Donald Trump’s “SNL” Episode Highlights the Show’s Recent Downfall

The highly-discussed and anticipated Donald Trump episode of “Saturday Night Live” represented a great opportunity for the show to come out swinging and show viewers, both old and new, that the show is still worthwhile.

Instead, it may have made a case for its desperate need of a massive overhaul.

The show approached the Donald Trump episode, on which the man himself appeared no more than 15 minutes in total (likely due to tricky broadcast regulations on political candidates), with seemingly no more creative energy or inspiration than their average episode. And most tellingly for a sketch comedy show, the episode simply wasn’t funny. Even accounting for the limitations Trump’s people likely placed on them, it was just totally bland.

Unfortunately, this has become a trend for SNL of late. Since the departure of mainstays such as Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, the show has struggled mightily to find its next generation of performers. Currently, standout Kate McKinnon is left to carry an assortment of players that are either being underutilized, or simply aren’t that good. Inexplicably, the cast remained the same from last season despite plenty of signs of cracks in the foundation at that time.

And even the best performers can only do so much without talented writing. It’s amazing to watch McKinnon, as Hillary Clinton, somehow make the most cartoonish lines sound convincing. Even poor Tracy Morgan, still recovering from his accident over a year ago, did his best to commit to the writers’ bizarro-world versions of his old sketches during his episode in October. The show seems to recognize the issue with the writing, having relieved (former) head writer Colin Jost of his duties recently. Nonetheless, the Trump episode shows that this move has only led to a further dip in quality.

I would liken SNL to a struggling NBA team. It’s time for them to enter full-on rebuilding mode, but in the increasingly fickle world of broadcast television, even such a storied franchise only has so long to rebuild. It may be time to cut ties with some veterans; Kenan Thompson probably needs to move on to something else by now, and Bobby Moynihan must have some sort of career-ending dirt on Lorne Michaels given his continued presence. It’s time to bring in some new, young talent, both on the cast and in the writing room. These new, young artists must help guide the elderly franchise into the new age, much in the way Andy Samberg and The Lonely Island did a decade ago.

Whatever they do, something’s gotta change. Trump’s episode was the show’s highest rated in 3 years, and if that is the gauge they have for how the show is doing right now, they won’t be likely to keep tuning in.

(Shout out to Larry David as Bernie Sanders though. It’s one of those Fey-as-Palin matches that are too good to pass up.)

Late Night

The Ballad of Kenneth Parcell

Of all of the characters in the “30 Rock” universe, Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer, “Late Night with Conan O’Brien”) certainly has the most fascinating backstory. Originally simply a hyper-modest, folksy NBC page, by the end of the series (spoiler alert, also why have you not seen 30 Rock?) he has become an immortal being who will serve as head of NBC presumably forever. In this post, I’ll break down the transformation. 

As I mentioned, Kenneth began as a rather flat character. In the show’s first season, much was made of Kenneth’s innocence. However, Jack prophetically predicts, after an intense game of cards, that Kenneth will one day either rule them all, or kill them all. (Does this also explain what happened to Josh?)

Gradually, bits of Kenneth’s background began to fill in. His folksiness grew, and he often referred to his hometown of Stone Mountain, GA (actual hometown of show writer Donald Glover) and the simpler life he left back home to fulfill his page duties. He would also begin referring to his stepfather Ron, who is implied to be quite the awful man.

Starting around season three, the show begins working in hints about Kenneth’s agelessness. For example, he refers to his birth year as “nineteen[mumbling]”, and gets strangely defensive whenever the matter of his age is brought up.

Furthering the mythology, in the show’s second live episode, flashbacks of television shows from the past seem to indicate that Kenneth has worked as a page at NBC perhaps since the very beginning. It makes sense — who would make a better tour guide to visitors than someone who not only knows the history, but lived it too?

By the end of the series, all subtlety is gone. The show continues to reference his agelessness, and his status as some sort of otherworldly entity; his mom refers to how Kenneth spoke to her moments after his own “birth”. Ron (Bryan Cranston, winner of television) turns out to be an okay, if pretty dorky, guy. And in the finale, we learn that Kenneth will one day ascend the ranks to become the leader of NBC (and greenlight “30 Rock”… Does that make Tina Fey Liz Lemon’s granddaughter?)

Naturally, this is all confusing. Why is Kenneth immortal? How is he immortal? Why would an immortal, otherworldly being’s purpose in life be to become head of NBC, of all things? 

The answers lie only in the comedic genius of Tina Fey and her writing staff. If for some reason you haven’t already, check out 30 Rock on Netflix or in syndication. 

