‘The Lizzie Bennet Diaries’ is the best dramatization of ‘Pride & Prejudice’

lbd cast posterI always thought the A&E version of Pride & Prejudice – you know, the one with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle would be my favorite, but that’s before I discovered the Web series, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries - a modern take on Jane Austen’s classic romantic comedy of errors about class, gender, and love.

The 100-part series of short episodes (each is about 5 minutes) follows the plot of Pride & Prejudice faithfully: the Bennet household is all a tizzy because a handsome young man moves into town, and the Bennet matriarch hopes to marry off her beautiful daughters. The modern twist is the conceit: Elizabeth Bennet is transformed from a headstrong, intelligent young English lady to a headstrong, intelligent young grad students, studying communications. As part of a school project, Lizzie shoots vlogs about the various dramas that befall on Elizabeth and her family and friends. The inclusion of the Internet brings up questions of public vs. private, and fits seamlessly into the narrative.

What I liked about the A&E version of P&P is the lavish costumes and sumptuous sets. On TLBD, the drama is contained in one room, as Lizzie and her friends report on various goings on her vlog. And in a great running joke, Lizzie plays the part of the other characters, and will often rope her friends or sisters in to play parts as well.  Even though one would think the brief duration of each episode would make things feel rushed, it doesn’t – instead, it works to the show’s advantage. Part of the reason why it works is because the writers are able to condense episodes in Austen’s flawless plot into quick passages by having each vlog post deal with an issue, whether it be a romantic dilemma or tension among friends and family. In P&P, the Bennet family’s honor is put into question when the flirty Lydia is potentially “ruined” by the dashing George Wickham. On TLBD, the writers take on the issue of sexting and revenge porn and make the series topical and socially relevant.

Often when people debate the merits of various versions of P&P, the deciding factor is who plays Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth are legendary, and though I think Kiera Knightly richly deserved her Oscar nomination for her turn, it’s clear that Ashley Clements is easily the best Elizabeth Bennet. The actress has crack comic timing, but is also good for the more emotional moments, as well – and even though she’s often called upon to display a range of emotions in a span of just five minutes, she’s more than up to the task. As Darcy, Daniel Vincent Gordh is a find, as well, playing the vulnerability behind the pompous facade of the character. The rest of the cast is populated by some great performers, and it’s nice to see just how the characters have been adapted to the 21st century. Lydia (Mary Kate Wiles) is a study in the pitfalls and reductive limitation of slut-shaming. Instead of judging Lydia, which Austen does on TLBD, we see the genuine depth and complexity of her character (and in her own spin-off, The Lydia Bennet, Lydia’s further rehabilitated as a character and given tragic and heroic character traits). And while Jane can be seen as insufferable because of virtue, she’s given a strong core, without forsaking the character’s innate sweetness.

Because the show is set in the 21st century, there’s a healthy diversity on TLBD. Bingley is turned into Bing Lee, a handsome Asian-American medical student (and his sister Caroline is still the steely villain). And Charlotte Lucas is turned from a practical if somewhat sad character from P&P into the smart and lovely Charlotte Lu, a computer whiz who edits Lizzie’s vlogs, and often acts as a much-needed reality check (Elizabeth Bennet’s almost-blind pride, self-regard, and self-righteousness remain). I always found the friendship between Charlotte and Elizabeth in Austen’s work to be very sad – the two young ladies are very close, at times closer than sisters, and yet once Charlotte marries the ridiculous Mr. Collins (who appears on TLBD as the entrepreneurial Mr. Ricky Collins), the friendship essentially ends. On TLBD, the two young characters go through even worse conflict that leaves a rift that is just as sad because of how close the two are.

I can’t wait to see more takes on Austen’s works (I’ve just started Emma Approved, based on my favorite book Emma) in this format. As television evolves with these new ways of bringing shows to viewers, it’s clear that Web series is more than capable of telling engrossing stories (and the brevity of the episodes in no way get in the way of depth and development). Fans of Jane Austen may balk at such a drastic retelling of the story, but they should give The Lizzie Bennet Diaries a chance – because the key to Austen’s genius was that she told tales that were timeless.

Click here to watch The Lizzie Bennet Diaries on YouTube.

