The most common word I’m seeing in evaluating tonight’s 30 Rock is “experiment,” which is more evaluative than you might think.
We call it an experiment because it wasn’t actually very good. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy tonight’s 30 Rock (I did), or that the episode was a failure (it wasn’t). If the episode had actually lived up to expectations, we’d call it a risk worth taking, or a ballsy decision, but instead we consider it a one-off experiment in order to better reconcile its struggles within the show’s larger creative efforts.
As noted, I thought “Live Show” was fun, and think that there were parts of the way the episode was designed which worked quite nicely, but any deeper commentary built into the episode was killed by the live format. Many of the jokes landed, and a couple of the meta moments were successful, but any character development and much of the potential meta-commentary were lost in the midst of audience laughter.
Each year the Creative Arts Emmys are a celebration of the unsung heroes, albeit a celebration which remains largely unsung: few ever really get to see the awards, and so there’s a certain lack of fanfare. However, with the Guest Acting awards given out at the show and with the battles between shows like Glee and Modern Family unfolding for the first time, it’s a good early indicator for how the big awards will fall.
I’m still grappling with the idea of doing predictions for the big awards, and waiting until the Creative Arts ceremony is over is a good reason to put it off for another day. So, let’s take a look at the Creative Arts awards, and go from there.
I wrote yesterday that I didn’t think that Saturday Night Live could pull of an episode which lived up to the hype surrounding Betty White’s triumphant ascension to the position of host for this week’s penultimate episode of the season, but I’ll admit I underestimated the infectiousness of her personality and the amount of material they would choose to give her (keeping the returning alumni largely sidelined in favour of White). However, I was right in that the show didn’t really have much material for her, relying too heavily on sex jokes, her age (which worked for a while but felt overdone), and the incongruity of an old lady saying dirty/angry things for me to say that they really rose to the occasion.
As a celebration of women on “SNL,” the episode showed that there have been some funny performers from the show’s past who are part of an important legacy of comedy on television; however, as an episode of “SNL,” the episode indicated that they still don’t entirely know how to write for those women in a way which delivers on their potential.
For all of my thoughts on the episode, though, you can check out my complete recap of the show over at HitFix.com, where I run down all of the individual sketches, including the genius of the Digital Short. Here’s a brief introduction to that review, then head over to HitFix for the rest.
Betty White is an extremely funny lady, Jay-Z is a darn engaging performer, and when you start listing off “Saturday Night Live” alumni like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Ana Gasteyer, Molly Shannon, Maya Rudolph and Rachel Dratch you can’t help but think back to some pretty darn memorable sketches and characters. In other words, on paper, this has the potential to be one of the strongest episodes of the series in a very long time.
However, the big question I had going into tonight’s episode is whether it will actually be able to properly do justice to this potential: White seems too old to be able to carry a full host’s load, and while bringing in a wheelbarrow full of past cast members allows her to take on fewer sketches it may also crowd out her contribution to the episode. The balance between the internet-appointed host and the likes of Fey and Poehler is not going to be easy, and I don’t know how Betty White fans will respond to Jay-Z as the musical guest.
Ultimately, the most-hyped “SNL” since the 2008 election delivers what it promises: with an absolutely journeywoman-esque performance from White and some energy from the returning cast members, the show turns in one of its most enjoyable episodes in recent memory even if the material never quite feels like it earns the talent who bring it to life.
How will we gauge the success of Betty White as Saturday Night Live host?
It’s a question I’ve been grappling with for a few days: I’m going to be recapping the episode for HitFix (which I’ve been doing for a few months now, although I’m not sure I’ve mentioned it outside of Twitter), and since those recaps tend to run-down sketches rather than pontificating on the episode as a whole I have been struggling with how to boil my complicated thoughts down to just a paragraph or two.
