Sunday, March 06, 2011

TV: Rebirth or last gasp?

Under pressure from an SNL friend, we watched. We were interested that Fred Armisen would be making an appearance and, honestly, we were curious to see Miley Cyrus host but what really sold us was when we were told of how a number of male critics have trashed every episode this season that a woman hosted. Our awareness of Miley Cyrus consisted of headlines (we never bothered to read any stories on her) and Vanessa Bayer's parody of her in "The Miley Cyrus Show" skits. We weren't expecting a great deal.


So imagine our surprise to learn Cyrus could more than hold her own. Imagine our surprise that she hosted the best episode of the season. In fact, if a man had done what Cyrus did, he'd be on the rotating host schedule. Made us think how strange it was to be sold on checking out the broadcast because of the "woman's issue" (quoting the SNL friend) since only two women have hosted the show five times or more: Drew Barrymore (six) and Candice Bergen (five) and that Bergen hasn't hosted since 1990. (How many men have hosted five times or more? Ten.)

Maybe more women would be able to repeat host if SNL writers could do something more than leering sex jokes? That's actually what made this the best episode of the season, the lack of leering. It wasn't about how to get the host naked, it wasn't about the size of her breasts, it wasn't about any of the crap that they've offered over and over.

Instead the writers wrote skits for Cyrus like they would have a man -- meaning they saw her as something more than a T&A object. From her first moment on the show (doing a Lindsay Lohan impersonation) to her farewell, Cyrus projected strength. She sang, she danced, she joked, she was the perfect host.

The pretty much given was that Cyrus would somehow show up in the latest "The Miley Cyrus Show" skit. The most obvious way to handle it would be to let Bayer do her Miley impersonation and then have Cyrus walk out and comment on that. If you think about it, you should easily be able to think of at least ten times that Saturday Night Live has done exactly that. They went a different way (thankfully) and Cyrus impersonated Justin Bieber. As with her Lohan impersonation, Cyrus nailed Bieber. She and Kenan Thompson nailed it in the Disney Acting School skit. And even in the non-English skit, "Les Jeunes de Paris," she found laughs with Taran Killam.

The show wasn't without its problems. (And we were left indifferent by the parody of The Sound of Music.) As has become the pattern at SNL, after Weekend Update, they are progressively less and less concerned about laughs. If that's an expected, the homophobia wasn't. The show opened with Bill Hader doing a lousy impersonation of Charlie Sheen as "Sheen" hosted a talk show. First guest was John Galliano (played by Killam) and, apparently to telegraph that he was a designer, there was a need to mince and lisp. We've never caught or heard of Galliano doing either. Just because he's despicable, SNL writers thought the way to go was "Queenie!" -- which actually says a great deal more about them and their attitude towards gay people than they probably realize. The homophobia is not only tired it is, for this program, rather obvious.

Another thing that's rather obvious is how, despite Seth's determination not to share the stage, he doesn't have the chops to solo on Weekend Update. If only we all found Seth Meyers as cute as he finds himself, it might not be a problem. But it is a problem and the lack of a female co-anchor, when combined with the never ending male characters who show up, really goes to how little women are being valued. Jason Sudeikis had some nice moments in the broadcast; however, his bit as Satan on Weekend Update wasn't one of them.

Most of all there was the lack of creativity in the writing. In fact, except for the repeated swiping from Will & Grace episodes on this season of 30 Rock, we're hard pressed to think of more limited comedy concepts. For example, how many Charlie Sheen jokes were needed in one broadcast? The episode opened with a parody of a Charlie Sheen talk show and that should have taken care of it. However, Sheen's name was worked into "The Miley Cyrus Show" and into three jokes on Weekend Update. Was there nothing else that happened last week? Or was this just another example (like resorting to homophobia) of how immature and stunted the writers are?


It was the writers immaturity. There actually was another 'news' story they could have covered. Charlie Sheen? That drama's been playing out for weeks now. Last week's celebrity news was James Franco's immense flame out co-hosting the Academy Awards. That's the event that had every wag saying he was this decade's Elliott Gould and comparing his baked burnout to when Warner Brothers had to shut down A Glimpse Of The Tiger in early 1971 due to Gould's questionable behavior (which he insisted wasn't drugs; however, on set behavior including fights with director Anthony Harvey and co-star Kim Darby led the studio to conclude drugs or mental breakdown) and which made Gould -- at that time, one of the hottest actors in the industry -- not insurable for years after. Those not debating Franco's sanity or drug intake were largely left exclaiming that he'd taken a piss on the industry while the whole world watched. But Charlie Sheen's not friendly with Seth and the other bad writers. Franco is. So they bury the biggest celeb 'news' of the week to go with Charlie Sheen who, compared to the global reach of the Academy Awards, might as well have been acting out on IRC.

The worst of the writing wasn't on display mainly because we didn't catch one of Jay Pharoah's impersonations. If he can act, he's yet to demonstrate it. And his impersonations aren't really dead-on. Take the Will Smith impersonation, it's the sort of thing his grandmother might find solid but everyone else is thinking, "Uh, that doesn't sound like Will and it doesn't look like Will." And since there's no real writing of those sketches -- beyond "Look, I'm pretending to be and I'm saying stupid stuff so it's got to be funny!" -- Pharoah brings the show to a standstill -- not a show stopping way, in a paint drying on the wall sort of way. Saturday Night Live's been many kinds of bad over the years; however, it's never been bad because it attempted to ape its less successful impersonators. Yet every time Pharoah's humored and allowed an 'impersonation,' the sketch is so poorly written that it plays like MadTV.

What the Cyrus episode last night did was remind everyone that SNL can be something more than it's been for the last three years. Whether this was a rebirth or a last gasp remains to be seen.
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