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Let’s calm the f*ck down about Renee Zellweger

So I’m sure a lot of you have heard the Renee Zellweger jokes before – that she was puffy, she looked like she was on crack, she resembled a blowfish, etc. These were all mean-spirited, cheap, and lazy jokes told at the expense of a talented actress whose biggest sin was starring in a sequel to Bridget Jones’s Diary (I’m still mad about that, by the way).

Zellweger has disappeared for a bit, popping up occasionally in the gossip rags, but staying MIA for the most part, until a few days ago when the world lost its collective shit because Renee Zellweger peeked her head out in public – surprise! Her head looks somewhat different than what we remember from the Cold Mountain era.

And predictably the sniping began, and predictably my eyes started to roll, over and over and over again. The Renee Zellweger jokes were tired before, and they’re tired now. The collective gasp at her supposed transformation brought to mind when we collectively acted like a major asshat and shat on Kim Novak during her Oscar appearance, because it looked like the movie vet had some major work done.

I really scratched my head over that one, and I’m commencing the scratching of my head over the Renee Zellweger fracas. Firstly, I wonder why we even feel the need to comment on her face (I know, I know, by writing this post, I’m commenting on it as well – I’d argue that I’m commenting on the commentary, but you’re free to disagree with me). Why the interest, nee, the need to immediately tear someone down? And for what? Because she did something that millions of us would do in a split second if we had the money?

Renee Zellweger is a millionaire, and therefore she operates in the world with privilege. That’s clear. But even her money, status, and fame doesn’t make her immune to a culture that is increasingly hostile to older women. Because she understands that to avoid being typcast as mothers and grandmothers (we live in a universe where Marisa Tomei was cast as Jonah Hill’s mother. Let’s let that sink in for a second), she has to look youthful and beautiful (which she does, by the way), because she’s competing for decent roles (which are scarce) with women younger than she. None of this is new, but still even if we’re aware of this sick system, we still prop it up. How? By going to comment threads to crap all over a woman (who’s a stranger, by the way) because she had the temerity to allegedly have plastic surgery (after getting shit unlimted for years). There’s a razor-toothed glee to the way some Internet zealots leaped in line to take a swipe at Miss Zellweger (I won’t give them extra publicity by reprinting some of the less-than-chivalrous comments), a cliched “taking down the rich” which really isn’t directed solely at Zellweger. Because here’s the thing, when you crap on one woman for getting older, then you’re crapping on all women who get older. And I know we’re supposed to say “what about aging gracefully?” or “What about aging naturally?” Well, I say f*ck that noise, because we all will age how we age – some of us will dye our hair, some of use will get our teeth fixed, some of us will get our brows lifted, some of us will get our noses slimmed, some of us will get our breasts enlarged, and some of us will get our butts lifted. No option is invalid if it comes from a place of authenticity. I’m starting to think that the reason we love carping on aging women’s beauty is because it reminds us that we all get old, and we don’t like to have that reminder staring back at us from the cover of US Weekly (and some of it is that we’re pissed that we can’t go off and disappear to some high-end clinic in Sedona, only to emerge fresh-faced and rejuvenated).

Look, my point is, Renee Zellweger has an Oscar on her mantle, so she doesn’t really need to prove anything to any of her detractors. She’s probably not losing a whole lotta sleep over some creepy trolls who think they’re bad ass because they have an avatar, a screen name, and a keyboard. She’s not the only victim in this obsessive desire to cut women down – all women are because we don’t only shit on Renee Zellweger exclusively. Think about: when at the grocery store or market, if you see an older woman wearing something revealing, do you say or think something biting and catty? When at a bar and a girl comes in with ample cleavage on display, do you immediately think something bitchy? If you see a lady with freshly-plumped lips, or a smooth-as-ice forehead, do you want to say something cutting (no pun intended)? Let’s relax on the trashing because we have lots of other things we could be doing with our time.

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Divas covering other divas: Aretha Franklin does Adele, Bette Midler does the Ronettes

This season sees the return of two larger-than-life female vocalists, Aretha Franklin and Bette Midler, both of whom were missing from the recording studio for a while now. For their comeback projects, both Franklin and Midler are putting out cover records – Franklin’s will be a collection of classics from fellow divas, while Midler’s album is a set of girl group numbers.