Sitcoms

“Anthony Jeselnik: Thoughts and Prayers” – Review

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Anthony Jeselnik is back, and he’s as unapologetic as ever in his new Netflix stand-up special, “Thoughts and Prayers”. The special marks Jeselnik’s first televised stand-up show since the end of his Comedy Central series, “The Jeselnik Offensive.”

Anthony Jeselnik is very much a comedian you have to either love or hate (or of course, just have never heard of). His jokes are meant to challenge the audience to laugh at some of the most despicable (yet somehow hilarious) punchlines imaginable.

In his special, he does just that to his San Francisco audience, inciting mostly laughter but also a fair amount of groans. His jokes focused strongly on children, and awful things happening to said children, with other jokes being aimed at his family and various audience members. It was a lot of what you would expect from Jeselnik: jokes that are well-constructed, funny, and awful enough to make you feel bad for laughing.

At about the half-hour mark, timed well with the point at which the barrage of black comedy one-liners starts to feel stale, Jeselnik switches up the tempo and begins talking about the concept of doing black comedy, why he does it, and how he handles the consequences. He goes into a seemingly passionate monologue about how he received death threats following his jokes surrounding a New Zealander’s death at the hands of a shark, and how they then began threatening his relatives. True to his form, however, he reveals the entire thing as having been a long set-up to another terribly awesome punchline.

If you don’t like Jeselnik’s schtick, this special probably won’t do anything to change your view. If you’re a fan, however, the special makes for an entertaining and hilarious experience.

Discussion

“The Walking Dead – JSS” Recap & Review

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This week, “The Walking Dead” made up for its mess of a season premiere with a strong second episode, which has pretty much become the predominant trend for the show in its past few seasons. Tonight, we (finally) tackle the arrival of the Wolves, and we address the differences between Rick’s gang and Morgan concerning how to deal with human threats.

First, let’s address Carl’s girlfriend, who is apparently named Edin. We begin the episode with her out on her own, hiding from zombies and eating a raw turtle. It’s unclear, but assumed, that these are events occurring after the Wolves’ attack given that Edin goes AWOL shortly after said attack. Also, the “J.S.S.” she wrote no less than four times in the cold open (this show has never been much for subtlety) is referenced in non-abbreviated form, “Just survive somehow”, on the note she leaves Carl prior to ditching the camp.

Now let’s get to the meat of the episode. Carol chats with the fellow housewives about cooking. They lament the lack of anything to work with, but Carol is undeterred and making the best of what she has (again, no subtlety). We see Carol offer to help one of the other women with cooking, but only if she can drop her “disgusting habit” of smoking before entering Carol’s home. Later, Carol watches as the woman stands out on the front lawn smoking…. and then a man slaughters her with a machete. Carol was right, smoking kills.

We come back from that disturbing act break to a full-on siege from the Wolves, who after damn near a season of being teased, have now actually shown up. The thing is, that’s just about all they do; while some easily-forgotten residents meet their end, no “major” characters are harmed, and altogether the threat is taken care of surprisingly quickly. While pretty much all of the Wolves are taken care of, Morgan does allow a handful to leave after scaring the shit out of them. However, unless that group of five is able to recruit more or gets super ballsy, it really doesn’t seem like the Wolves can be a viable threat after this episode. So yeah, guess that was it. Bummer.

More interesting than the Wolves, however, is how the episode focuses in on Carol and Morgan specifically. During the attack, Carol and Morgan are the ones to spring into action and are by far the most effective Alexandrians in regards to taking on the Wolves. The show hammers home the fact that they have very different ways of handling the threat: Carol runs around like some sort of angel of death, whereas Morgan is insistent upon not killing anyone who is still living. What’s notable here is that the show is willing to lend at least some credence to Morgan’s way of handling things, as he is able to chase off a group of Wolves without excessive violence. But will they come back? This is the (sometimes rightfully) paranoid line of questioning that Rick’s gang has taken on now, but that Morgan has somehow staved off up to this point.

As the episode ends, however, we see Morgan being forced to kill one of the Wolves; specifically, one of the ones he ran into last season in the woods. As Morgan walks through the town, he crosses paths with Carol. Again, no subtlety at all in this imagery and what it implies, but it was a poignant moment of showing how Morgan is realizing that Rick’s gang may not be so crazy after all.

Other Thoughts

  • The fight scenes were nicely directed tonight; there was a notable sense of claustrophobia and panic in the framing and camera movements
  • If “Denise” the off-her-rocker psychologist is now the group’s only doctor, I desperately hope very few of them need any form of medical attention
  • There are so many characters right now, and several of them seem fairly expendable, so it was surprising to see the Wolves (who were supposed to be a big threat) come and go with the only losses to the group being characters we had heard of once before at the most
Discussion

“The Walking Dead” – “First Time Again”

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Yikes.

