Saturday, January 17, 2009

Saturday Night Doogie

After taking a lengthy end-of-the-year break, the "SNL" crew returned last Saturday with their first show of 2009. It was a raucous and impactful 2008. Let's see how the second half of the 34th season of "Saturday Night Live" commenced ...

By the by, this review is so late because I've had some internet connectivity issues here at Pop Culture America HQ, but our writer/technician Dougie, (age 9), assures me that all difficulties have been resolved. Remember, that's "Dougie." Not "Doogie."

"Saturday Night Live," 10 January 2009. Host: Neil Patrick Harris. Musical Guest: Taylor Swift.

Cold Open -- On "The Rachel Maddow Show" (one of my Top Ten TV shows of 2008), Rachel examines issues related to Illinois Governor (and accused felon) Rod Blagojevich and his beleaguered Senatorial appointee Roland Burris. It's good to see Abby Elliott front and center in a prime spot. She'd barely received any screen time before now. Her Rachel Maddow impression is adequate for the task at hand, lobbing straight lines to Kenan Thompson as Roland Burris and (especially) Jason Sudeikis as the man Real Rachel likes to call "Governor F-Bomb." She has a nice wig and the little half smile Rachel employs, but she misses the vocal quality of her target (too little girly) and more importantly, the distinctive Maddow speech patterns, full of extended metaphors and snarky jibes.

Kenan doesn't do much better as the Senator-Designee (now, an actual, full-fledged Senator; take THAT Harry Reid!). He's just sort of himself. He does get a nice comic hook with his repeated mantra about being told his credentials are not in order and being escorted outside.

Finally, we have Sudeikis as the man tabloids call, "Blago." And this is an object lesson on how to score laughs with an "SNL" impression. Jason doesn't look much like the Illinois Governor. He doesn't sound like the Illinois Governor. But he nails the defiant, ham-fisted, oddly effective political acumen of the man. Whether he's taunting Rachel with references to famous lesbians (like Chachi!) or quoting himself with ineffective, clean substitutions for his many expletives ("Sex you!"), Sudeikis always delivers on the spirit of the guy and reinforces what we all think we know about him. He's very funny.

All in all, a good scene that could use a little more effort from two-thirds of its cast. 2 1/2 stars.

Monologue -- Host Neil Patrick Harris tells us all about the time he almost hosted back in 1990 at the height of the popularity of the immortal "Doogie Howser, M. D." Damn Fred Savage! Harris makes a sly reference to his sexuality as he describes a (fictional?) interaction with his 1990 girlfriend. Andy Samberg gets to traffic out his Mark Wahlberg impression again. Harris is, as Barney Stinson might say, "Awesome!" His delivery, his timing with the cast, all terrific. We should expect no less. 3 1/2 stars.

Today Show 4th Hour -- Why are there four hours worth of "The Today Show?" Why is there one? Kathy Lee Gifford, a woman so annoying she managed to get on Regis Philbin's nerves, and someone with the unlikely name of Hoda Kotb apparently host this. Who knew? As portrayed by Kristen Wiig and Michaela Watkins, Hoda is a typical dull fluff-spewer and KLG is ah-who-gives-a-toss bat-guano insane. Kristen's endless supply of mugging face pulls gets a real workout here, even before fitness guru Ian Price (Harris) shows up to dancersize the girls. His regimen seems to incorporate every idiotic dance move since the 80s with a particular emphasis on thrusting. A decent parody of a program I will continue to make sure I never actually watch. 2 1/2 stars.

Trouble on Broadway -- Icons of the Great White Way gather at Sardis to try and come up with a strategy to boost flagging ticket sales. A full cast jam scene led by Jason as the Phantom of the Opera and Harris as the pretentious Mark from Rent, where everyone gets a moment in the sun. Particularly effective are Bobby Moynihan as a cat from ... well Cats. Michaela as a witch from Wicked whose green complexion apparently is not make-up, and musical guest Taylor Swift who dons Annie's bright orange curls and threatens bodily harm. There's also a brief but hilarious garbage-can lid cymbal crash from Darrell Hammond as a guy from Stomp ("Still relevant," quips the Phantom). Very funny. 3 1/2 stars.

Penelope in Group Therapy -- Kristen gets to do her Penelope character for the first time in the 34th season! Yay! We haven't seen her since the Amy Adams show back in March of 2008. This time she's playing her usual game of Can You Top This? with Dr. Hammill's therapy group. Her boasts this time around include that she has 20/80 vision and can see through things with her cat eyes, that she can move furniture with her breath, and that she drives a nut car shaped like Planter's mascot Mr. Peanut with a monocle for a windshield. When she claims that her best friends are Liza Minelli and a tomato, the group gives up on her, so they miss seeing Liza herself burst through the door carrying a tomato. Penelope is my favorite of the current roster of recurring characters and this is an excellent outing for her from beginning to end. 4 stars.