Midler’s cover of “Be My Baby” is a very faithful remake of the Phil Spector classic. It’s not surprising that she’s successful in her homage to the Ronettes – Midler’s always been a nostalgia artist (she practically is Sophie Tucker and the Andrew Sisters combined). Her expressive voice hasn’t changed much in her absence, and is still appealing and distinct, but the best thing about the song is Midler’s empathy and ease with this kind of material.

 

Aretha Franklin takes on Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and also does some great work. Her voice has taken on bruised quality – a combination of age and a life-long addiction to smoking. But no worries, it’s still the most soulful voice in pop music. Like Midler’s cover, Franklin also is pretty faithful to Adele’s original, but manages to imbue some of her legendary tics like the vocal sweeps, dips, and wails. And if covering one postmodern diva isn’t enough, she mashes “Rolling in the Deep” with Diana Ross’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” that works surprisingly well.

If these singles are any indication of their parent albums, both Franklin and Midler have some big hits on their hands.

Click here to buy/download Bette Midler’s “Be My Baby” or the full album It’s the Girls! from amazon.com.

Click here to buy/download Aretha Franklin’s “Rolling in the Deep” or the full album Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics from amazon.com.

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Legends Tony Bennett and Barbra Streisand find continued success with a little help from some (famous) friends

Ah, the duets album – a popular career route for a veteran musician to pick up some new fans by featuring trendy, popular artists of the day so that youngsters can say, “Hey! This old fogey is singing with [insert YouTube pop sensation here]. He must be cool!” Frank Sinatra’s legendary Duets album set the standard for icons to share the mic with the latest thing to show off a versatility and hipness.

Tony Bennett has been able to find renewed success on top of his late-career renaissance with a series of duets album, starting in 2006 with a pair of duets albums as well as a Spanish-language version with Latino artists. On Cheek to Cheek, the legend is paired with with dance-pop diva, Lady Gaga (who appeared on Bennett’s successful 2011’s Duets II), on a collection of jazz and pop standards.

Barbra Streisand, unlike Tony Bennett, is not a singer known for her willingness to share the spotlight. Though she released a duets album in 2002, it was merely a hodgepodge collection of tracks available on other albums. On Partners, Streisand finally records a proper duets studio album with a long list of singers – young, middle-aged, and old, that will undoubtedly please her past, present, and future fans.

On their album, Bennett and Lady Gaga (should I refer to her as “Gaga”) share a surprising chemistry that isn’t as forced as one would expect. Obviously the song selection skews to Bennett’s comfort zone: Great American Songbook mainstays like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Billy Strayhorn, and Jimmy Van Heusen, are among the songwriters whose work was selected for the project. But that’s okay, because these are easily some of the best songs of the 20th century, and deserve a second, third, or fourth listen. And at 88, Bennett’s still a charmer. Though age has wizened and truncated his range and lung power, he makes up for it with a swinging ebullience and a verve that belies his age. Lady Gaga has a surprisingly large and supple voice, but at times, she sounds like an American Idol contestant (a good one, though) with her belting and hammy showbiz mannerisms. But together, they manage to overcome any weird Odd Couple-like issues and put together a very solid album.

The best moments on the album allow for the two singers to interact playfully. The sprightlier numbers work better than the jazzy ballads (which show that Lady Gaga, while a good stylist, has still some learning to do). Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh’s “Firefly” is a great vehicle for the two to spar with each other, as does the album’s single “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” which has a great bass and a jazzy beat. Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) has a fantastic, breakneck pace, and a beautiful horn solo in the bridge. The title track is also a corker of a number with a nimble string bass and both Bennett and Lady Gaga give sly, mincing vocal performances.

Not all of the album works – this isn’t a classic recording, and Lady Gaga’s solo number disappoints because it strays from the gimmick of the album, because let’s be clear, this is a very well-made, and very classy novelty record. Still, it’s commendable that both artists reach out to bridge the yawning chasm between them.

Unlike Bennett, Barbra Streisand doesn’t settle on just one duet partner, instead she sings with a diverse group of performers including Michael Buble, Stevie Wonder, John Mayer, Billy Joel, Blake Shelton, John Legend, and even a musically-resurrected Elvis Presley (we have Natalie Cole to thank for the “duetting with a dead singer” trope). And the songs listed are a mix of some of Streisand’s classics and pop standards that show off her still-vital and gorgeous pipes.

