Saturday Night Live Review: "Louis C.K./Rihanna"

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<i>Saturday Night Live</i> Review: "Louis C.K./Rihanna"

This wasn’t the Saturday Night Live season finale we’d hoped for.

The last episode of SNL40 fell flat, straying from the three elements that have consistently worked all season: pre-taped shorts (films, movie trailer parodies, Beck Bennett-Kyle Mooney oddities), well crafted and acted character sketches (“Cabana” attempts this, but Louis C.K. and Kenan Thompson don’t deliver the acting), and 40th anniversary throwbacks and surprise guests.

The show’s 40th anniversary milestone has been a recurring theme all season but was inexplicably abandoned by season’s end. One of the pleasures of watching Saturday Night Live turn 40 has been the show’s understanding of its place in television history and refusal to get too big for its britches. Call it fan service, but early season surprise guests and the occasional hat tip to seasons and sketches past gave the show strength in what has been a rebuilding year, talent-wise.

Third-time guest host Louis C.K. came off as somewhat less than himself, with an opening monologue that had all the skin-crawling dread, but none of the imaginative charm he is known for. His work in most of the night’s sketches was lacking, too. Louis is a busy man, and hosting the season finale of SNL is not a gig you turn down. Still, he seemed distracted, unfocused all night long.

“Summertime Cold Open” gives us Kate McKinnon’s withering portrayal of Hillary Clinton as the animatronic pol, unable to relate to real people but desperately committed to doing so. This characterization has been well-established and explored by best-in-cast McKinnon this season, though one wonders where they can take it next season…and the next, as the Presidential election actually happens during SNL42. It would not be a surprise to see McKinnon leave the show for Hollywood this summer, so a better question might be: “Who plays Hillary when Kate is gone?” (My vote: Aidy.)

The twisted trilogy of Louis C.K.’s Opening Monologue, “The Shoemaker & The Elves” and “This Is How I Talk” may have sent some viewers to bed early. If the sublime hilarities of benign racism and child (and/or elf) sexual abuse are lost on you, join the club. SNL has made frequent child sexual abuse jokes all season. And like most adults do when a friend seems to have a penchant for deeply offensive jokes, it may be time to pull SNL aside and gently suggest it retire those bits.

“Police Lineup,” the episode’s strongest piece, wouldn’t make anyone’s Best of SNL40 lists, but it’s a funny idea that is made better with solid acting. Pete Davidson plays a man who was mugged outside of a New York City acting class and must identify his assailant from a police lineup of actors (Taran Killam, Kyle Mooney, Beck Bennett, Louis C.K.). Taran, Kyle and Beck are excellent…Louis is good, too. Good enough to not let the sketch be overrun by Kenan’s consistently self-conscious overacting.

The strange and wonderful “Wood PSAs 1 and 2” that encourage wood use with the tear-streaked face of a lumberjack (Louis C.K.), were nice but not enough. Similarly, “Forgotten TV Gems: Whoops! I Married a Lesbian” falls into the too little, too late category. Had “Lesbian” been moved to the top of the show (with “Police Lineup”), the night might have gone better. (“Elves” most certainly should have been the 10-to-1, last sketch of the night.)

Rihanna makes her fifth appearance as musical guest with a highly cinematic (and entertaining) performance of one of the dumbest pop songs you will ever hear: “Bitch Better Have My Money.” She follows with the pretentious “American Oxygen.” Both performances played like SNL parodies—“Bitch,” a parody of multi-millionaire pop singers non-ironically putting on the gangster, and “Oxygen,” a parody of high school glee club earnestness and sentimentality.

Bobby Moynihan’s “Riblet” is back to interrupt Weekend Update, while Colin Jost tells his funniest joke of the entire season: “China has banned its soldiers from wearing the new Apple watch over concerns of cyber security. Said one Chinese soldier: ‘But my daughter made it for me.’” Otherwise, we leave the once-legendary news parody segment limp and listless. A complete overhaul is in order for the hiatus, as the Jost/Che incarnation never found its footing.

What a season of Saturday Night Live! A few things that friends and foes of the show can agree on at season’s end:

-There were some terrific episodes this year. The 40th Anniversary Special was amazing, as were episodes hosted by Michael Keaton, Martin Freeman, Jim Carrey and Bill Hader.

-After a too poppy-start, SNL40 booked a fascinating lineup of musical guests. THE BEST: Blake Shelton, Kanye, Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars.

-The emergence as Kate McKinnon as breakout star was a joy to watch.

-Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney collaborated to give us some of the most innovative and unexpected comedy of the season. Look for Beck and Kyle’s style to become even more dominant next season.

-Cecily Strong, Aidy Bryant and Bobby Moynihan lead the established cast, with Vanessa Bayer, Taran Killam and Jay Pharoah doing solid work just behind them. It’s time for Kenan Thompson to go. (It was just announced that he will return for SNL41.)

-Leslie Jones, despite frequent on-screen flubs, was a great addition to the cast and has breakout potential. Sasheer Zamata and Pete Davidson are fine…too early to tell. Colin Jost needs to go back to the writer’s room, while Michael Che should be given the Weekend Update desk as a solo gig or let go.

-SNL’s out-of-studio (re: pre-tape) production team has never been better. Song parody “Wishin’ Boot” was the best piece of the entire season.

-The show often struggles to find a good flow, sketch-to-sketch…and this can kill the energy of the live audience and performers. As well, more than one musical guest performance disrupted the flow of the show. This goes to the mysterious alchemy of what makes Saturday Night Live funny. And to this point, SNL40 could have been funnier than it was.

-SNL writing remains a high risk, mostly disastrous proposition. Episodes are written and produced so quickly (by design) there is just no time to make most pieces as funny as they could be. Still, when it works, there’s nothing else like it.

-Saturday Night Live is still funny, still very much alive,

Here’s to a happy and successful return next fall.

Chris White writes and directs independent feature films. His latest, a showbiz comedy about looking for Bill Murray, is called Cinema Purgatorio . Follow Chris on Twitter.

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