Unless you've been purposely avoiding your local multiplex for the last three weeks or so, you're most likely already uncomfortably aware of the Fifty Shades of Grey juggernaut that has put our nation's movie theaters in a chokehold since Valentine's Day. The bondage-heavy love story might not appeal to everyone, but the film at least boasts one excellent byproduct with mainstream charm: rising star Dakota Johnson. Johnson – yes, the offspring of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, a little bit of genealogical trivia she's adorably embraced –already managed to make Fifty Shades occasionally funny, but could she work that same magic her first time hosting Saturday Night Live?
If anything, Johnson acclimated to the live show a bit too well. Johnson's background is in comedy – her biggest pre-Fifty Shades role was on sitcom Ben and Kate – so working for laughs isn't foreign to her, although taking center stage might be. Johnson slipped so seamlessly into every sketch she appeared in (and this is a show with plenty of solid young female talent) that it was nearly impossible to differentiate her from the rest of the cast. And, despite a very strong start, the show eventually showed some of the expected shag from taking a month’s hiatus from normal operations.
Yet, there were still a handful of highlights – mainly from the first half of the show – including these three must-see clips.
"Giuliani Cold Open"
SNL mainly skipped out on covering the buzz and politics of Oscar season by taking the entire month of February off (sure, the last pre-hiatus host was Oscar hopeful J.K. Simmons, but he was such a sure thing that it almost didn't matter, and the show barely played up his award season dreams), but they managed to sneak in one last gag before everyone forgets who won what big golden award and why. A canny combination of topical news item – former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani spouts off a bunch of admittedly horrible opinions about President Barack Obama, is then dinged for it by the media – and send-up of Best Picture winner Birdman, this was a cold open that had something to say and, moreover, had something to say about stuff going on right now.
Being current is part of SNL's very DNA – after all, each show is written the week it airs – but that ability to stay on top of the news cycle has lately been limited to "Weekend Update" jokes. By combining two big stories that people still care about into one extremely energetic and happily self-reflexive sketch, we're reminded just what SNL can do. And we thought this whole bit was just a send-up of Gretchen Carlson's news reporting tactics!
"Say What You Wanna Say"
"We're not friends, and we're never going to hang out, so I'm gonna not do this."
Styled after other lady-skewing commercials – tampons? deodorant? what are we looking at here? – this pre-taped sketch takes a gloriously awkward left turn almost immediately, and then holds the course until everyone involved is literally dancing in the streets. Set to Sara Bareilles' ubiquitous "Brave," this sketch essentially sells a feeling in glossy commercial packaging. What's real bravery? Telling people the truth, mainly by doing away with all pretense of social niceties and piping the hell up when something just doesn’t work for you.
Aidy Bryant's Jackie is the most relatable character from the entire evening, a regular gal trapped in conversation with a non-friend (Beck Bennett, who is heartbreakingly confused about the whole thing) who does something truly, yes, brave, and gives a boring acquaintance the heave ho. Cue dancing! Cue honesty! Cue every girl on your Twitter stream sharing this link because they relate to it! Also, good luck getting that song out of your head. Sayyyy what you wanna say (tinkling piano, tinkling piano)!
The show's last half was an unstable combination of bizarre bits about broken-armed office workers and the world’s worst public access show about net neutrality, but nothing dared to get as weird as this ER-set sketch. Built on an already amusing gag – a doctor (Kenan Thompson) is called in on his day off, only to show up wearing Star Trek cosplay gear, having apparently been ripped away from a local convention – "Emergency Room" happily piled on the wacky elements until the entire thing was both totally inscrutable and extremely funny.
Sure, tossing a Worf mask on Thompson is a big move, but this is a sketch bolstered by details, like Johnson's game attempts to not dissolve into giggles and Taran Killam choosing to adopt a death mask that relies entirely on over-the-top mugging. By the time Vanessa Bayer and Pete Davidson amble in, the whole thing has turned into a bit about a mismatched marriage and intergalactic language barriers (or are they just Earth-bound? no one knows!). And then there’s that final gag, one that could be perceived as a cop-out elsewhere, but only adds to the rich tableau of WTF? unfurling across the small screen.