The "SNL" Digital Short: Doogie's Theme -- Neil Patrick Harris, resplendent in formal wear, performs the theme song from "Doogie Howser, M. D." accompanied by an orchestra of Doogies. Mike Post's tinny 80s synth-pop has never sounded better. The whole cast pops up in the orchestra, sporting white doctor coats and blonde Doogie wigs. Uproarious. All that's missing is a cameo by James B. Sikking (I can dream). Harris sheds a tear at the end, as do we all, I suspect. Simple, funny idea executed to perfection. 4 stars.

Taylor Swift performs "Love Story" -- There's a banjo based, countrified version of this song on Taylor's latest album, but this performance is clearly rooted in the guitar-heavy "Pop Edit" version. I know only a little about Ms. Swift. I've heard her sing about her distaste for an old beau's pick-up, for instance, and figured she was firmly in the country mode. But here, she lets the pop-rock take over and by gum, it ain't half bad. A little generic, perhaps, but tuneful and listenable, which is a lot more than I was expecting. As for the song itself, it appears to be a rewrite of Shakespeare's bummer of a play, Romeo and Juliet. Gawd, what a downer! Thank heavens Taylor gave everything a nice happy ending. Nice blingified guitar. 3 stars.

Weekend Update -- Seth looks so alone at the Update desk. I know the greatest Update hosts of all time went it alone (Chevy and Dennis and Norm), but I think Seth needs a little friend. I'm going to nominate Michaela. She has an officious, newsy demeanor. Maybe she could do the whole thing as Arianna Huffington.

But back to this newscast, Seth's material is first rate with some nice jabs at the Presidential luncheon ("They decided to let future generations foot the bill") and a vote cast in the Illinois House by the suspicious Shmod Shmagojevich. Kenan takes advantage of Charles Barkley's latest legal foibles to dust off his best impression. His line about Sir Charles's mugshot looking like Wilson floating away from Tom Hanks is a gem. Will Forte plays a psycho, like usual. This time fixated on College football, the Still-President (hang in there, everyone) and various gross things. He almost says a very special word beginning with "F" and rhyming with "lame duck," but Seth dissuades him. Good stuff. 3 1/2 stars.

Two First Names -- Neil Patrick Harris hosts a show celebrating those famous types who sport not one but two first names, just like him. Another full-cast jam session, the standouts this time around are Jason as Philip Seymour Hoffman and Darrell as a laconic Tommy Lee Jones. Kristen once again portrays Jamie Lee Curtis sucking down the Activia yogurt, just as she did in a bizarrely mean-spirited scene from last season's Ashton Kutcher episode. Andy gets to flog Kangols, those stupid-looking semi-beret hats, as Kangol fan Billy Bob Thornton. The scene never gets beyond its fairly clumsy premise and it's the one time tonight that the talents of the host are completely wasted. Some laughs, but not enough. 2 stars.

Air Traffic Control -- Freeba and Fran (Kristen and Harris) are long-taloned air-traffic controllers discussing how to tell something vague to someone we never see. The funny visual of the ladies with the wildly overlong nails is a good start, but this is a relationship scene without a relationship. The two women talk at length about someone off screen and never show how they connect to each other. Will as their boss has a few walk-on moments, but doesn't really engage either. Harris is fetching in his coral half sweater. An odd duck, this scene, like an improv that never really takes flight. 1 1/2 stars.

Frost/Other People -- The wild, runaway success of Frost/Nixon (?) inspires a hastily thrown-together sequel featuring the interviewer playing "gotcha" with other 70s celebrities. Bill Hader's Aladdin Sane-era David Bowie is brilliant. Someone build a scene around that impression. Now. Fred Armisen does Paul Lynde. It's remarkably similar to his Charles Nelson Reilly. Go fig. A lot of quick-hitter, blackout gags, most fairly funny. 3 stars.

Taylor Swift performs "Forever and Always" -- I know her fan base is country, but I would think country fans would hate this. Again, Taylor performs a number in the pop-rock genre, a little more emphasis on the rock this time around. Again, I am surprised that I enjoy it as much as I do. Her voice isn't terribly strong; there's a lot of quaver and some notes fall by the wayside. But after the end of last year with it's lip-synch acts (I'm looking at you Beyonce) and it's plethora of robot-voiced, auto-tune rappers (I'm looking at you, almost everyone else), a bit of human flaw in the singing is actually refreshing. I also love the outfit this time; demure white collar, naughty schoolgirl skirt, rock chick boots. She's well put together. 3 1/2 stars.

Whopper Virgins -- Eastern Europeans from Budesti, Romania taste-test McDonald's Big Macs and Burger King Whoppers. A gag I don't understand based on a commercial I don't understand. But then, BK's ad campaigns of late have all been baffling; scary Burger King dude, annoying folk singers, this. Fred, Bobby, and Michaela are featured as the backwards Slavic types who don't know from hamburgers. They all do mildly amusing, mildly offensive schtick. Kristen and Harris are the testers and they do very little. A very good episode of "SNL" sadly goes out on this whimper. 1 star.

Then NPH says "Good night," and I can't help but notice that neither Liza nor the tomato stuck around to the end. Guess they're painting the town, Sex and the City style. Tune back into this blog tomorrow for a look at the next "SNL" -- in a much more timely fashion this time -- featuring Rosario Dawson and Fleet Foxes.

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