It was a measure of how much fun Charles Barkley was as the new year’s first Saturday Night Live host that I couldn’t tell whether he was reciting a joke or ad libbing when he said during the opening moments, “Some of [the show] is great; some of it we’re gonna do anyway.”
While not “great,” it certainly had its good moments. Barkley did his share of saving some mediocre sketches, such as the “Reel Quotes” game-show, which asked two contestants (Barkley and Kristen Wiig) to complete famous film lines. Wiig was supposed to be funny for answering with excessively long responses; me, I laughed when Barkley’s character completed “Life is like a box of… ” with “dead people,” as well as, “May the force be equal to mass times acceleration.”
Barkley, Kenan Thompson, and Jason Sudeikis made the latest variation on SNL's "Scared Straight" parody amusing in two ways: Thompson rattled off the baroque prison punishments with aplomb, while Sudeikis and Barkley each offered some excellent reactions to the craziness this sketch always seems to stir up in both the performers and the audience.
Weekend Update: Seth Meyers got off a good Lady Gaga/Polaroid spokesperson punchline, and made a so-so Jay Leno/Tonight Show joke (“It’s a little weird to start The Tonight Show at a time when it’s no longer tonight”). The best stuff came from Fred Armisen wheeling in as New York governor David Paterson and emitting a stream of anti-New Jersey jokes:
I'm afraid the "MacGruber" bits were grimly unfunny, hinging solely on Will Forte's MacGruber blabbing racist idiocies to Barkley's character. But much worse was the endless "Shana" sketch, with Wiig reprising her supposedly-sexy-then-gross character. Watch it if you dare:
Alicia Keys’ singing exuded what seemed like an effortless power – even when the lyrics in the second song, “Streets of New York,” were just a string of cliches, she sounded terrific. And Keys took part in a pretty funny Digital Short, drunk-dialing Andy Samberg’s weird nerd for a booty-call:
Delayed over 30 minutes by a football overrun, Saturday Night Live betrayed live-show jitters only once, late in the show, when a Charles Barkley-as-a-banker sketch seemed to cut off before its completion. You can't tell it from this edited version, but it sounded to me as though Barkley continued talking as the show went to a commercial.
Sure, Barkley did a lot of distracting reading off the cue cards, and once again, SNL behaved as though the only woman in its cast who can recite long passages is Wiig. (Nasim Pedrad in particular is being wasted.) Still, maybe it’s the optimism of a new year, but I thought this was one of the more likable editions of the show in recent months: SNL took on some of Barkley’s loose affability.