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Monday, March 3, 2008

TV Review: Welcome Back SNL -- Now Go Away!

Even in its best years (1976-1978 by some measures) and best individual shows Saturday Night Live has been patchy. This is a consequence of the pressures involved in turning around a new, topical sketch-comedy show every week. During the Dick Ebersol years in the mid-80s between Lorne Michael's leaving and his return, SNL started to use more filmed bits -- many of which were funnier than the live stuff. But that was then.

Unfortunately this is now, and now SNL is as unfunny as its ever been. The cast is willing and talented, but the writing well seems to be dry as a bone. At least here is proof that the writers really were on strike all those months.

Right now the big hubbub is over the now obligatory debate spoofs that SNL trots out every election year. The highwater mark for these were Darrell Hammond and Will Ferrel's brilliant Bush versus Gore series in 2000 which were so spot-on that Gore's people used them for debate prep. This year's set features Amy Poehler doing a passable Clinton and Fred Armisen in mocha-face doing an equally passable Obama. Poehler gets the glib, but she doesn't quite get the cadences right on Clinton, or the regal fierce repose with which she listens to her opponent. Armisen has the Obama look down, and some of his speech characteristics, but he too fails to locate something essential that would make this rise to the level of a great impression.

Of course there is also the debate over a white guy playing a black guy. To me the most resonant complaint is how seldom the equation is switched and you have a black performer playing someone who is white, especially someone in the public eye. That being said, I don't think there is any intentional harm beyond a somewhat hamfisted impersonation.

The sketches themselves (this Saturday's was essentially a better rewrite of last week's) really have only one point this time around -- the press is beating up on Hillary and fawning over Obama. There is some truth to this -- so much so that the real Hillary unwisely brought it up in the last debate. However there is much more to the dynamic between these two candidates that some halfway decent writing and performers who have really dug into the characters could make comedy hay from. Again the Bush/Gore series was funny because it got at both candidates strengths and weaknesses. SNL seems afraid to mock Obama -- much safer to go after the press. Clinton, despite being mocked as pushy and hard-to-take, seems to come off best but we never see the killer instinct that attracts and repels.

This week the real Hillary showed up to rebut the sketch and she was charming, funny, and very likable. Poehler as "Hillary" stopped in as well. But ultimately it served little purpose as entertainment and probably as campaign fodder as well.

The rest of the program, this week and last week, took a quick nosedive from the opener. The salvation last week was a great guest spot by host Tina Fey on Weekend Update that was an impassioned and funny pro-Hillary plea. There was also likable zealot Mike Huckabee, who was funny as usual. This week's Republican guest was unlikable zealot Rudy Giuliani, who was unfunny and pointless. Not unlike the show.

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