“The Walking Dead” is back, and it brings with it an absurdly obnoxious structure for its season premiere. We join the gang as they attempt to solve their walker overload problem, and for some reason, Scott Gimple and his team opted to tell the story through a series of disorganized zig-zags between flashbacks and live action. It’s a format that would be hard to maintain even for the usual 44-ish minute runtime, but when used during a supersized episode it becomes extremely distracting. Nonetheless, let’s dive in.

In the flashbacks, we (vaguely) follow the progression of the group’s attitudes and actions following the events of last season’s finale. Rick’s refusal to bury former scumbag/current dead person Pete within community boundaries leads him and Morgan to the discovery of what may be the largest swarm of walkers the group has encountered thus far. Rick lays out a plan to combat this issue; basically, his plan is to use a combination of flare guns and their vehicles to lead the walkers far away from the community. This plan is met with skepticism, particularly by Carter, a person who apparently exists. Carter’s excessive protests, combined with the fact that he just appeared out of nowhere, pretty much instantly establishes his existence as nothing more than a strawman. One could even assume that he will likely be dying soon, and sure enough…

In the end, Carter’s protests are largely ignored, and Rick’s plan goes forward. It actually all seems to be going fairly well, even with Carter’s unfortunate demise, but then we hear a horn off in the distance, leading the walkers right back toward Alexandria. And that pretty much sums up the majority of the action in this episode, somehow.

Really, the only thing of interest here is the dynamic between Rick and Morgan. We already know things are going to go south with them pretty quickly, but we of course have a bit of storytelling left in order to get there. In tonight’s episode we see Morgan insisting that Rick still is the same man he used to be. Rick was the man who gave him the hope to continue on his journey, so for Morgan to give up on him, it’s going to take a lot. They have a few genuinely nice moments tonight; Rick even insists that Morgan holds Judith, who the writers temporarily remembered to include (apparently at the expense of Carl?). However, by the end of the episode, we see Morgan’s faith in Rick begin to fade. He expresses disappointment in Rick for his “trial by fire” method of teaching the weak links of the community how to handle walkers, and is further disillusioned by the callous manner in which Rick euthanizes Carter after a walker bite. For now, he still seems willing to accept that this is just how things have to be now, but the cracks in the foundation of their tentative friendship are already beginning to show.

“The Walking Dead” is not good at season premieres. This is something we know to expect at this point. It’s always going to be a slow burn, involving a whole lot of exposition to get us from where we left off to where we need to be going forward. Adding the distracting episode structure on top of that just seemed unnecessary; hopefully we see less gimmicky formatting going forward, as it simply is not this show’s forte. As much as TWD would love to be artsy or edgy, it’s at its best when it just stops taking itself too seriously.

RANDOM THOUGHTS

  • How long until Abraham finally loses his shit entirely?
  • The Wolves got a passing shoutout, which pretty much sums up their actual presence in the series thus far.
  • Eugene to new guy (with dreads) Heath: “I fully respect the hair game”
  • Glenn to Heath when Heath talks about how nothing is going as expected: “I was supposed to be delivering pizza, man”
  • I don’t know if it’s just for the benefit of the audience or not, but Carol’s whole playing-dumb act is absurdly obvious
  • Morgan asks Michonne if she took his last peanut butter protein bar, because it’s important to keep your priorities straight in the zombie apocalypse
Discussion

ABC Family Will Finally Drop the “Family”

At the start of next year, the vaguely-popular cable network “ABC Family” will be no more.

Well, sort of. In actuality, the network is re-branding under the name “Freeform”. The rebrand is aimed at focusing in on the demographic the network has been going after for the past decade: adolescents, especially adolescent girls.

The “Family” designation attached to the channel has been long outdated. It existed as a relic from the origins of the network; founded by televangelist (and crazy person) Pat Robertson, the network was originally titled CBN Cable, then CBN Family Channel, later simplified to The Family Channel. It catered to religious audiences, obviously. Turns out advertisers don’t flock toward channels like this, so Robertson’s son’s company would eventually put it up for sale.

The channel was bought by FOX and aside from the archaic forced showings of Robertson’s “700 Club” at night, all religious pretense was stripped from the network. It would then go on to be bought by ABC, which similarly formed it in its own vision independent of any religious affiliation. Rumors even spread of a pending name change to “XYZ”, but further rumors claimed Robertson’s iron-clad contract mandated the presence of the word “Family” in the channel’s title.

As it turns out, no such mandate seems to have existed. And as such, ABC has finally chosen to rebrand the network. The choice of “Freeform” as the name rather than XYZ or, really, any other option is questionable, but it’s understandable why they would choose to rebrand. It does seem that Robertson did make one mandate, however, as “700 Club” will unfortunately continue to be broadcasted on the rebranded network.

