Posted by Jesse May 18th, 2009 at 09:30am In SNL
Earlier this week, New York Magazine’s Vulture blog ran a season-wrap up package for Saturday Night Live, including a fascinating (to me, anyway) statistical breakdown of cast member appearances, surprise guests, and frequent impersonations. As much as I appreciated the attention to the show, which gets ignored or dismissed in a lot of episode-by-episode TV-watching outlets, Vulture undermined their exhaustive research by putting out these pieces before the season actually ended which seems to me a bit like putting out a summer movie season recap in the second week in August. Actually, this probably will start happening soon or already has, but it doesn’t make it not stupid.
And yet, there was something odd about the Will Ferrell-hosted season finale this weekend. To Vulture’s extremely tiny credit, it felt more like a spirited encore than a parting shot. It’s been a longer-than-average season for SNL; following a strike-shortened 13-episode season, they came back earlier and wound up doing 22 episodes rather than the recent standard 20, plus a bunch of those Thursday extras. This whole episode felt like an extra, a Ferrell-led tribute to nothing much in particular.
Whether it was due to exhaustion or Ferrell wanting to work with some old buddies, other familiar faces from the past ten years or so of SNL popped up everywhere: Amy Poehler semi-inexplicably came back to co-anchor Weekend Update (not that it wasn’t nice to see her, but I’m surprised this gig wasn’t sprung earlier to promote Parks and Recreation); Maya Rudolph was there; even Norm freaking Macdonald, not known for much particular chumminess with the show that essentially fired him, turned up briefly for Celebrity Jeopardy to request the non-existent category “Famous Chinamen.” Darrell Hammond, still technically a cast member but usually limiting himself to one sketch per night, appeared three times, probably the most screentime he’s had in years for an episode without any election material. His front-and-center appearance in the goodnights had me wondering if maybe this was his last episode, after an astounding fourteen seasons.
Old characters came back, too, yet it didn’t seem quite so whorish as the recurrence-heavy Justin Timberlake episode, maybe because few of the returns were obvious: the Lawrence Welk dancer with the freaky baby arms (Kristen Wiig, natch) appeared for the second time ever; Will Ferrell revived his hilarious take on Harry Carey, a far more welcome choice than yet another go-round with the Lovers or the Roxbury guys; Kenan Thompson found another outlet for his malleable, amiable version of Charles Barkley. Even stuff that didn’t necessarily qualify as recurring characters sort of had that feel: Frequent host Tom Hanks dropped by to play himself as a hapless nitwit in the Jeopardy sketch, and the late-show funeral sketch was a riff on the excellent wedding-toast bit from the Hugh Laurie episode. Though the latter wasn’t quite as surprising or inspired this time out, it did have a ton of big laughs — and a deranged appearance from Maya Rudolph’s beloved-by-me Glenda Goodwin character. (Basically, almost every sketch screwed with Vulture’s guest-star count.)
This bizarre class-reunion vibe intensified with the season’s final sketch, a wonderfully strange piece in which a conversation between buddies about recent vacations prompts Ferrell to express his feelings about his recent trip to Vietnam via the bombastic, half-forgotten Billy Joel song “Goodnight Saigon.” Slowly, more people joined Ferrell onstage until he was backed by the entire current cast, plus Poehler and Rudolph, plus Green Day, plus Norm Macdonald and his erstwhile sidekick Artie Lang, plus Hanks, plus fellow Season 34 hosts Paul Rudd and Anne Hathaway. By the end, Ferrell’s earnestly wavering voice was leading an admirably poker-faced singalong.
All of this added up to an episode of frequent big laughs that nonetheless didn’t reach classic or even quite very-best-of-season status. Maybe it was the lack of truly fresh material; take away the two fine if uninspiring Green Day performances, Update, a reused fake commercial from Ferrell’s actual stint on the show, and there were only seven segments, only two of which — the show-ending song and Ferrell’s agreeably cracked legit-theater monologue — didn’t contain previously established characters. Still, it was a loose, fun curtain call.
I’ll be back later this week with a proper season wrap-up, and the best-of compilation NBC will never put together.
Episode Grade: B