Last week, we saw a "Saturday Night Live" episode that highlighted the best the show has to offer. And also some of its worst, laziest tendencies. This week, "SNL" is a very different animal with a promising guest host in James Franco and a great musical guest, Kings of Leon. Did it deliver on the promise? Let's find out.
Cold Open -- John McCain approves of a number of spurious campaign ads. Darrell Hammond's McCain impression is dead on ... which isn't necessarily a good thing because he gets the Arizona Senator's dullness and pokeyness as much as anything else. There are some nice gags about the excesses of campaign ads, like calling out the notion of "universal health care" covering everyone in the universe. Including Osama Bin Laden! And pedophiles! Bill Hader does a nice job as the snarky political ad voice-over specialist Ken Lewis. The sketch takes on a valid topic in campaign tactics, but never rises to the level of real, biting political satire simply because it doesn't address the candidate's politics. I guess it was inevitable that the political opener would pale next to last week's brilliant Palin/Clinton lightning bolt. Too bad. Remember, Barack Obama has fathered two black children! In wedlock! 2 1/2 stars.
Monologue -- Host James Franco is just a normal guy on the campus of Columbia University. Who's a movie star. Jason Sudeikis is cluelessly energetic as Franco's R. A., Craig, trying to get Franco to promote his a cappella group, the Funktones. Pity poor Ken Woo. In what will be a running theme for this episode, it's not bad, but it ain't great. 2 1/2 stars.
The Cougar Den -- Three elderly, husky-voiced skanks (Casey Wilson, Kristen Wiig and Amy Poehler) host a show where elderly, husky-voiced skanks prowl after younger males. A redux from last season's Ashton Kutcher episode, Cougar Den once again shows Kristen outpacing her two co-hosts. And again, Cameron Diaz shows up as Charo wannabe Kiki D'Amore. Doesn't she have a paying gig somewhere? Diaz nails the character and obviously has a great time doing it. Franco is very effective as the leader of emo band Edge of Confusion, Madison. He looks like he's auditioning for the Gerard Way biopic. Kenan Thompson gets some nice reaction shot laughs. The old hags reference Eddie Money and Boz Scaggs and perform coordinated leg moves. A welcome return. 3 stars.
Agent 420 -- When the insidious Dr. Huang unfurls his nefarious schemes, the call goes out for Britain's top secret agent. But since he's not available, MI6 settles for Agent 420. Franco gets to play stoned, something he did very well in the otherwise disappointing Pineapple Express. Fred Armisen gets what should be a juicy role as a Bond villain, but never does much with it. Kristen has fun singing the Bondian title tune and undulating around in a mock title sequence. The elements are all there for a riotous scene, but it never quite comes together. A missed opportunity. 2 stars.
Simpson Jury Selection -- A judge (Casey) and a defense attorney with Dave Gregory hair (Bill) have the near impossible task of finding people who've never heard of O. J. Simpson (Kenan) to sit in the jury of his latest trial. A character parade features Franco's (very funny) head trauma victim, Kristen's feral child from the arctic, and Andy Samberg as a visitor from the planet Sorbanus. Casey's wig doesn't fit right and she fumbles lines. It all ends abruptly. Good. but like the Agent 420 sketch, should have been better. 3 stars.
The SNL Digital Short, "Murray Hill" -- In a young-adult drama a la "Gossip Girl" or the new "90210," James Franco is Sean and he can't seem to stop bringing up his ... private shortcomings. And that's "GG's" Blake Lively at the end. Franco and Kristen are appropriately inappropriately earnest, but as ding dong jokes go, this is no "Dick in a Box." 2 stars.
The Looker -- Taking a cue from Kyra Sedgwick's success as "The Closer," Penny Marshall (Fred in drag) tries her hand at a tough interrogator role. Kristen's marvelous Kyra Sedgwick impression is on screen far too briefly. Someone write THAT sketch already! Fred's a hoot with his hang-dog Penny Marshall stare. After last week's appearance as Cathy, Andy gets to wear women's clothes again as Juliette Lewis. They get everything out of this idea that there was to get. That's what I love in comedy: efficiency. 2 1/2 stars.
Kings of Leon performs "Sex on Fire" -- As one would expect from the Followills, Kings of Leon deliver an economical, driving rock and roll throb. Extra points for not rhyming "fire" with "desire." Instead, they go with "transpire." That's going the extra mile. KOL is a little light in the on-screen charisma, but a solid tune makes up for it. 3 stars.
Weekend Update -- Seth and Amy have been stepping up their fake news game in these first two episodes, maybe in anticipation of the "SNL Political Primetime Specials" they have slated for October. Whatever the reason, this is as energetic and engaging as the "WU" segments have ever been with the current team. Set your phasers on "stunning!" Jason gets to wear an old-timey barrel as failed Lehman Bros. CEO Richard Fuld, which is a funny visual, but considering how the real-life Fuld covered his posterior at the expense of his company and ultimately, the people who relied on Lehman, it's probably wildly inaccurate. It would have been more pointed and realistic for him to come out in Armani with high-paid escorts draped on his arms. Fred sports remarkable facial hair and disturbing green underpants as American Apparel chief Dov Charney. Real life tidbit: Charney once gave an interview to a reporter from Jane magazine while masturbating. It's a case of the real guy being more outrageous than the joke. Solid across the board. 3 1/2 stars.
The Offices of the New York Times, September 8, 2008 -- Times editor Franco tries to get his hopelessly New York-centric reporting staff to examine the credentials of new Republican veep nominee Sarah Palin. And to brave the polar-bear-riddled hinterland of Alaska. Will Forte is obsessed with the aforementioned bears. Bobby Moynihan is a pre-op transsexual. But only in the scene. I think. Fred weeps at the thought of a state with only one psychoanalyst. My favorite is the idiot know-it-all played by Bill. Pretty good character parade. 3 stars.
Of Mice and Men: The Alternate Ending -- Turns out, Lenny only sounded stupid because he kept repeating the nonsense George was feeding him all those years. Bobby is marginal as Lenny. Which is a huge improvement over last week when I wanted him beaten with a board with a nail in it. A pretty good idea (for English major nerds like me), done pretty well. Both Franco and Bobby all but crawl into their cue cards. Mediocre. 2 stars.
Yankee Stadium Stories -- With the impending demise of the original Yankee Stadium, native New Yorkers Martin Scorsese and Rosie Perez reminisce. Fred's Scorsese is solid. Amy gets to do her Rosie Perez for the second time in one show (she was the new voice of Dora the Explorer back during the news). Rosie roller skates through the aisles. Marty used to play ball with a loaf of bread and meatballs. Cute and quick. 3 stars.
Kings of Leon performs "Be Somebody" -- In his olive drab t-shirt, Caleb looks like an extra from M*A*S*H. Unlike their usual stripped-down garage rawk, this almost sounds like a U2 power ballad. I love the band but this ain't their best. 2 stars.
James Franco's Dressing Room -- As Franco prepares for his hosting duties, he is visited by a spectral Willem Dafoe, demanding vengeance on Andy Samberg, for some reason. Bill's Dafoe impression is good, but Andy's is better. A real hoot to close the show. 3 1/2 stars.
Last week was marked by a "Best-Of" quality high in the Palin/Clinton opener, and some dismal lows. This week was consistent and in a few cases, solid. But nothing ever took off. Next week, we have another promising host in House Bunny Anna Faris and a musical guest both Dave and I have grown very fond of, Duffy. Looking forward to it. But then, I always am.