I’m not going to argue that White isn’t an inspired choice to host the show, or that the fan campaign to get her the gig wasn’t a fine use of social media, but is the simple fact that the octogenarian is hosting the show enough to make this “successful”? NBC would certainly hope so: the show has gotten huge amounts of publicity, and “listening” to fans has given the network and SNL a certain credibility in circles where their key demographics hang out. However, if the show doesn’t live up to expectations for whatever reason (White being underutilized, White being given lame material, etc.), does this negate SNL’s willingness to listen to the fans? Are the 500,000 people in that Facebook group withholding their opinion of this event? And are they even going to watch it live?
I obviously don’t know the answers to all of these questions, but I want to talk a bit about how precisely the internet is going to respond to a much-talked about episode of a series which people are otherwise not talking about.
There was one question on everyone’s mind when it comes to Taylor Swift’s hosting stint on Saturday Night Live: Kanye. It’s really the only thing of any note, and to be honest it’s probably the only reason that she was asked to host in the first place. There is no question that Swift is charming, and that her confidence behind the microphone is beyond her years, but she isn’t a comedienne. While she is the kind of musical artist who could easily be integrated into a single skit (or even two), she’s not the kind of artist who could go beyond the typical list of hosting gigs (playing a celebrity with vague resemblance, playing herself, etc.).
So, as such, what works about this week’s episode is when the show plays to Swift’s strengths, placing her behind a microphone or in settings which don’t have the pressure of live comedy. When the show asks her to do much more, the stilted cue card reading rears its head, and you realize that beneath the glossy exterior she really is a teenage girl with a beautiful voice but without acting training.
Which isn’t a huge problem if the show around her is even the least bit funny, but that’s asking a bit much of SNL these days.
Saturday Night Live was last Fall’s biggest pop culture sensation. With Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impression saving the show from a weak Obama impression, and Thursday timeslots building the show’s reputation, it built to some of its best numbers ever and its cache went beyond viral internet sensations written by Justin Timberlake/Lonely Island and into the show itself.
But suddenly, coming back this Fall, there is no election to provide a new impression that will keep people tuning in, and the Thursday shows are less a chance to built momentum and more a chance to burn material that might have been saved for the Saturday show under different circumstances. So while this week’s Weekend Update Thursday was somewhat tepid, it was still pulling away people and ideas that could have been put to use here.
This is all relevant because the start of Saturday Night Live’s thirty-fifth season is a collosal failure of comedy, an endless string of one-joke sketches which feel the exact opposite of culturally relevant. If the goal of this episode was to remind us that Saturday Night Live was capable of being funny even without Sarah Palin or a political climate which welcomes satire, then they have not succeeded: perhaps unfairly handicapped by a host who can’t actually act, and perhaps feeling too secure with a musical act that knows how to put on a good show (but, really, didn’t live up to that), the cast and crew of Saturday Night Live delivered a complete and total dud, one where we expect a Judy Grimes-style “just kidding” at the end that says what we’ve seen is some sort of big mistake.
And that’s probably not the best way to reassert your cultural relevance.
Leslie Knope was the problem, and Leslie Knope was the solution.
When Parks and Recreation struggled to get off the blocks in the Spring, there were plenty of excuses. The show was rushed to get into production before the season began, and had a strange road from would-be Office spinoff to a show unconnected to that universe but staffed by the same people and even featuring Rashida Jones, who spent time on Greg Daniels and Mike Schur’s other show. So, when the show took some time finding its footing, I was willing to give it plenty of chances because the show was confused about what precisely it was going to be.
It was a show that had some strong supporting performers (Nick Offerman, Aziz Ansari, Christ Pratt, Jones), and a promising premise, but it was really let down by its inability to pin down Leslie Knope, our central character. It wasn’t that Amy-Poehler wasn’t charming or engaging, or wasn’t up to the task of making us like this character. Instead, the writing just didn’t know what they wanted her to be, and as a result the show seemed to flit around aimlessly as it was content to coast on a pre-set storyline and let the character go with the flow.