As Bennett has, Streisand looked to the current pop charts for some of the guys she tapped – her duet with neo-Sinatra Buble, “It Had to Be You” is predictably excellent. Both singers have a great ear for this kind of music. You know who doesn’t? John Mayer, who intrudes on the “Come Rain or Come Shine” with a faux-blusey guitar riff that reeks of white-breadness. A pleasant surprise is how pleasant Streisand’s son, Jason Gould sounds singing with his mom on the old chestnut “How Deep Is the Ocean.”

Singing with a singer like Streisand can be daunting because in the past, she has a reputation of steamrolling over her duet partners (just listen to poor Johnny Mathis, Michael Crawford, and gasp – Don Johnson, who wither on vinyl when trying to match voices with her). It’s when she’s matched up with an artist comparable to her stature that she gets a lot of good work done. Soul star John Legend redoes the Bee Gee-penned “What Kind of Fool” and transforms it into a gorgeous, lush ballad. Lionel Richie’s beautifully smooth vocals complement Streisand on her monster hit “The Way We Were.” And on “People” Stevie Wonder does, well, wonders, turning the simple ballad into a please bossa nova number. Babyface, who had production duties on the record, transforms Streisand’s “Evergreen” into a Whitney Houston-style pop ballad (I’m wondering why the two hadn’t worked on an album before – they seem perfect for each other).

As with any Streisand album, some bombast is expected – no it’s required. She still has the lung capacity to pull off those diva high notes. On West Side Story‘s hopeful ballad, she trades Broadway belting duties with Josh Groban, and Andrea Bocelli proves to be an ideal partner on the ridiculously swooning and overproduced “I Still Can See Your Face.”

Not all of Partners works – Blake Shelton proves to be a forgettable partner, and it feels like he was added because of his high profile due to The Voice. Also Billy Joel – not a personal favorite of mine – shows up to pretend that his “New York State of Mind” is a good song (and yeah, ending the song with a tiny riff from Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” shows just how sucky his song is in comparison). And I wish Elvis Presley and Barbra Streisand got together when he was alive, because that would’ve been awesome – the creepy, from the grave performance of “Love Me Tender” is unsettling.

Still, despite these minor bumps, Partners is yet another solid triumph in Streisand’s discography, and it edges out Bennett’s Cheek to Cheek because while his album feels like a gotcha gimmicky grab to entice curious listeners, Streisand’s album feels pretty organic (though some of the duets were recorded separately).

Click here to buy Barbra Streisand’s Partners from amazon.com.

Click here to buy Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga’s Cheek to Cheek on amazon.com.

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‘Modern Family’ starts to show its age and wear in the fifth season

Modern Family won five Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series for its first five seasons. The voters got it right, I’d say for the first three seasons, but it’s criminal that the fifth season bested more worthy contenders like Louie or Veep (not to mention that the vastly superior Parks and Recreation wasn’t even nominated). My issue with the automatic wins for the show isn’t because the show’s bad – it’s not. Even at its most mediocre, it’s still better than most sitcoms on TV, but the fifth season felt like it had equal moments of lulls and highs. One cannot expect shows to be on top of their game forever, and the first three seasons of Modern Family are classic TV and cement a legacy that the creators – Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan – should be proud of.

That said, it feels like a lot of the fifth season of Modern Family was simply lazy phoning it in. The major story arc has Cameron and Mitchell finally get married after gay marriage becomes legal in California. While that’s a great way to fold in a potentially-difficult social issue into a MOR sitcom, it becomes problematic when the gay couple about to get married come off as irritating as fuck. The writers struck gold when they cast Eric Stonestreet as the effusive and demonstrative Cameron and Jesse Tyler Ferguson as the uptight Mitchell. The two actors share a great chemistry and Stonestreet is a marvelous physical comedian. The two also have a mastery of the snarky one-liners – unfortunately, the writers exploit the talents, having Cam and Mitch engage in bitchy verbal slapfests throughout the season as the stress of planning a wedding takes a toll on their marriage. I’m not saying they should be lovey-dovey, but judging by the fifth season of the show, Mitch and Cam can barely stand each other. The sniping – while sometimes funny – undermines any kind of emotional truth or value.

