Chris Pratt does his best on a decidedly so-so season premier of ‘SNL’

It’s no surprise that last season was a bit of a slog for Saturday Night Live viewers. And evidenced by the huge purge of cast members and various shakeups, Lorne Michaels felt it too. So I watched last week’s season premier of SNL with some higher expectations. Not only was SNL being rebooted and fixed up, but the host was Parks and Recreation star Chris Pratt, probably the nicest and most joyful comedic actor on the planet, who seems like a perfect fit for a show like this. So I was really disappointed by the episode. Instead of being a goofy laugh-riot, the 40th season opener was sprinkled with weird pacing, flubbed lines, and actors hitting the cue cards something awful.

The show opened with a skit about the NFL PR disaster. Aidy Bryant did a so-so Candy Crowley impression – it’s not her fault that I wasn’t impressed. I mean, what does a Candy Crowley impression look like? She did get some sly quips in her introduction as she described her weekend of Nora Roberts novels and a “crack team of Korean ladies” dispatched to “rehab” her feet.

Hans and Franz State Farm ad – huh?

Pratt appeared in the cold open as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Strangely, the audience was silent when he first appeared (maybe they were all cheered out from earlier? I dunno…) Anyways, Kenan Thompson then appeared as Ray Lewis and Jay Pharoah came on as Shannon Sharpe. The skit worked okay mainly because Thompson’s funny performance as Lewis who kept deflecting Crowley’s questions about child abuse by a rambling explanation of childhood education.

The skit finally gets some (much-needed) bite when Goodall introduces a new campaign for the NFL, “Take Back the Night! We Fight 4 Women,” but Goodall misreads the poster and announces “We fight women!” confused about the “4” in the poster.

As an opener, the skit worked okay – and offered some good laughs at the NFL’s expense. The NFL would be slammed a few times more throughout the show, but the jokes could’ve been a little bit more pointed – the focus seemed to paint the NFL as a hapless victim of its players.

The credits ran and it was strange to see just how many people were pushed off from last season. Michael Che and Pete Davidson were added, and former SNL castmember, Darrell Hammond took over for Don Pardo’s announcing duties (thankfully not by doing a Pardo impression – and kudos to the folks at SNL for the touching silent tribute).

For his monologue, Pratt did a serviceable job, with a neat allusion to Chris Farley’s Matt Foley by mentioning that while in Hawaii, he “lived in a van down by the river.” He made some jokes about his famous weight fluctuations, and introduced his wife, Mom star Anna Farris in the audience (the funny pair should host together), who hosted the show twice.  He then busted out with his guitar and stumbled through a funny song that was better because of his enthusiasm than the decent lyrics. Normally I hate musical numbers in the monologue, but Chris Pratt’s adorable Parks and Rec character Andy is a musician, so I was okay with it.

After the monologue came a fake ad for erectile dysfunction medication – Cialis Turnt, which turned patients into crunking hip-hop superstars. It’s a very silly sketch that took advantage of Aidy Bryant’s go-for-broke quality.

After the break came a strange skit and the first dud of the evening, and because it was so early in the show, that wasn’t a good sign. In the sketch, Kyle Mooney played Danny and Bryant was his suburban mom. Danny just had a birthday, but no one showed, so he transferred his desire for friendship toward his He-Man and Lion-O action figures, who come to life after he blows out his birthday candle. Pratt was He-Man (complete with a pageboy wig) and Killan was Lion-O (with a weird tan line on his arms, as if he spent the summer on the beach wearing gardening gloves). The joke was that He-Man and Lion-O weren’t like their cartoon selves, but instead stupid, Frankenstein’s monster like duds who crashed through walls and discovered their libidos. Music guest Ariana Grande pops up at the end as She-Ra, and then the three just start shredding the kitchen into pieces, before Bryant shows up, randy at the sight of the two muscular superheroes purring, “mama’s wish done come true.” It was a confused sketch that suffered from some strange timing – and Mooney obviously relied on the cue cards.

The following sketch set at possibly the world’s worst vet office was better. Cecily Strong, Vanessa Bayer, Pratt, and cast standout Kate McKinnon were nurses who were syrupy and Southern, but their kindness belied a shocking number of pet fatalities at the office. While not an outstanding sketch, it was funny and Strong and Pratt were good, and there were some good one liners such as Pratt’s description of a parrot uttered its last few words before dying: “pizza…pizza…and then nothing.” As with the other sketches, something felt off with the pacing, but the performers raised the material significantly.

Pratt’s success with Guardians of the Galaxy meant a fake trailers for upcoming Marvel movies, with the joke being that Marvel couldn’t do anything wrong as the films’ superheroes were getting more improbable and ridiculous – a pastry chef, an office chair, bus passengers, ghosts dressed in tuxedos, but the biggest laugh came from Bryant as “Pam” – a smiling everywoman (who even gets her own sequel, “Winter Pam”). Even the image of Pratt dressed in Princess Leia drag from a Marvel redo of Star Wars couldn’t take away from just how joyfully silly a Pam movie from Marvel would be (though I would watch both Pams).

Grande then did her first song and it was okay. I’m not a fan of the singer – she’s decent and the song was okay dance-pop. A sorta Janet/Mariah/J.Lo lite.

The biggest news of the show was the Weekend Update. Last season Weekend Update got some knocks because of the nonexistent chemistry between Colin Jost and Strong. Unfortunately, Strong was axed in favor of writer Che. And while Che did a very okay job (just okay – but it was his first time, so he deserves some more time to develop), Jost shouldn’t be sitting at that desk. Not only was his performance blah, but the jokes were really poor – Hillary Clinton and Cuba Gooding, Jr. jokes were particularly moldy.

