It's a new era in America and in the spirit of putting aside our differences and joining together in an effort to move our nation forward, two diametrically opposed forces of music collaborated on Saturday night. The worlds of hip hop and country/western met for what might be the very first time when Tim McGraw welcomed his musical guests Ludacris and T-Pain to the latest edition of "Saturday Night Live," but were the results a beautiful harmony or a clanging discord?
There's only one way to find out.
Cold Open -- The CEO's of GM, Chrysler and Ford appear on Capitol Hill to request 25 billion dollars from the government. Will Forte, Darrell Hammond and Jason Sudeikis are the executives in question and each is appropriately arrogant and oblivious. On the congressional side, Fred Armisen leads the way with his cartoon-voiced Barney Frank impression, supported by Casey Wilson, Bill Hader, Kenan Thompson and Bobby Moynihan. Most telling comedic moment: watch Casey fumble her only laugh line ("We've done our part"). A stunningly ironic moment in our history gets a strangely subdued comic reading. The actual Congressional hearing was much funnier. Though I'll admit, American car companies would benefit from Representative Frank's advice to "build gayer cars." 1 1/2 stars.
Monologue -- Host Tim McGraw would like to intoduce any hip hop fans who might be tuning in tonight to the violent, sexually charged world of country and western. Whenever I see a fellow in the 21st century wearing a cowboy hat, I know I'm in for top-notch entertainment. McGraw gives the urban kids a taste of his hit "Real Good Man." He delivers his joke fairly well -- better than I expected from him, honestly. But it's an obvious bit and there's no twist or effort behind the writing. 2 stars.
Clear Rite -- Kristen Wiig as Karen Segal (or is she?) promotes a great new product that eliminates the need for those expensive orthodontic devices. Although it might not be as unnoticeable -- or effective -- as she had hoped. Kristen plays the deluded lead wonderfully, forever dealing with the horrible applications she has apparently super-glued to her teeth. McGraw does well coming in at the end, too. But I have a problem with scenes where it turns out that everything happened because one or more of the characters was insane. Weak choice. Still, a few solid laughs. 2 1/2 stars.
Dateline NBC -- Reporter Keith Morrison (Hader) revels a bit too much in the lurid details of his "Dateline" features. Bill is a riot as he takes near-sexual pleasure while hapless interviewees describe being stuffed in the trunk of a car, a shark attack, and a horrible murder. One joke, but a joke that works thanks to Bill's precision. I haven't seen much "Dateline" recently; is Morrison really like this? Here's to (what is hopefully) comic exaggeration! 3 stars.
Turkeys -- Jason, Fred, Kristen, Andy and the Host all run around in front of a green screen wearing subpar versions of Paul Simon's turkey costume from the mid-seventies. Shouldn't "SNL" have some better turkey suits 30-plus years after Simon's? Shots are fired. More turkeys join in (Kenan and new girl Michaela Watkins). There aren't really any jokes and it all ends on a bizarre monologue about how turkeys are beautiful birds. In a week that saw our old "SNL" pal Sarah Palin stand obliviously by while a turkey went head first into a grinder, this is all they could think of? Was Tina Fey not available? Can't someone else put her hair up and wear glasses and say, "You betcha?" Guess not. 1/2 star.
Footnote: On my NBC affiliate, this scene was followed by an ad for Tim McGraw cologne that I thought had to be a joke -- it was funnier than the turkey thing -- but it turns out it's real. Now I can smell like Tim McGraw! Somebody got my letter.
Monte Carlo Casino -- James Bond and his archenemy LeChiffre square off in a high stakes round of poker. Their deadly game of cat and mouse is sidetracked by the presence of one Wayne Bodine who brings a Larry the Cable Guy sensibility to the tense proceedings. I believe I'm the first person in history to use the phrase "Larry the Cable Guy sensibility." McGraw is again surprisingly effective as Bodine, happily whooping it up with his overly serious opponents and videoing Pussy Galore's posterior. The Bond films themselves tried this contrast back in Roger Moore's day with the character of Sheriff J. W. Pepper, played by Clifton James. Remember him? Anybody? Just me then. 3 1/2 stars.
Ludacris (featuring T-Pain) performs "One More Drink" -- Former "SNL" host Chris "Ludacris" Bridges takes on the musical guest role tonight and delivers a playful, goofy rap about how the women in the bar look better the more booze you imbibe. It might not be the most enlightened premise for a song, but in the oppressively violent and boastful world of hip hop, any amount of levity is welcome. T-Pain wears a t-shirt with a large pink "S" clearly proclaiming himself to be a gay Superman. Just in case you think my gaydar is off, check out the big silver top hat. The song and the performance are both engaging. 3 stars.