While the gay marriage arc is the most developed, there are other story lines that tie the episodes together. Claire and Phil Dunphy are dealing with Luke’s first day of high school, while Haley is still trying to find herself after getting kicked out of college, and Alex is feeling the pinch of growing pains. And Claire finally returns to the workforce, getting a job working for her dad’s closet manufacturing company.

I was always a little mystified why Claire didn’t work outside the home for the show’s run. It made no sense, and made the title of the show Modern Family a bit off-point. As Claire, Emmy-winner Julie Bowen is often very solid, though she can rely too much on being very brittle. She does do a mean slow burn though (Bea Arthur would’ve been proud). As her man-child husband, Phil, Ty Burrell is easily a first among equals, being able to levitate a lot of the material – even the ho-hum ones. And the child actors are growing up nicely – Sarah Hyland as Haley especially had a strong year in the fifth season, imbuing her character with a vulnerability that makes her flailing sad and relatable. As the over-achiever, Alex, Ariel Winter does some good work, as well, even being gifted with an episode that essentially worked as a one-woman show during which she opened up to a therapist after having a meltdown at a birthday party. Nolan Gould’s also good, though it’s clear that the writers are struggling to figure out what to do with an adolescent Luke.

Though their story lines are much lighter in the fifth season, Ed O’Neill and Sofia Vergara still offer some of the heartiest laughs. O’Neill as patriarch Jay has always been able to impart a deep intelligence to all of his performances, even when playing the proudly idiotic misanthrope, Al Bundy on Married…with Children. His work is so understated, that he often gets forgotten, but that’s unfair because he’s an integral part of the show. And as Gloria, Jay’s gorgeous trophy wife, Vergara has perfected her Lucille Ball-meets-Charo act. Gloria has been stretched out and broadened throughout the five seasons to capitalize on Vergara’s outstanding skills as a comedienne, but unfortunately, the writers have shortchanged her on deeper, more emotional moments (it’s not surprising that the actress was snubbed at last year’s Emmy nominations). In the Jay/Gloria story lines, the two are raising a little kid, while helping Gloria’s teenaged son Manny (Rico Rodriguez) navigate through high school. Like Luke, Manny’s life has changed significantly, but it seems to be for the better: his dandy affectations and eccentricities actually make him popular with his classmates.

As I wrote earlier, the big gay wedding dominates the fifth season. This means that we get some social commentary, though little of it is terribly pointed or trenchant, but that’s okay, we don’t expect Modern Family to proselytize. If anything, the show works its ass off to show how normal and average gay couples are. In fact, of the three couples on Modern Family, Mitch and Cam are the least affectionate and last demonstrative. They raise their daughter, Lily (the brilliant scene-stealer, Aubrey Anderson-Emmons) and live a suburban life (remember how bored Claire was when she went out on the town with them?). All of this admirable, but it feels a bit craven to bleed out any love, passion, and sexuality from the relationship, and replace it with bickering: at times, Mitch and Cam resemble a gay take on The Lockhorns. And the big gay wedding episode? Well, it’s not the event that it’s meant to be, even though it’s a two-parter, loaded with recurring guest stars and topped off by a tear-jerking voice over by Claire, the easy jokes and the episodic nature work against the emotion (though the image of Jay and Gloria walking Mitch down the aisle seems right).

As with the other seasons, there are some big names who stop by – Nathan Lane returns as Pepper, Mitch’s and Cam’s (and Jay’s, for that matter) pal who plans the wedding (and does so without any kind of deference to good taste); Justin Kirk is Mitch’s skeevy, feckless boss; Andrew Daly’s Cam’s principal; Fred Willard comes back as Phil’s goofy, pop, Frank; Adam DeVine creeps Jay and Manny out as Gloria’s choice as nanny; Peri Gilpin uses her throaty growl as a hooker Fred hired in error; Jordan Peele stops by as Jay’s nemesis, vying for a great parking spot; Jesse Eisenberg guests as an annoying eco-activist; Jane Krakowski battles Gloria to edge Manny out of a Washington, DC trip; Stephen Merchant, Fred Armisen, and Patton Oswalt appear in a Vegas-themed episode; and as Jay’s best buds, Shorty and Darlene, Chazz Palmintiri and Jennifer Tilly guest star in one of the show’s brightest episodes. Also fan favorite (though not mine), Rob Riggle’s recurring Gil Thorpe appears in the season as well, to needle Phil. The big names usually do very well, but the stunt casting does feel a bit Here’s Lucy at times.

