Some weeks, "Saturday Night Live" just misses its mark. The cast can give it their all and the skits can flow according to plan, but every so often things just won't fire right. That was the case with the penultimate episode of season 36 of SNL, featuring host Ed Helms (of The Hangover 2 and "The Office") and musical guest Paul Simon.
The political cold open was more humorous than most in recent memory, featuring Wolf Blitzer's CNN coverage of Fred Armisen's ever-caricaturistic Obama letting loose during a speech, working on a stand-up routine and dropping new slogans. After the intros, Ed Helms arrives for his monologue looking nervous as hell in a business-casual suit that suggests Sunday brunch with the fiancee's rich parents. Yawns are fighting to escape thirty seconds into his nonsense recollection of baton twirling as a kid (which, of course, turns into a spandex-bodysuit act), and hopes plummet for the nerd charm of Andy Bernard of "The Office" to shine through Helms. It's just not funny. He's just not funny. As a lifelong fan of the show, it's no easy task to call to mind a less captivating SNL host in recent years.
A repeat spoof commercial for corn syrup and a real commercial break later, we see the return of Kenan Thompson's signature bit, What Up With That? Paul Simon sits in, alongside one of the squeaky brats from "Glee" and, of course, Bill Hader's ever-bumped Lindsey Buckingham. (Has Paul SImon been beaten about the face and neck? Was there some sort of botched surgery involved? I don't mean to be mean, but the legend looks like a geriatric malnourished mole.)
Despite the buoyant nature of the bit, somehow Ed Helms brings the skit to a screeching halt. It's genuinely discomforting to see him enter the skit, and his failed banjo playing didn't help much either… but that was an instant afterthought when the actual Lindsey Buckingham showed up and shredded on an acoustic for a moment.
The Ambiguously Gay Duo returns! For the first time since 2007, Steve Carell and Steven Colbert reprise their cartoon roles as Ace and Gary, the clueless homoerotic superheroes. Only this time, they're shot with an evil ray that turns them into… Jon Hamm and Jimmy Fallon? WTF? Soon everyone is real (with Carell and Colbert playing the villains alongside Helms' Two Face), and this party goes way off the deep end.
Longest skit in the history of SNL? Perhaps. One of the most bizarre and out of the box for the show? Absolutely.
It's disheartening to see a formerly brilliant flame of talent falter in his twilight. Watching Paul Simon's take on his new song "Rewrite," from his new album So Beautiful or So What, was tiring. His whistling was dry and off, his strumless stroking of the guitar neck audibly ineffective, and the song itself simply had no gravity. His second song had a little more strut, but ultimately the mood went terminal with the lack of energy. Sorry Paul, you just don't translate to the digital generation. And you look like you're a missed meal away from death.
Weekend Update's high point was Seth Meyers – who we hope will end his run as the solo W.U. host with next week's season finale – comparing Newt Gingrich to a Harry Potter character, so what does that tell you? Kristen Wiig & Fred Armisen's tired song-improv bit went on for at least five solid minutes, and Jay Pharoah's Will Smith impression is getting oddly creepy (they need to get him interacting with another character). Bobby Moynihan's "secondhand news guy " Anthony Crispino is always a good laugh, however, especially the part where he confides that they found a "condom wrapper in the White House".
Helms, Heder, Sudeikis & Samberg are in the basement for Poker Night, pounding beers and splitting verses of Cat Stevens' "Wild World" with stories of grandfathers' ashes in Jamba Juice cups, Bin Laden's death, female "prostate" exams and so on. Extra credit for the human centipede conclusion, yes. I'll give them that.
It's 1941 Hollywood. The skit is black and white. The humor? Nonexistent. "One Take" Tony Taluca can't do the job on the movie set. Yawn. It was, however, more entertaining than the Generic Republican Advertisement, which featured Helms completely sucking the air out of every would-be laugh in a presidential campaign monologue piece. It was downright painful to watch.
Two sketches in the first hour, with four in the final thirty minutes of the night, makes for strange impressions. The odd imbalance, mixed with Helms' complete comedic flop as host (he's got the charisma of wet bread thrown against a wall) made for an episode that was better left on the shelf. This appearance is going to hamper Helms' ability to sell himself into the comedy scene he's already got a foot in the door of (what with The Hangover sequel coming, as well as his lovable role on "The Office").
And where are all the women? Kristen Wiig's been doing the Bridesmaids junket rounds all week, but she still managed to appear in a good third of the show's skits. The other three ladies, Abby Elliot, Nasim Pedrad and Vanessa Bayer, were barely seen throughout the entire broadcast. Unacceptable!
With Justin Timberlake and Lady GaGa closing out the season next week, we're sure to see something considerably more entertaining than the 90 minute streak of mediocrity I just sat through. As I mentioned earlier – I've been tuning in for literally every year of my existence, so it's no giddy task for me to excoriate the show this way. But bad is bad, and if the leads fall apart, the house of cards comes down with them. Even Helms' closing goodbyes were awkward and devoid of charm. Cringe.