Saturday Night Live Review: "Fred Armisen/Courtney Barnett"

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<i>Saturday Night Live</i> Review: "Fred Armisen/Courtney Barnett"

Saturday Night Live’s 41st season comes to a close with a trilogy of respectable (at times, excellent) episodes. But how the show got from its lowest point in a decade in January (Ronda Rousey/Selena Gomez) to where it is again excellent is a testament to Executive Producer Lorne Michaels’ particular genius. His ability to forge a winning team out of so many disparate elements is worthy of a TED Talk. It is as remarkable as it is inspiring. SNL is worth the watch again.

This year’s season finale serves as a homecoming of sorts with guest host Fred Armisen leading the way. The season’s best episodes have been helmed or supported by SNL alumni—Armisen brought with him ad hoc cast member Larry David, Andy Samberg (with a new SNL Digital Short), Jason Sudekis, and Maya Rudolph. When we finally get to the season curtain call in a weirdly wonderful musical performance sketch called “The Harkin Brothers,” there is a real sense that it is as much a tip of the hat to past casts as it is a collective sigh of relief. A challenging season is ended. And it’s “Summertime in Fayettville, hot-hot summertime!”

“Hillary & Bernie Cold Open” imagines a last call dance between Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton and Larry David’s Bernie Sanders that waltzes past the fourth wall and into a whimsical trip through the studio. It’s a nice idea, though the sketch that precedes it is forgettable. The usual jabs are landed—Hillary’s desperate ambition, Bernie’s cranky demeanor. But no new territory is explored beyond a quick comment about Hillary’s recent pivot to the center.

“Fred Armisen One Man Show Monologue,” on the other hand, is a true season highlight—one of the episode’s three live theatre parodies (“High School Theatre Show with Fred Armisen” and “Expedition” follow). Ostensibly the story of how Fred came to be on Saturday Night Live, the piece plays effortlessly for Armisen who excels at this kind of spontaneous-feeling comedy of tropes.

“New Girlfriend” is the night’s strongest sketch, with Armisen appearing in full, Portlandia-style drag as Jason Sudekis’ rude and unusually sensual girlfriend. It’s a very funny sketch that is lessened by SNL’s recent willingness to break. Look, it’s not that we don’t laugh when we see actors crack up in a comedy sketch. It’s that we are no longer laughing at the comic premise or the performances or the joke—we are laughing at people in a skit on TV, which does a disservice to the artists who craft the comedy. The show is better when the actors stay in the scene and leave the laughter to the audience’s discretion.

“Farewell, Mr. Bunting” is a one-joke, Dead Poets Society burlesque that succeeds despite being about a nearly thirty year-old film. No spoilers here, just see it. Suffice it to say, the SNL pre-tape production team has again delivered great work this season.

“SNL Digital Short: Finest Girl” is a fine addition to the Andy Samberg canon of rap/R&B novelty songs. Certainly not one of the best, but what’s not to like about Vanessa Bayer’s “girl who wants him to BLEEP her like we did Bin Laden?”

Courtney Barnett may be the least known musical guest of SNL’s 41st season, but the Australian post-punk rocker and her three-piece band rip through “Nobody Really Cares if You Don’t Go To the Party” and “Pedestrian at Best” like they expect us to remember them.

Season 41’s woes began with the Donald Trump-hosted episode last November. After a bumpy but respectable start (Tracy Morgan’s return October 18 was pure joy), it was as if Lorne Michaels had gutted the rebel spirit of Saturday Night Live by inviting the upstart Republican presidential candidate to a kid-gloved traipse through Studio 8H. Though Michaels has rarely been one to eschew politicians on the make, the Trump episode was surprisingly ingratiating. The ultimate Monopoly man cartoon of a Republican was in the house, but the whole thing played out like a good-natured video tribute at a Trump corporate retreat.

Since then, Michaels unleashed the Weekend Update desk (and Darrell Hammond, of course) to redeem the November debacle, which has given the show its soul back. But more importantly, he seems to have rebuilt the ensemble. There aren’t really any “stars” right now on SNL, and it doesn’t matter. The show is back, finely tuned, and ready to be great again. Should Michaels be able to keep the current cast together over the summer, fans can expect great things for Season 42.

Chris White writes and directs independent feature films. His latest is Unbecoming, a southern gothic comedy starring Patti D’Arbanville and Michael Forest. Follow Chris on Twitter.

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