If I sound down on Modern Family it’s only because I was spoiled by its excellence in the first few years. By now, it’s merely a good show, when at one point it was an excellent one. These slides in quality are inevitable, and it’s clear that the limitations of the show are starting to come out. Namely that with a cast this large, it’s difficult to give each character equal growth and development. Which is why we see Claire becoming more interesting and complex, while poor Gloria is regressing. I’d love to see Gloria struggle a bit with her own middle-aged crisis, and it’d be nice to see her get a job (her lady of leisure is a bit strange – she doesn’t even do good work). In one episode, she boasts that she’s so busy she’s the “How can she do it?” Gloria, except I know how she can do it: she’s got buckets of money, help, and a son who is willing to mother his own baby brother. This criticism is no knock against Vergara, who is still my favorite comedienne, and who does some fantastic work, but she really deserves more.

The sixth season has quite a hefty task in that it must restore some of the goodwill lost by the unevenness of the fifth season. This means giving Jay and Gloria more to do than simply harp on their age difference, her beauty, and his money. This also means making Mitch and Cam behave like a married couple and not to coworkers who don’t get along. I would also like to see Haley figure out her life – having her be a somewhat sad sack living in her parents’ basement is too limiting. Too often, the writers rely on the “Haley’s the hot one, so she’s also the dumb one” joke – an unfortunate trope that needs to be buried (sexuality and intelligence can coexist). Still, the sixth season does hit some great highs – the aforementioned Las Vegas episode encapsulates what made Modern Family so wonderful: it’s a well-constructed farce with hilarious writing, sight gags, and energetic, heartfelt acting. More episodes like “Las Vegas” are needed to return the show to its early glory days.

Click here to buy Modern Family: Season 5 on DVD from amazon.com.

 

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Bill Hader makes a triumphant return to SNL

Bill Hader and Hozier Bumper PhotosTwo weeks ago, Sarah Silverman returned to her old stomping grounds for a great turn at hosting SNL. Last week, Bill Hader came back. Unlike Silverman, Hader enjoyed a fruitful and successful tenure during his time. A beloved performer when on the show, his return highlighted just how much the show has changed (and not for the better). Hader’s presence let viewers imagine that they were watching SNL during one of its stronger seasons when he was a cast member.

The cold opener was an awful way to open the show. Bobby Moynihan starred as Kim Jong Un, it a weird performance that was energetic and fully-committed, but ultimately stupid. Thankfully, he doesn’t do a racist yellow-face minstrel act a la Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but the all-white cast of the sketch only highlighted that despite the show’s push toward diversity, there are still blind spots, and it would’ve helped  if maybe an Asian-American comic or two would’ve been part of the ensemble. It should give Lorne Michaels a hint that maybe sporadic jabs at diversity won’t work, and that concerted enduring efforts would work better.

Bill Hader’s monologue was good. He shared a bit of his back story (neat trivia bit: Will & Grace diva Megan Mullaley star discovered him) and then admitted that he couldn’t sing. Then his Skeleton Twins costar Kirsten Wiig showed up and pushed him to sing. He’s reluctant, insisting that he can’t, but his pal ropes him into a song with her pleasant voice, only to be horrified by Hader’s low and flat drone, which is very off-putting. Then Broadway legend Harvey Fierstein joins the pair, and urges Hader to sing like him – because Hader’s a great impressionist, he mimics Fierstein’s gravely rasp and the two duet joyfully.

I normally hate musical monologues, but I love, love, love Harvey Fierstein, so I thought the monologue worked really well. I also think it’d be great if Fierstein host a show, too. I know that he’s not exactly part of the zeitgeist at the moment, but he’s a funny guy and just the sort of “out of left field” celebrity that would’ve been booked in the first few seasons of SNL.

