A bunch of pre-teenagers and pre-teenagers-at-heart got to stay up past their bedtimes on Saturday to scream swoonily for Justin Bieber. I know this because I could hear them in the audience. Fans waited in line in the blizzard to get tickets for the show, attempting (and failing) to complete their homework, only vacating their spots in queue if their lives were endangered by frostbite (“We weren’t going to die for Bieber,” said one. “We’re not die-hard fans, literally.”) Justin ordered them pizzas and SNL doled out hot soup so that they might live to see the legal drinking age. I guess that’s pretttty cool, it’s pretttttty cool. The host was a good sport and, despite its lackluster cold open, I liked this episode overall. The best sketch may have only featured Bieber peripherally (The Moroccans of Mulholland Drive), but from singing about searching for sweater puppies (the live kind) to taking on a Californian, the 18-year-old pulled double duty better than I anticipated.
The Super Bowl was only a week ago, but as is the case with many events that carry the weight of a month of media drum rolls and strategic preparation (weddings, Christmas, prom, graduation, marathons, nonpocalypses), it feels like it happened two months ago. It’s stale; we’ve talked it deep into the turf and thrown handfuls of dirt on it and hung up our traditional festive garments for the year. Seeing it revived in the blackout-themed cold open was like getting a visit from Banquo’s ghost. Prithee, see there! behold! look! lo! The lights were off for 30 minutes, and now the Dome hath turned them off anew! The panel of sportscasters, and Taran Killam as Steve Tasker on the field, anxiously tried to talk their way out of the darkness, reading anagrams of players' names (Colin Kaepernick = Cocaine Kelp Ring) and airing an understudy of a commercial (Bill Hader dancing) because “we ran out of proper commercials and had to show a weird one.” Jay Pharoah’s Shannon Sharpe is pretty great, and the line “Ray Lewis knows who killed those people because it was him!” was probably this sketch’s highlight. Kenan Thompson, as James Brown, attempted to fill the gaping broadcasting void by repeatedly plugging 2 Broke Girls, a “very funny show” that he’d never seen. (There should be a specific term for the vocal inflection used by SNL players when they’re hawking unfamiliar products during fake sporting events. So consistent!) It seemed sort of strange that this Super Bowl sketch was completely Beyoncé-less, because everybody knows that she caused the power outage, even if, OK, fine, she didn’t actually.
Bieber’s monologue celebrated February’s most romantic aspect — that’s right, Black History Month. It was a little awkward when Bieber presented roses to assorted young ladies in the audience, but I did like his attempts to pin the invention of the peanut on various black celebrities (Denzel Washington invented it, in case you were curious). It was musical, but more meanderingly musical than some of the formal arrangements we’ve seen, so I didn’t mind too much. When Whoopi Goldberg showed up to receive her bouquet and touch the glowing sexy baby that is JB, I got all excited thinking that Fred Armisen would reprise his role as Joy Behar in a The View sketch (“So what? Who cares?”), but no dice. She took her roses and vanished, creeping back only to announce Bieber’s first song. That was selfish, Whoopi.
Next was an installment of The Californians, which is to some people what Booker T. Washington High is to me; I know many of you have come to resent its power, its blondness and its freeways, but I don’t care about you or your silly, wrong feelings. Cecily Strong was featured as Stuart’s (Fred Armisen) “casual date,” who didn’t hear her mention that she was still married to Devin (Bill Hader) because he was “blahsting Linda Ronstadt” in the car when she confessed this fact to him. Shattering the softly lit tension, the maid (Vanessa Bayer) ushered in Bieber, a “how you say, ragamuffin?” whom she had found “sleeping in the gazebo.” For a Canadian, Bieber sure can catch the Venice Beach vibe when called upon. The Californians is getting meta with its reaction shots, so this time Bill Hader pucker-faced roughly a thousand times in a row into different cameras, and Bieber delivered his soap opera mugging into a hand mirror while the rest of the gang huddled in front of the large (but shallow, of course, and narrow) one to reflect on what had become of their lives. I think that the Californians address may have pointed to Stuart’s living in Brentwood, which makes a lot of sense. During some hours of the day, Brentwood’s Sigalerts are so powerful that palm trees are upended and neutral-tone fruitwood chairs spontaneously combust. You can’t blame him for being preoccupied with the freeway system.
