This year’s Christmas show had some factors working against it. First of all, last year’s holiday episode was a Jimmy Fallon-Justin Timberlake blowout that brought us one of the best sketches in recent memory: “(Do It On My) Twin Bed.” This week, the cast had to try to draw laughs out of a news cycle that’s impossible to ignore, but very hard to make funny. Even host Amy Adams’ monologue acknowledged the fact that this Christmas season hasn’t given us much to be merry about.
Even with tempered expectations and the addition of some special guests—one of whom was truly a surprise—the outing was a low energy one. Adams was eager to show off her Enchanted pipes, but wasn’t given material that would yield a standout performance, and she mostly blended into the ensemble. Here’s looking forward to a better 2015.
Now hear me out. “Singing Sisters” is a bizarre, late-in-the-show sketch that had me puzzled at first. I wondered whether these garbage-loving gals were just a pale imitation of the Lawrence Welk sisters, and if so, why couldn’t Kristen Wiig (who was on hand) be involved. (Miss you, Dooneese.) I warmed up to the sketch once Cecily Strong, Kate McKinnon, and Adams started in on their oddly impressive singing and fell in love with it by the time they turned into raccoons.
Here’s where I admit something embarrassing: I haven’t listen to Serial yet. (I know, I know.) This humiliating fact is the reason I have to give the Serial sketch, in which Strong’s Sarah Koenig takes on the mystery of Santa Claus, an honorable mention rather than the top prize. If you know the conceit of Serial (I do), you get the joke (I did), and the sketch is clever. And yet, it didn’t do much to stand on its own. It was a good, cohesive sketch, but I knew, as a non-Serial listener, I was missing something.
Gloria Estefan! Pitbull! Tony Montana! Socialism! “A Very Cuban Christmas” ended up being a jumble of half-hearted impressions. (Well, half-hearted except for Taran Killam’s Pitbull. He does a good Pitbull.) This sketch felt like the result of a brainstorm session in which the SNL writers turned to each other and said, “So what do we actually know about Cuba?” The answer: not very much.
Best Musical Moment
I like One Direction. They just stand around and sing while looking adorable. That’s their M.O., and they do a pretty good job of it! They have very nice voices! Niall plays the guitar! Harry wears a hat! “Ready to Run” was the more energetic of their performances, featuring a little more bopping around, but I can’t get “Night Changes” out of my head. One Direction, you’ve won!
Best Cameo from 1997
I knew something was off when the show started with Taran Killam’s (pretty spot on) Sam Smith. After all, cold opens are typically political, and this was a huge week for politics. And then everything changed. I expected North Korea. I got Dr. Evil. Full disclosure: I actually screamed “oh my God” when Mike Myers appeared on the screen to reprise his Austin Powers character. Strangely enough, seeing Dr. Evil wasn’t as much of a blast from the past as it could have been. Early Saturday morning I encountered Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery on TV and watched it for a bit, so, even though this is indeed 2014, there was a lot of Dr. Evil in my life yesterday.
Much of the pleasure from the Dr. Evil cameo was in the shock value. How delightfully random! How wonderful to see Myers back in his old stomping grounds! Not to mention, Evil had some good lines. For instance: “It’s easy to kill a movie, just move it to January,” “There’s already a GOP and they’re already an evil organization,” and the wonderfully self-deprecating, “I saw The Interview. It was charming, but if you really want to put a bomb in a theater do what I did, put in The Love Guru.”
Satirizing the North Korean government’s involvement in the Sony hack was always going to be a challenge for SNL and the show addressed the situation mostly in an indirect fashion. There were no sketches taking place in Pyongyang. Dr. Evil’s cameo was less about North Korea than it was about Dr. Evil. Later, the Weekend Update segment in which Bobby Moynihan played himself playing Kim Jong-un addressed the entertainment industry’s newfound fear. Perhaps the boldest bit of North Korea-related material was Michael Che’s Update monologue directed at Kim Jong-un in which he called the North Korean leader “Kimberly.”
Best Cameo from 2009
When Kristen Wiig breaks, an angel laughs. Or at least that’s what I’d like to believe based on her and Fred Armisen’s surprise appearance as Garth and Kat on Update. On one hand, even though Garth and Kat have never been my favorite Update guests, the joy of Wiig and Armisen’s presence only serves to highlight weakness in the current cast. On the other, it’s just so fun to watch these two crack each other up. Wiig also showed up during Adams’ “We Need a Little Christmas” monologue—a callback to Adams’ earlier hosting gig—while Armisen played Raúl Castro in that ill-fated “Cuban Christmas” sketch.
The Wannabe Lonely Island Moment
Armisen and Wiig may have actually performed last night, but the ghosts of Andy Samberg and his fellow Lonely Islanders were also in Studio 8H during the show’s “Office Christmas Party,” starring Pete Davidson and Jay Pharaoh in what would have been the Lonely Island roles. At least the sketch featured Adams’ best role of the night as the woman from payroll who gets wild.
Though the “Cat Rescue” sketch isn’t a new conceit, it says a lot that I could still spend an eternity listening to Kate McKinnon describe cats. (“Toby is a textbook narcissist.”) McKinnon was a bright spot in a bunch of lackluster sketches. Case in point: her sociopathic child in the “Tenderfield Christmas 2014” bit or her Diana Nyad in the “Cuban Christmas” sketch.
– Leslie Jones, who was underused in this episode, is a champion of goodbyes. She ended this show wrapped in the embrace of Harry Styles. It was perfect.
– Speaking of underused, whither Sasheer Zamata?
– “Girlfriends Talk Show” may have overstayed its welcome as a recurring sketch, but I did appreciate it last night. Aidy Bryant’s babbling in the face of One Direction was brilliant and elicited the line from Strong, “Morgan make a word.” Also, the sketch gave us all a chance to witness the One Direction members’ terrible American accents and awkward dancing, something not normally in their repertoire. (Harry and Niall were super enthusiastic; Zayn, not so much.)
– I can’t decide whether I’m pro or con on Harry Styles’ hat, but I like how committed he is to it. It remained affixed to his head even during his “Girlfriends” appearance.
– On a serious note: The Bobby Moynihan-Kim Jong-un Weekend Update bit was a smart way to handle the week’s news, but the fact that Moynihan still plays Kim Jong-un reinforces the fact that while SNL may be more diverse than it was at this time last year, the cast is far from being fully representative.