Saturday Night Live: Season 40, Episode 14: Dakota Johnson, Alabama Shakes
Dakota Johnson is currently riding the biggest wave of popularity in her fairly short career. Her big break is unquestionably Fifty Shades of Gray and clearly the film’s doing her a lot of favors. I mean, here she is hosting Saturday Night Live. She only just started obtaining some level of notoriety too. In a way though, this is the best time for her to come to Studio 8H. She’s still not immensely recognizable, which means many people have yet to form an opinion on her as an actress. A strong hosting gig could help Johnson’s popularity immensely. This is her chance to show those who don’t care for Fifty Shades or didn’t watch the short-lived Ben and Kate why she’s someone to remember. I for one am very excited to see what she can do. Sometimes it’s the unknowns who do the best job.
Along for the ride is Alabama Shakes with their second appearance to promote their upcoming album Sound & Color. I’m a fan, so this will be a good musical night.
Last night started off with a really solid Cold Open. Taking cue from the Dr. Evil fake out back in December, the open lead you in believing it would make fun of Rudy Giuliani. It did, obviously, but I doubt anyone could have guessed it would take the style of Birdman to become “Giuliani: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”. It was an extremely funny segment, freely taking jabs at a man that has been friends with Lorne Michaels for many years. Truly, Giuliani has come along way from being America’s mayor. Him desperately needing win, and getting that through his Birdman persona (Beck Bennett) pulling the fire alarm, was great. Taran Killam gets most of the credit for pulling this off too. He didn’t break once during the single take that brought him through the backstage hallways and back to the audience.
Weekend Update was probably the best it’s been all season, finally showing the high quality clearly present beneath Colin Jost and Michael Che. Most of the jokes really worked, and Che’s in particular actually had bite. The rare two-shot of Jost and Che bantering, despite it being about that stupid dress, actually proved that these two hosts can have chemistry together. A powerhouse trifecta of guests definitely helped too. Jay Pharoah brought back Kanye West for an incredible apology rap where he repeatedly said “I’m sorry” for the things he’s said. Bobby Moynihan’s Riblet, while already running out of steam in his second appearance after one month, still brought laughs making fun of Che. Kate McKinnon bested both of them though with her Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who definitely embodied the Notorious R.B.G. nickname. It hurt from laughing so hard. How can you not with lines like, “I like my decisions the way I like my men. 5-4” and “Justice is blind but it can see that you just got GINSBURNED.” Amazing.
I could praise McKinnon again because she was hilarious last night, as usual, but I’d like to focus instead on the other star: Kyle Mooney. I’m pretty sure this is the most segments Mooney’s appeared in on a single show and he nailed it. This guy has really found his niche after one year. Few people on the cast can play weird, awkward characters with such ease. He was the only cast member to appear in Johnson’s Fifty Shades monologue. He was the best part of that Fifty Shades press room sketch, playing a middle schooler who always had innocent comments like “Ice is cold!” after talking about the film’s aggressive sex. The show ended with a ten-to-one “Mr. Riot Films” video where Mooney and Beck Bennett did outrageous things for bullying awareness. He was in a few more skits too, but mainly played support in those. No one can doubt Mooney’s staying power anymore. This man needs to go on the main cast and fast.
Cecily Strong has a lot of great characters, but Cathy Ann is definitely not one of them. Who decided for her to become a recurring character? This personification of trash came back during the Cinderella sketch and it easily one of the night’s weakest. Granted, the skit itself didn’t have much going for it. Johnson was a decent Cinderella and Killam was a good Prince, but all the humor firmly laid on Cathy Ann’s shoulders. Strong is more than capable of carrying a bit on her own. She has done it innumerable times. Yet not even the strongest comedian can’t elevate a poorly written character.
The “Net Neutrality” sketch was disappointing too, mainly because it was so one-note. All it really focused on was the idea that many people on the internet are stupid. Out of the four internet “specialists,” absolutely zero knew what net neutrality actually was. To be fair, there are a lot of idiots out there. The fact that a freaking dress was trending for days is unbelievable. Having two of the jokes from last night dedicated to that same dress is even more ridiculous. But there are a lot of incredibly informed people out there too, and this bit did nothing to introduce that. Sasheer Zamata’s character could have been that, but instead she was simply a reactionary presence to everyone else. This meant we had four straight minutes of tired old internet references and jokes. I will say though, I laughed when Johnson yelled “Harder!” after getting slapped.
“Emergency Room” was too much of a mess to be good. The moment Kenan Thompson walked out as Worf, in one of his only appearances of the night, Johnson couldn’t control herself. This resulted in laughs from Killam, who was supposed to be dead, pausing from Leslie Jones, and a lack of composure from Thompson. After a while, the people on stage weren’t trying to make jokes. They just wanted the sketch to end. The one saving grace though was why we had this in the first place. It segued into a simple memoriam for the late Leonard Nimoy, with a picture of Spock above the words ‘Live Long and Prosper’ airing to total silence. It was touching and basically saved the four minute mess that came before.
It’s very clear that Johnson is an extremely reserved actress. She’s good at delivering quiet, self-deprecating humor, but doesn’t stand out that much. Johnson was mainly the game host in every one of her sketches. There was no fighting for space or attention here. She came out, did whatever she was asked with admirable composure (save for “Emergency Room”), and let the cast do the work. So in a way, this was a great way for her guide her first hosting gig. Live comedy is difficult to pull off and many fail by overextending themselves. Johnson didn’t go beyond her means and it allowed her to survive through the show without much issue.
As for the show itself, it was a suitable return after the monumental 40th Anniversary special. No one cast member did a bad job which was expected when you consider the break they had. Alabama Shakes absolutely crushed it too. SNL always looks better after some time off and it just shows in every aspect. I laughed in every sketch enough times to enjoy the experience, despite the clunkers. I even laughed at that ISIS sketch that has, for the right reasons, upset a lot of people. There is absolutely nothing funny about the issue. I’m not lambasting SNL for doing what they did though. One of the biggest and oldest functions of comedy is to make light of horrible things. Someone was eventually going to do something like this and I’m actually glad it was the formerly rebellious SNL. Controversy and comedy go hand in hand after all.
Next week is Chris Hemsworth and Zac Brown Band. Let’s see what Thor himself can bring to the show!
Luke Kalamar is Pop-Break.com’s television and every Saturday afternoon you can read his retro video game column, Remembering the Classics. He covers Game of Thrones, Saturday Night Live and The Walking Dead (amongst others) every week. As for as his career and literary standing goes — take the best parts of Spider-man, Captain America and Luke Skywalker and you will fully understand his origin story.