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TV Review: Saturday Night Live Hosted by James Franco

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Saturday Night Live is off to a bit of a rocky start this season. Last week's season premiere opened with the very well done Sarah Palin/Hillary Clinton sketch. Former cast-member, Tina Fey, returned to play Palin. The sketch was a bit of a media sensation, and its popularity overshadowed the mediocrity of the rest of the episode. That was not the case this week. There was no outstanding sketch to make viewers forget that the rest of show wasn't up to par. James Franco hosted, but the blame really lies with the writing. Frequently the sketches were lacking originality and imagination, making for a less than thrilling show.

Cold Open: "McCain Recording Session" (Grade: D)

A fairly obvious dig at John McCain's ad campaign. Basically McCain's approved any ad that showed Obama in a bad light regardless of whether or not there was any truth behind them. Bill Hader did the voice-overs in a super sarcastic tone. Darrell Hammond has not yet come up with a character for McCain, and basically plays him the same way he played Dick Cheney. This is the kind of sketch I'm afraid I'll see as the cold open every single week. Apparently everyone involved with SNL is more concerned with their political agenda than coming up with something funny.

Opening Monologue: James Franco (Grade: B)

James Franco is taking a break from Hollywood and is enrolled in Columbia University's MFA Writing Program. The sketch revolved around Franco trying to be the normal college student but not being able to break away from his movie star status. Jason Sudeikis had a funny bit as the RA who was no longer the big man on campus after Franco's arrival.

"The Cougar Den" (Grade: D)

Once again SNL falls back on the tried and (sometimes) true talk show sketch. "The Cougar Den" is a cross between "Coffee Talk," "Pretty Living," and the short-lived "Bronx Beat." Three middle-middle aged society women sit around talking about their lives, while smoking and sipping cocktails. The main problem with this sketch is the over-acting. It seems like everyone thinks they are being a lot funnier than they actually are. Casey Wilson completely overdoes her "older lady" voice. Amy Poehler has done a variation of this character so many times, it doesn't seem fresh in any way. Cameron Diaz made a cameo as a "cougar" who scored a hot young boyfriend (Franco). I'm not sure why Diaz was there. Maybe they are so in need of female performers they have find anyone willing to come on the show.

"Agent 420" (Grade: F)

Agent 420, as in 4:20. Get it? That's the whole joke. James Bond as a pot-head. This is the kind of immature sketch they really shouldn't do. I suppose for some people pot humor never gets old (no matter how lame it is).

"O.J. Simpson Jury Selection" (Grade: B)

In the first funny sketch of the show, lawyers attempt to find an "impartial" jury in the new O.J. Simpson trial. Despite finding people who were not from earth, who had been in a coma for thirty years, who had lived in a cave, and who had been raised by wolves, everyone still had their opinion on Simpson (and it wasn't the opinion Simpson's lawyer was looking for). Wil Forte was particularly funny as the coma patient who remembered Simpson as the Heisman Trophy winning college student, and then was worried that he might actually be "O.J. Simpson that murderer."

SNL Digital Short: "Hey! (Murray Hill)" (Grade: C)

This had a somewhat funny beginning, with Franco playing a man who was worried his date didn't like him because he had a "small ding-dong." Unfortunately the film's only humor from that point on, was to have Franco say "small ding-dong" as many times as possible. Gossip Girl Blake Lively made a cameo as the girl who shared something in common with Franco's character.

"TNT Promo: The Looker" (Grade: C-)

Penny Marshall is The Looker. Fred Armisen did a great job with Marshall's facial expression. Other than that the concecpt was fairly lame. Marshall as a detective who gets criminals to confess by staring them down over he glasses. Jason Sudeikis was funny as one of the confessors.

Musical Performance: Kings Of Leon – "Sex On Fire"

"Weekend Update" (Grade: C)

"Weekend Update" has become the most stale part of SNL. It's always the same. The anchors (Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers) take tibits out of real news and make sarcastic comments about them. Usually they bring out a guest of some kind, this week it was Lehman employee and some guy who is getting sued for sexual harassment by his employees. "Weekend Update" is never that good, it's not horrible (occasionally there are a few good laughs), it's just that same old fake news sketch that marks the mid-point of the show.