I wondered how liberally SNL would jab at Bieber, and it seemed like they threw most of their punches in the next sketch: Bieber, preparing for a performance, was introduced to a league of 12 decoy-Biebers by his security guard (Jason Sudeikis). Bieber protested that he doesn’t fear his fans because they’re the best fans in the world, but Sudeikis was quick to correct him that, no, “Steely Dan has the best fans in the world.” The fact that the women decoys resemble Bieber the most is just the tip of the iceberg; the pop star’s use of “swaggy” was brought to attention, Taran Killam sang “You Smile, I Smile” in Bieber’s pre-puberty falsetto, Bill Hader mimed the cheesy heart-hand gesture, Armisen called dibs on the winks, and Aidy Bryant snagged the crotch grab. Bobby Moynihan participated in a Bieber-on-Bieber dance off, and might've emerged the victor if he hadn’t had to compete against Justin’s abs immediately afterward. The host seemed a little reserved, as though he was reluctant to play the fool, but he didn’t sabotage the sketch. He accepted the blows good-naturedly, but not like a comedian. This response, actually, exceeded my expectations. There was a bizarre joke about Saddam Hussein that fell flat, but then Kate McKinnon shot into frame as Ellen Degeneres like she’s been fired out of a cannon. She just wanted to wish him luck and dance her way offscreen, as she does.
I loved the next sketch, a Bravo teaser smorgasbord of spinoff shows that I would be thrilled to see replace the already-ridiculous Vanderpump Rules. Beginning with a series revolving around the dentist of one of Vanderpump’s dozens of disposal stars, Jax, The Moroccans of Mulholland Drive featured Killam in a mustache fighting with his wife (Nasim Pedrad), while the camera zoomed in on a plate of hors d’oeuvres in a great parody of the number of shots of beet salads we’ve been treated to on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. From there we explored the lives of Rod Stewart’s God-niece (Are You There God? It’s Me, Danessa), a limo driver (Chauffeur Over the Rainbow), a vampire (The Count of Cabo), potted ivy (The Real Houseplants of Beverly Hills) and, finally, The Shitheads of Salzburg (“They spend every night at […] Sur”), which is where Bieber finally popped up, next to Hader and Sudeikis. I really wish this sketch had been half an hour long, especially because, if you blinked, you’d have missed Bieber’s “shithead.” With any luck, some Bravo exec was watching and will soon say, “Ah, what the hell,” and we can all watch The Count of Cabo bite Andy Cohen on an after-show by July.
Justin’s spare musical performances (“As Long As You Love Me,” “Nothing Like Us”) seemed like they came from a person with something to prove, and musically they were successful in all the ways a high-pressure acoustic number should be. His vocals were sweet, he was unruffled, and the drama was presented in the form of Bieber’s forehead striated with feeling and a microphone that descended like an electronic jellyfish from the ceiling. I enjoyed them, but at the same time, I wished that he’d opted to go with something up-tempo for contrast’s sake. My moody boyfriend, man! Selena, look what you’ve done to him, you dimple-killer!
Weekend Update was solid, featuring Richard III’s “two best friends from growing up,” Bayer and Armisen. I love the two best friends, and I also am the two best friends, so it was great to see them again whispering about the time Richard snubbed them at his coronation by making them sit at the peasants table and constantly bitching about his scoliosis. Seth poked fun at Honey Boo Boo but semi-apologized before he was through, admitting that she was adorable and probably saving himself from being murdered in his sleep by the Boo Boo Child’s adoring fans. Corey (Kenan Thompson), better known as “the one black guy in every commercial,” will probably not be a recurring character but was a welcome addition to Update, doling out high fives (he has to or he’ll die) and enthusiastically relating tales of his life as an actor in “the one clean part of Brooklyn.” He and his buddies just kick it, drinking sodas with the labels facing out and “crunching on chips so hard.” That’s aspirational.