The first proper sketch had Hader’s Cold War-era reporter Herb Welch return. I always liked this character, even if the joke is immediately apparent. His casual racism and misogyny is pretty funny in a Mad Men sort of way, and Hader’s spot on. The sketch had Herb at a high school covering a virginity pledge story. The funniest spot has Herb mistaken Cecily Strong’s abstinence activist as Latina, which has him speak bad Spanish to her and sing out, “from the bodega to the boardroom.”

After the Herb sketch we get a pre-filmed fake movie trailer, The Group Hopper – a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film based on a YA book. Pete Davidson and Sasheer Zamata star in this funny spoof on all of the tropes that include Davidson being thrown endless bags of duffel bags and the weird esoteric minutia that plagues these kinds of movies. The production values are fantastic and the fake trailer is beautifully done.

The spoof of Hollywood Game Night was another winner. Kate McKinnon does a very good Jane Lynch. Cecily Strong was also solid as Sofia Vergara, while Taran Killan was adorable as Christophe Waltz. But the real stars of the sketch were Hader as Al Pacino and Wiig as Kathie Lee Gifford. Wiig’s Kathie Lee is a sarcastic, mugging mess, gripping a bottomless glass of wine. Though Hader was hitting the cue cards a bit, his Al Pacino is always hilarious. The gist of the sketch is that the show’s ridiculous. I never watched HGN, but from judging from this sketch, it seems to be a ridiculous show. The sketch is reminiscent of Will Ferrell’s Celebrity Jeopardy sketches. By the way, did Lynch really win an Emmy for Hollywood Game Night???

After that, the best sketch of the night comes up. I always feel a bit hairy watching those charity commercials, where a rich, white celebrity roams around a poverty-stricken village, guilting viewers into sending checks. Hader is Charles Daniels who insists that for only ¢39, a village would be saved from famine. The condescension is expertly skewered, with the poor villagers having to school these patronizing dummies that maybe these campaigns may not be the most efficient or helpful way to combat poverty.

Because this season saw another death of a SNL great, Jan Hooks, I was curious to see how the episode would deal. Wiig and Hader somberly introduced a wonderful, but surprisingly sad, musical parody that Hooks and the late Phil Hartman starred in, Love Is a Dream. It was beautiful and especially poignant because both Hartman and Hooks died much too soon. Though I would’ve chosen another sketch that shows off Hooks’ prodigious talents (the diner sketch with host Alec Baldwin would’ve been great), but it’s sweetly appropriate. It also reminded me a bit of Steve Martin’s tearful tribute to Gilda Radner, when he introduced their 70’s sketch “Dancing in the Dark.”

Weekend Update has become the part of the show when I go get a soda or something. I stuck around because I knew that Hader would bring back Stefon. And he did. Surprisingly, I wasn’t as enamored with the return as the audience. The joke has become very predictable: Hader’s Stefon is asked to suggest some choosy night spots, and instead of giving practical advice, he comes up with some insane underground clubs. John Mulaney returns briefly from starring in/writing/producing his so-so sitcom Mulaney to break up Hader. I get that people like this Carol Burnett-esque nonsense, and even I like it when SNL cast members break, but this feels more like pandering than anything.

Pete Davidson returns, too, after a triumphant Weekend Update with another small sample of his great stand-up, this time, joking about buying a gold chain, and the absurdity that it entails. What does he do with all of his extra swagger from wearing the chain? Finish his dinner. Davidson will be a star and I can’t wait to see more of his work.

Another Hader favorite returned in the next sketch: Anthony Peter Coleman, the Grenada vet who suffers from PTSD, and who takes puppetry classes to deal. The Anthony Peter Coleman sketch was the only highlight in the Seth MacFarlane sketch, and in this episode, it’s a high point, as well. Poor Anthony and his puppet Tony both struggle with terrifying memories, horrifying poor Taran Killan’s naive puppet teacher (does anyone do horrified better than Killan?). The sketch goes into a Deer Hunteresque moment when Tony the Puppet is crawling through the jungle with his friend, who steps on a landmine and gets blown up into snowy bits. And when Moynihan’s puppet sings the Sesame Street theme song, Anthony joins in, droning “can you tell me how to get, how to get the nightmares to stop?”