"The New York Times Covers Alaska" (Grade B-)

The New York Times wants to find out everything about Sarah Palin's background and decides it must send its city slicker reporters on location. There are quite a few funny moments in this sketch with the reporters being worried about polar bear attacks and not being able to order Thai take-out. Franco, as the boss, tells anyone who thinks they won't be comfortable going to Alaska that "they will understand." Eventually only three reporters are up to the task. On the negative side, the bit about uncovering incest in Palin's family was not funny at all. It didn't really make sense, even in the context of the reporters ignorance about Palin and Alaska.

"George and Lennie" (Grade: D)

Throughout the show's history there have always been those high-concept sketches that probably sounded good in the pitch-session, but then flopped in the final execution. This was one of those. The concept was an "alternate ending" to the Steinback classic "Of Mice and Men." Personally I'm not sure if Of Mice and Men is a universal enough story for a wide audience to even get the joke. Nonetheless, if the concept were better it still could have worked. I have to wonder if they felt obligated to through in something literary because of James Franco's background in literature. In the alternate ending, Lennie's mental disabilities are a result of George's pandering rather than a physical problem. When Lennie discovers this, he turns the tables on George. It was an okay idea, but the end result didn't come across as particularly funny or clever.

"Yankee Stadium Stories: Scorsese and Perez" (Grade: C)

This was a filmed segment in which Fred Armisen did a fairly spot-on Martin Scorcese and Amy Poehler did a passable Rosie Perez. Scorsese remembered playing baseball as a kid using a loaf of french bread and meatballs. Perez remembered coming to the stadium in roller skates. Armisen is a good impressionist and he can almost always make mediocre material a little better when he nails an impression.

Musical Performance: Kings Of Leon – "Use Somebody"

"Dafoe's Revenge" (Grade: B-)

In this "meta" sketch, James Franco was in his dressing room and was visited by Willem Dafoe (Bill Hader), who appears as Franco's "reflection" in the mirror. Dafoe wants Franco to kill cast member Andy Samburg. Apparently Samburg had made fun of Dafoe at some point in the past. While Hader didn't exactly evoke Willem Dafoe, the sketch was well played by everyone and had some funny lines.

Overall this episode could have been a lot funnier. Most of the sketches, particularly in the first half of the show, were below average and even the better one's never rose above a level of mediocrity.

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About Sherry Lipp

Sherry Lipp is an entertainment and food writer who specializes in film and television reviews. She has published the gluten and grain-free cookbook Don't Skip Dessert.
  • Dick Cheney

    Oh, come on. The opening McCain commercial bit was hilarious and you know it. Try watching it again without your political agenda blinders on.

    It was an excellent satire of the sleazy, dishonest commercials coming from the McCain/Bush team that even Karl Rove has said were lies.

    “Barack Obama wants to give tax cuts to pedophiles.” “I’m John McCain and I approve this message.”

  • Carl Rove

    Hey, “Dick Cheney”, if that is your real name. How dare you accuse the writer, Sherry Lipp (if that is her real name), of being a biased Republican. Maybe she lives in an area where they aren’t showing those offensive, lying McCain campaign commercials. If you haven’t seen the commercials, then you wouldn’t understand how funny the sketch was.

    “Barack Obama has fathered two black children, in wedlock.” “I’m John McCain and I approve this message.”

  • John McCane

    Hold on, you two. This is John McCain and I’ve been assured by the Bush team that is writing my commercials attacking Barack Obama that they are all true.
    My new commercial is about how Barack Obama wants to enslave the white race & take away our Bibles and guns. I’m John McCain and I approve this message.

  • Brad Laidman

    Don’t get me wrong – the show sucks – but why exactly is pot humor too immature to do? Especially, given the fact that Franco is essentially reprising his latest role in Pineapple Express, which was both fairly immature and extremely funny.