One of my complaints about the annual critical dumping on "Saturday Night Live" is that the critics in question review one, maybe two, episodes and then move on to other things. Then when the show gets a little buzz from a new recurring character or an oft-downloaded viral video, they all trip over themselves to board the bandwagon.
Well, that ain't gonna happen in Pop Culture America.
For as long as this truncated season of "SNL" lasts, I will be reviewing the show scene by scene right here. I started last week with the first post-strike installment, hosted by alum Tina Fey and now I continue with yesterday's Ellen Page-hosted extravaganza.
Democratic Debate: With the Republican race all sewn up, "SNL" is kinda stuck here in primary season with the Dems. If Hillary doesn't rebound in Ohio or Texas this week, they may have to wait until fall to get any mileage out of the campaign. The strike strikes again! Just like last week, both Fred Armisen's Obama and Amy Poehler's Clinton are solid. Just like last week, the sketch targets the media rather than the candidates or their policies. Darrell Hammond shows up, does his Tim Russert impression, and now can go back to bed because that will be his only appearance on the show tonight. Vincent D'Onofrio makes an unnecessary cameo. Just like last week, I give the cold open 2 1/2 stars.
Footnote -- "SNL" has received some heat from last week for having a white actor play an African-American Presidential candidate. Is this really a problem? Everyone knows that Darrell Hammond has been doing a Jesse Jackson impression on the show for years, right? Everyone remembers Billy Crystal's Sammy Davis Jr., right? Everyone remembers Eddie Murphy as a white guy in the immortal sketch, "White Like Me," right? It's not like Armisen is corking up and singing about his Mammy, for heaven's sake. As stuff to get offended about goes, this is pretty weak.
Hillary's Cameo: After the debate sketch, Hillary Clinton appears and has awkward banter with Poehler. The more Clinton tries to seem like a just-one-of-us normal gal, the creepier she gets. I suppose after Tina Fey's outright endorsement last week, Clinton owed the show something. 1 1/2 stars.
Monologue: Or is that Mono-BLOG! Ellen Page begins the show but is interrupted by an Oscar-toting, catch-phrase-spouting Diablo Cody (Andy Samberg). Oh look! A man in drag! Let's all get offended. Why couldn't they give that part to a woman? And so ends my heavy-handed sarcasm. Samberg's funny, Page seems uncomfortable. 2 stars.
The Dakota Fanning Show: Poehler has scored before as the precocious pre-teen star and Kenan Thompson's bitter reactions as her bandleader, Reggie, are some of his best contributions to the program. Not much new here but the usual beats work. One missed opportunity comes when Page impersonates her "Barbara Walters Special" co-interviewee Miley Cyrus. Anyone who saw the pre-Oscar gabfest knows that Cyrus is a sanctimonious little priss in need of a good satirical skewering, but all Page does is affect a Texas twang and sing very badly. Shame. 2 stars.
The Obama Files: Hey! A Smigel cartoon! These are always reliable. But not this time. Once again, Obama gets a pass from the "SNL" staff, portrayed here going to great lengths to distance himself from Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Politically tepid and tedious. 1 star.
The College for Excellence: On the Scarlett Johansson-hosted shows of the past two seasons, Armisen has utilized a very funny sleazeball late-night salesman character flogging "high-class" items like chandeliers and marble columns. Here, the same guy has his own New York business school, teaching useful phrases, many of which revolve around the Johnson file. Not a bad idea, but the sketch takes an odd turn when Armisen starts begging "smart guys" not to make fun of him. They don't seem to know what to do with Page yet. 2 1/2 stars.
The Other Boleyn Girls: King Henry the Eighth has his pick of a number of increasingly unpleasant young ladies from the voluminous Boleyn clan. Obvious, but funny. 3 stars.
Nightmare: The normally reliable SNL Digital Short is ... reliable! Yay! Page wakes up to discover that the goofy creep from her nightmare (Samberg) has taken on a life of his own. The non-sequiturs fly. Best line so far: "I love you, Dracula." The first outright winner of the night. 3 1/2 stars.
Wilco performs "Hate It Here": Beefed up by a horn section, Jeff Tweedy and company sound tighter than Glenn Kotche's snare drum. Great. 4 stars.
Weekend Update: A better hits-to-misses ratio from Poehler and Seth Myers this week than last. They have both GOT to stop guffawing at their own jokes. Comedy 101, kids. Rudy Giuliani shows up and blames "SNL" for costing him the Presidential nomination. He's slightly less awkward than Hillary at the top of the show. He does get off a nice crack about how his campaign was a lot like an "SNL" sketch": It started off strong, but didn't really have an ending. Armisen does one of his less well thought out characters as well. 3 stars.
Shopping with Virginiaca: Thompson's sassy sugar mama is as annoying as ever and Page again looks lost. She doesn't even seem to know where her mark is. And yet, the thing is almost saved by Samberg's reaction takes. 2 stars (both for Andy).
Hook's Revenge: Or as I like to call it, the realization of Giuliani's prophecy. Captain Hook (Bill Hader popping up for the first time tonight) informs his crew that getting their posteriors kicked over and over again by girly little boys wielding wooden swords is embarrassing. It started off strong, but didn't really have an ending. Here's where I wish the "SNL" writers could commune with the spirit of the late great Michael O'Donahue. Mr. Mike would have ended this sketch with Hook slitting Peter Pan's gullet. Now THAT'S an ending. 2 stars.
Wilco performs "Walken": Hey! Get a load of Jeff Tweedy's Conway Twitty duds. Tweedy does Twitty! Wilco is one of my favorite bands and this performance gives you a nice glimpse as to why: just listen to how they structure the run-out on this song. Tweedy takes the lead with a boneheadedly simple riff, then each band member picks up the pattern and adds a little to it. By the time the song thunders to it's conclusion, that basic riff has become the underpinning of a wild, chaotic jam. Brilliant. 4 stars.
Etheridge Concert: A girl (Page) returns to her significant other (Samberg), fiercely enthusiastic about her experience at a Melissa Etheridge concert. Finally, they find something for the host to sink her teeth into. This is how the whole show should have been. The ending's a bit weak, but that can be forgiven when everything else clicks this well. I think at one time or another, we have all felt like an oil lamp that's never been lit. 4 stars.
Good Night: Nothing special here. The usual thank-yous and ... Oh look, D'Onofrio stayed through the whole show. Apparently Hillary and Rudy did not.
Next week the great Amy Adams hosts with the great Vampire Weekend as musical guest. My great fingers are crossed. I love you, Dracula!