The late-in-the-night sketch was another great installment by Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney who do some great weird stuff. As with the duo’s other work, it’s not a knee-slapper, but it’s so well done and subtle, that it makes me wish the show did more like this. In their “Inside SoCal” Public access show (it will remind viewers of Wayne’s World), Bennett and Mooney host the skuzzy and sad lives of the burnouts that live in their Southern California area. Hader steals the scene as a stupid who’s trying to interpret art.

The final sketches are usually the worst, but this episode ended on a surprisingly high note. It was a Cat in the Hat sketch, with Hader as the Cat, who joins a home where Cecily Strong is the mom and Davidson and Bryant are her two cute kids. The only thing is, the Cat and Strong’s Linda have a history. Obviously things are awkward as it’s clear that the Cat hasn’t gotten over Linda. Now, the bestiality thing is gross (as is the implication that Bryant’s dancing little girl might be part cat), but it’s a funny sketch, with the Cat’s whimsy slowly turning into a melodrama.

 

The 40th series of SNL is off to a solid start. Though the Chris Pratt episode was just, “eh” the Sarah Silverman and Bill Hader twofer was pretty great. Next week, yet another comic great is hosting: Jim Carrey. Carrey got his start on In Living Color, so he’s a sketch comedy vet (though his hyperactive mugging does make him sorta steamroll over his costars). Hopefully, he’ll be able to dial down his megastardom and be a team player.

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R.I.P. Jan Hooks – SNL’s stealth genius

Actress/comedian Jan Hooks at 40th Emmy Awards Photo by: Alan Light

Saturday Night Live lost yet another alumni at a young age: Jan Hooks, the brilliant impressionist/comedienne who was a high point during the 1986-1991 seasons. A fantastic and wonderfully talented performer, Hooks was the kind of cast member who was reliable for elevating a sketch with her virtuoso talent for mimicry and comedy. Like the late and great Phil Hartman, Hooks was a consistent thread through her tenure, who always was on hand to sell whatever character she was playing. Unlike Gilda Radner or Jim Belushi, Hooks never became a “personality” and didn’t endear herself with her viewers by being charming or adorable. Instead, she killed in every sketch she was in, completely immersing herself in the characters she was playing. As an actress, she was able to give subtle performances, blending into the story, or she could stand out with a more outlandish character. With Nora Dunn, she created the Sweeney Sisters – a singing lounge act that performed/mutilated medleys of pop standards in weddings or hotel lounges. Hooks was also a virtuoso at playing rural Southern ladies, be they hard bitten waitresses or rough-around-the-edges housewives. She also was an expert mimic, honing fantastic impressions of Hillary Clinton, Tammy Faye Bakker,  and Kathie Lee Gifford, among others.

And because she was a comedic chameleon, audiences never really got to warm up to Jan Hooks, and so unlike Jon Lovitz, David Spade, Chris Rock, or Phil Hartman, she never really broke out of her SNL fame. She was revered by her colleagues and fans saw her as arguably the funniest female cast member since Gilda Radner, but she never created a comic persona that could’ve been spun off into a career of big budget buddy comedies.

So even though she never reached the heights of Adam Sandler or Mike Myers, she wasn’t exactly biding her time once she left SNL. Hooks joined the cast of Designing Women for its last two seasons, joined 3rd Rock From the Sun in a recurring role (that won her an Emmy nod), and in her last role of note, she played Jane Krakowski’s selfish onscreen mother on 30 Rock. The roles capitalized on Hooks’ ability to play the darker, more perverse aspects of humanity. The shape-shifting talent of her SNL days gave way to an edgy, nervy comedic presence that reveled in exploring the uglier depths of human nature.

What Jan Hooks brought to SNL was a remarkable talent to make any sketch work. Phil Hartman was called “the Glue” because of his ability to keep the cast together and to bring gravitas and intelligence to his work. But Hooks was just as integral to the show’s renewed quality, sharing many of the same qualities as Hartman. It’s not a coincidence or accident that Hooks and Hartman were often paired together. Both were blandly good-looking, with the kinds of malleable faces  and prodigious talent that made them easily outshine their costars or melt into the background when necessary. Jan Hooks was a master at subtly and intelligent comedy, and a genius that deserves to be an icon.

 

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