As if to remind the audience just how much better she was than Jost, Strong returned as her recurring character, the Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party, that particularly noxious kind of person that one runs into, who feels she’s an expert on everything. Ostensibly there to muse on the Ebola outbreak, instead she wandered off into tangents laden with malaprops, awful metaphors, and terrible self-involvement.

Leslie Jones makes a welcomed return, as well. Her bit was about how cool she was being single, and the material was pretty funny and Jones sold it. I’d love to see more of her – and I love, love, love her take on singlehood: “I don’t like it, so much as I’m used to it.”

Then something truly great and wonderful happens: Pete Davidson shows up and kills it in a hilarious stand-up bit about a game he and his friends used to play: how much money would they take to perform fellatio on a guy. The material was funny and his delivery was brilliant. This was a moment when a star was born.

Finally, Thompson came on to soulfully croon “Oooh Child” as Che and Jost offered some solace and comfort to President Obama in light of his low approval numbers. The jokes were good and Thompson’s optimistic lyrics were becoming more and more realistic (“things will probably not get worse now”).

What was clear from this episode of Weekend Update was that it was Strong, Jones, Thompson, and especially Davidson who made the sketch work. Jost and Che were both weak links – Jost needs to be pushed back to behind-the-scenes work.

After Weekend Update, we got another Bryant-heavy sketch, in which she played a woman who flirted shyly with Pratt at a bar. Not sure how to approach him, she took advise from one of her girlfriends and instantly turns into a Nicki Minaj-like rapper who extorts the beauty of her “big fat ass.” Pratt’s wallflower of an office worker responds in kind by spitting out salacious rhymes, as well. It’s a good sketch that is predictable and a little easy, but there were some cute details – I loved how Bryant’s character went to Wellesley College only to sing about her “big fat ass.”

After this sketch came easily the most original piece in the episode. A spoof on 90s multi-cam sitcoms with Pratt, Mooney, and Beck Bennett as a trio of friends a la Friends or Full House. Pratt’s character is a loner who gets involved in a gang and is badly influenced by his new friends. The thing is the gang is made up of three 10-year-olds. Complete with a laugh track and sappy musical cues, the strange sketch worked not because it was hilarious, but because the writers and the actors were trying to do something original and interesting. There were some great tropes of TGIF sitcoms like the treacly music during apologies as well as anodyne conflict (“This is a fight,” Pratt helpfully fumes before storming off to his room). The acting is gloriously deadpan and there are some really messed-up edits and blocking (which seem to spoof low budget sitcoms). I liked that even if I didn’t laugh all that much, I appreciated just how weird and ambitious this sketch was.

Another NFL sketch followed that had the male stars play football players, each who would announce his crime as he introduces himself. The actors played a few characters each. I have to be honest, I didn’t think the sketch was all that interesting or funny.

The final sketch was another dud – this time Bobby Moynihan, Sasheer Zamata, and Davidson play participants at a video game focus group. The conceit of the sketch is that the characters in the video game – Pratt and Bayer – egg the players on, before going off on their own very dramatic soap opera (with shades of Beauty and the Beast). Davidson easily swipes the sketch without really doing much, though there wasn’t all that much to steal in the first place.

By the end, when Pratt was taking his bows with the cast, I was sad for the show. It’s obvious that the quality was on par with the mediocre 39th season. One bright spot will be Davidson (who got pushed out in the front during the bows – really classy of the castmembers to do that, btw).

For the show to work at this point, I think Lorne Michaels will need to look back at why certain seasons popped while others fizzled. Some of it is political landscape – left-leaning SNL doesn’t know how to tweak liberals and President Obama’s pretty likable, regardless of his politics, which makes it harder to make fun of him.

Interestingly enough, the show has a lot going for it – namely McKinnon and Bryant. Strangely, the former was pretty absent for most of the episode (maybe the showrunners want to avoid a female cast MVP a la Kristen Wiig). Killan, also someone who dominates was underused. Another problem that this season has is a bloated cast – too many performers often thin out a sketch and leave little-to-no room for many of the actors. Case in point: the very talented Zamata who appeared in a couple of sketches, but wasn’t given a chance to make much of a mark – again, a shame because when given a chance, the comedienne proves to be very funny. Failing on SNL may be a public failure, but it doesn’t always mean the performer isn’t good – Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Laurie Metcalf, Christine Ebersole, Janeane Garafolo and Robert Downey, Jr. were all members of SNL and each had a hard time making his/her mark during his/her tenure.

Next week another former castmate/writer, Sarah Silverman, is hosting. Like Louis-Dreyfus, et al, Silverman is a very talented comic who – for a number of reasons – couldn’t hit her stride during her time. Since then, Silverman’s gone to become a minor legend and icon of sorts. And the week after Silverman, Bill Hader returns. Hader, unlike Silverman, had a triumphant run on the show. The contrast couldn’t be more pronounced. It’ll be interesting to see the upcoming episodes to see just how well these alumni blend in a cast that is largely made of performers they’ve never met.

Pratt, on the other hand, won’t be remembered as a particularly good host (which is a shame), but then again, he wasn’t the disaster that Jim Parsons was, either. It’s a little surprising that he felt lackluster given that he’s one of the funniest men working in Hollywood today. All in all, not a great way to start a season that’s supposed to be rehabilitative.

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Filed under Celeb, Comedy, movie, Television

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