Weekend Update -- I don't know how long Amy Poehler is planning to be away on mommy duty, but it's time to start looking for an interim Update anchor to sit next to Seth Meyers. Seriously, in that opening shot he looks like the only five-year-old at a banquet table, all alone. His news bits tonight are not the best, so it's good to see Darrell Hammond's Bill Clinton come rolling into view. "Where's Blondie?" he asks first thing. Where, indeed. Clinton assures us that, as the vetting process to name his wife Secretary of State goes forward, the last thing he wants to do is screw Hillary. Bless him. Michaela Watkins gives us an excellent Arianna Huffington impression, skewering the web mistress's penchant for celebrity hobnobbing, while referencing Skeletor and He-Man. In just one appearance, she leapfrogs ahead of not only fellow newbie Abby Elliott, but all the other featured players as well. I'm looking at you, Casey Wilson. Finally, Will Forte delivers a little of Georgia mad man Zell Miller, though it's not as wildly vein busting as previous appearances. A definite mixed bag tonight, but Hammond and Watkins put it over the top. 3 stars.
The Blizzard Man -- Ludacris has tapped a secret weapon for his new jam, and shunned T-Pain in the process. Andy's Blizzard Man character is another one-joke bit, and if they want to use him again, they really need to find a twist or a new context for him. As on the show he hosted, Ludacris's rapture at the Blizz's idiotic rap stylings is a scream. As is T-Pain's ire. McGraw dashes in as the Blizzard Man's manager, just to give him something to do. Finally, someone points out how moronic everyone sounds singing through an auto-tune. Have we learned nothing from the Party Posse? 3 stars.
Thanksgiving Dinner -- McGraw leads his family in giving thanks over the holiday meal, only to discover that unpleasant weirdo Jeff Montgomery has somehow snuck in to the house. Will did his Jeff Montgomery character to greater effect in the Jon Hamm episode as a trick-or-treater "dressed up as" a sexual predator. Here, there's no real rhyme or reason for Montgomery's appearance, other than he's just that big a creep, I guess. McGraw again does a solid job, this time playing straight to Will's gooniness. I should probably stop being surprised by him. The rest of the diners make little to no impression. Abby Elliott's contribution to the scene consists of uttering the words "me," "door," and "no." Way to knock it out of the park, kiddo! 2 1/2 stars.
Dale Britches's Down Home Phony Phone Calls -- Mild-mannered prankster Dale Britches (McGraw) offers a CD of all his hilarious prank phone calls. McGraw gives an excellent performance, effortlessly becoming the kindly, elderly fellow who crank calls folks, then immediately admits he's kidding. A gentle scene whose humor sneaks up on you, this is somewhat marred by an unnecessarily sour capper about wife killing. Despite the clunker at the end, one of the night's best. 3 1/2 stars.
T-Pain (featuring Ludacris) performs "Chopped N Skrewed" -- Remember how idiotic the auto-tune voice sounded in the Blizzard Man sketch? Well, now were asked to take it seriously as the king of auto-tune, T-Pain, delivers a robot-voiced paen to ... I dunno. Vegetables? The lead robot is quite patriotic in his silver stars-and-stripes hat and Obama t-shirt. He's flanked by two dancers who appear to be some strange cross between Mandingo warriors, Robin Williams in Bicentennial Man, and the inside-out people of Screamers. Cool! Luda steps in about halfway through and provides a much needed energy boost. 2 stars.
Pizzeria Uno -- Oh dear God no. Please tell me they are not bringing back that horrid Bobby Moynihan waiter character from the Michael Phelps show. Please no. Please ...
Waiter Mark Payne continues to grate and grate on everyone, especially me. Not even repeated references to the greatest film in history, Cocktail, can save this miserably wretched character. Abby delivers a pizza, then leaves without saying a word. Not even "me door no." McGraw plays a guy so down on his luck, he's even nice to the awful, should-never-be-seen-again, appropriately named Payne. The final exchange sums it all up: McGraw -- "You know what? You're all right." Moynihan -- "Oh, even I don't believe that." Me neither. 1 star because McGraw commits to his character. Zero for this awful recurring nightmare.
And that's it. Last week, we had a good, solid show, despite the fact that the host was AWOL. This week, Tim McGraw proved himself a gamer, but the program never really elevated. Next time, it's John Malkovich and T. I. And T. I. am gonna be there.
Special bonus: In what looks like an alternate Cold Open for the Auto Bailout thing, NBC.com has posted an address from Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel (Andy). It's funnier than the one they went with, gleefully malicious and foul-mouthed. I'd give it 2 1/2 stars. Check it out.