably a testament to the fact that, at least most of the time, the quality of an episode of SNL is much less determined by the host than by the writing. I mean, duh, but also not duh. Maybe the perception of high audience expectations can wind up screwing the pooch in the writers' room, maybe we just needed more Pedrad and Thompson, or maybe Jupiter only recently aligned with Mars. Either way, it sure will be interesting to keep an eye on the astrological forecast for Justin Bieber’s SNL gig on February 9. Hold on to your Nerf weapons. It could be a doozy.