But in the season’s final episode, “Rock Show,” and in “Pawnee Zoo,” Leslie Knope is a finely tuned character designed to entertain us as a viewer and, more importantly, to drive stories. The storyline from the premiere is driven by Leslie’s well-meaning mistake, but what comes afterwards is made funnier and more complicated by her desire for people to like her and also her unwillingness to back down. The character felt, as it did by the end of the first season, consistent in both the writing and in Poehler’s performance, a perfect harmony of script and performer which allows the show to move forward with its great supporting cast to provide a great half hour of comedy.
I won’t say that it’s reached its full potential yet, but this is a show where an initial identity crisis is ancient history, and where things are finally looking up in Pawnee.
Well, you can’t say that Saturday Night Live doesn’t have guts. Perhaps, though, they could use a lesson or two in comedy.
In a season where Saturday Night Live is emerging as a cultural powerhouse in an election year, tonight’s special was a chance to further the show’s cause with some politically topical humour that captures the things that have made SNL work this season.
That thing, though, is Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin. And the one thing absent from tonight’s episode of SNL Weekend Update: Special Edition?
A week from today (Since it’s now Sunday as I write this), Amy Poehler and Tina Fey are each nominated for Emmy Awards for their individual comic performances (I’ll have Emmy coverage all week! Exciting!). So it seems like a sound strategy to take the two individuals and place them in front of a camera to open this the umpteenth season of Saturday Night Live.
And the result was great comedy from two great comics. Fey’s Palin impression is almost scary, and the resemblance created some sort of twilight zone scenario wherein the two people melded together. And Poehler, as usual, nails Hilary Clinton’s desperation and, now, resignation. The skit was consistently funny, ended right when it should, and even broke the Fourth Wall.
YouTube: Palin and Hilary on Sexism (SNL)
But Saturday Night Live has a problem: Fey isn’t a castmembers, or a producer, and is literally only doing the role because she can and because she’s willing to. Poehler, meanwhile, is pregnant and will be gone from the show in a few months. And while Kristen Wiig continues to steal almost every sketch she’s in, the show is still uneven to the point of concern: if you stopped watching after the opening you might have renewed faith in SNL, but as the episode wears on there’s not much else to get excited about.
Through the joys of YouTube, but perhaps not for long, I’ve been able to get a glimpse at what Saturday Night Live brought to the table in their season premiere. The episode always presents the show’s biggest challenge, in that the quality of the season to come will be judged based on this hour and a half. This year, it will be judged based on three qualities: its cultural relevance, its musical guest and, of course, its Digital Short.
Champion/Everything I Am
Stronger/The Good Life
Skit: Kanye West the Awards Crybaby
Ummm…why didn’t Kanye West host the show? Based on this clip, he is infinitely funnier than Lebron James. I’m guessing it was probably a time commitment issue, which kind of sucks, but Kanye West is a funny, funny guy. And the performances are good…the freestyle is a little bit off, as I prefer the actual lyrics of Everything I Am, but what can you do? In other news: “Give a black man…give a SHORT black man a chance” from the skit is pretty well hilarious.
Ummm…this is not funny. It’s clear that Andy Samberg is being treated like the star of SNL now, but James is rather unfortunately unable to embrace the skit’s real comedy. It’s a rather lazy High School Musical parody that, even with a strong performance from Samberg, never feels like biting satire. In other words, Mad TV could have done this sketch. That’s not a compliment.
A sendoff of Mahmoud, the lovable president of Iran, this digital short is something that many of them have not been: genuinely well-produced and going for a fairly subtle form of comedy. The song is actually fairly catchy, especially with Levine doing the chorus, and the piano riff is apparently from Aphex Twin’s Avril 14th.
And the skit is funny! Mahmoud is performed wonderfully by Fred Armisen, the Jame Gyllenhal cameo is great, and it’s just a very enjoyable piece of comedy. I don’t expect a viral sensation, but I certainly enjoyed it.