Up next was a Grease parody. Singing “Say More Stuff” instead of “Tell Me More” was a promising way to start, and Bieber’s “Billy” Zucco (this sketch waltzed expertly around the halls of Rydell High without, I assume, having to pay Paramount for the honor) was excellent casting. In the back and forth verses, we learn that Billy and Angie’s (Cecily Strong) date was a little weird: He couldn’t work the car door, was alarmed to find that there were no puppies in her sweater, mistook first a tree and then his date for a witch, and finally put his pants on backward when the two were getting hot and heavy and remarked, “Look at me, my butt’s in front.” What’s the deal? It turns out Billy Zucco is 11 years old. “I’m good with that,” says Angie. No wonder he didn’t know how to keep that cigarette locked between his ear and his head. You can’t do that until you’re at least 12 and a half. It takes mature ear muscles and a lot of life experience.
Remember when Miley Cyrus visited “The Miley Cyrus Show” as Justin Bieber and obliquely addressed the fact that she’d been caught smoking salvia? Well, props to SNL for tying that piece of history in a bow and re-gifting us with it. Bayer’s Cyrus is back, with new hair and a new adult outlook (a “sexy adult joke”: “What’s brown, round, and between two cheeks? A butthole”). Bieber dropped by as the president of Cyrus’s fan club, squinting and working overtime at being uncool, which just comes off as uncannily Franco. He’s been swaggy for so long, he just can’t pull the unswag lever. Bieber takes some digs at himself, lauding Miley for being “light years better than that douche Justin Bieber,” who “looks like a lesbian” and “still has his baby teeth.” He also references hearing that Bieber “got busted for smoking weed and he’s really sorry and that people make mistakes and he’s never going to do it again.” Oh, OK, squinty. Never say never.
“Protective Brother” was a weird one. It started out in the vein of the kissing family sketches, which always ooked me out a little bit, but Taran Killam’s abusive character Eddie really grew on me. This skit mostly involved Killam — after having latched onto Bieber’s character’s vocal slip-up, a conflation of “glad” (as in, to meet you) and “nice” that resulted in “glice” — manipulating Bieber’s face and body as if it were a ball of Play-Doh. He loomed. He groped. He smooshed. Bieber started cracking up between the moment when Eddie insisted, “It’s on you, bro. You said the dumb word, you,” and when he implored Bieber to “show [him] his secrets, beautiful drifter.” Eddie’s jealous, apparently, of Bieber’s ability to win his parents' affections, because Eddie was born with “the arms of a bat” and no manners whatsoever. Because Bieber is so considerate, this sketch was followed by a special Valentine’s Day message from him to you, and when the fuzzy dice said “Fondle Butt,” he planned to oblige (“rules are rules”). I don’t know that Bieber had the skills required to orchestrate a fully successful marriage between the ultrasound-gel-as-lube jokes and whatever was going on with Taco [Moynihan], the interloper who “said he’d be here for a night, [but] three months later I’m just like get used to Taco,” but I’m sure Hillary Clinton will enjoy those dick picks. I didn’t really need to see Taco flash his chocolate-coated teeth and then sit on a potty chair, but don’t worry about it; I’ll just drink a lot and try to forget.
It's unfortunate that the night ended with the Booker T. Washington Valentine’s dance, because I hate that sketch, and I really regret it being the final impression I have of this episode — for the most part, the material was far better than the perpetually stalled vehicle of Principal Frye (Pharoah). Bieber played the head of the school’s social committee and, along with his girlfriend (Pedrad) who shivered with unreleased sexual tension, extolled the virtues of abstinence (“don’t do that thing until you get that ring,” “don’t go pokin’ until ‘I do’ is spoken”) with a voice that was suggestive of an ill-fitting retainer. Every time Bieber touched Pedrad, she vibrated; recently, “she watched [him] wash his car while she chewed through a fence.” Hey, that’s good! I’d rather have seen that! The problem with Booker T. Washington High School is that it’s just a microphone-passing sketch — a tough thing to pull off, and one that has been pulled off more successfully already. It needs to join Garth and Kat in the comedy afterlife, where it can’t hurt us anymore.
Next week! Christoph Waltz and Alabama Shakes. I’m trying to keep my expectations in check. The past couple of weeks have proved this method to be the magical recipe for an enjoyable show; that, and burning dragon’s blood powder while slicing a sacrificial lemon and chanting. It feels like we’ve built up a little steam over the past two shows, so here’s hoping the trend continues.