It remains to be seen whether the rebrand pays off for “Freeform”, but it is at the very least nice to see them move on from the past.

Discussion

The New American Dream, as Told Through Liz Lemon of “30 Rock”

Once upon a time, the “American Dream” was simple. We wanted to start from the bottom and work to the very top, find a career we love that pays us well, find the love of our lives by maybe 30 at the latest, have 2.5 kids and a picket fence like everyone else.

That “dream”, however, has become just that. Starting from the bottom only leaves us fighting to not ever fall back down to the bottom. Finding a career we love doesn’t guarantee good pay or even satisfaction. And now we’re just happy to find a love to make the days easier, with the kids and the picket fence being a distant goal to strive toward.

As the unlucky-in-love main character in NBC’s 2006-2013 sitcom “30 Rock”, Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon embodies what has come to be the new version of our American dream. She works as the head writer for her own sketch series, but loses all power over it when an aloof, arrogant new star is added. It’s far from an ideal situation, and ruins what Liz once thought was an almost-perfect life.

Like Liz, many modern-day Americans live in less than ideal situations. Some people tend to sit around and sulk over this, or simply accept it as what will always be their reality. However, nowadays the ability to push through these situations and make the best of what one is given has become a hallmark of the new American dream and spirit. Liz, for example, learns to love her uncontrollable work environment, realizing it gave her the opportunity she had been longing for to be motherly as well as a sense of purpose beyond making a TV show.

Liz also faces a less-than-ideal love life, beginning the series being stuck in an on-and-off relationship with Dennis Duffy (Dean Winters), who is undeniably the worst. She spends the overwhelming majority of the show’s run dating a series of undesirable guys, all the while suffering from the ticking-clock mentality of a single woman in her mid-to-late 30s. For all her struggles, however, Liz never gives up, and eventually meets Criss (James Marsden). Criss has an absurd name, is a few years younger, and has what is at-best a questionable source of income. None of this is to say that he isn’t a great guy; he just is obviously not what Liz had dreamt of. She doesn’t let this set her back either, though. She marries Criss, in a courthouse rather than the wedding of her dreams, and adopts rather than having children herself. And yet, in spite of what may seem like setbacks, Liz is happy.

That’s what our modern American dream is all about. We aren’t going to have it as easy as we may have hoped. Life isn’t going to go how we wanted it to, and there’s nothing we can do about that. However, through taking agency of our lives and working to make the best of what we do have, we may just find that what we end up with is just as good, if not better, than what we had ever wanted.

Discussion Sitcoms

“The Daily Show with Trevor Noah”: Continuing the War on Bullshit

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“The Daily Show” is back, and for the first time since December 1998, someone other than Jon Stewart is the permanent host. There has been much discussion of how new host Trevor Noah will fare in regards to filling the shoes of a modern-day broadcasting legend. Tonight, we got our first taste of “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah”.

The most immediately noticeable differences are the aesthetics; the show now sports a remodeled set as well as a very sleek new graphics package, And then of course there’s the other massive change, Trevor Noah sitting behind the host desk rather than Stewart.

Aside from that, however, it’s pretty much business as usual. The show doesn’t miss a beat, jumping right back into its usual format. With all the talk of how different the show may be under Noah’s leadership, it’s interesting that at least initially the show seems intent on playing it safe, likely planning on easing us into any future changes. Even the Moment of Zen is still there!

Noah, for his part, looks fairly comfortable in the host position. He handled a few instances of jokes tanking with the audience well, and gave off the confidence of someone who has been doing this for longer than just one night. However, he does have one immediately obvious problem area, and that’s interviewing. The Kevin Hart interview was painfully awkward, from the stumbling, nonsensical questions to the confused reaction to Hart’s welcoming gift. This is something that can be fixed with experience, luckily, and it didn’t derail the night too badly. It will be interesting to watch his interviewing skills evolve.

Overall, Noah’s “Daily Show” debut went as well as anyone could have hoped. It’s clear that the show plans to play things safe, at least initially, by easing us into whatever changes may lie ahead. In the meantime, it’s just nice to know that the show will continue to fight the War on Bullshit.

Late Night

“Scandal” Premiere Review: Usual Twists, Liv-Fitz, and Diana Conspiracy Theories

review-bMINUSOh, “Scandal”. You really must credit Shonda Rhimes and her team. Never before has a show been so consistently absurd, over-the-top, disorganized, and just altogether a complete trainwreck… and yet still been impossible to stop watching.

We rejoin the show to begin its fifth season, and it’s still as “Scandal”-y as ever. All the classic ingredients are here: Liv and Fitz, a riff on a popular conspiracy theory, mind-blowing twists, and Quinn doing nothing particularly useful.

The scandal-of-the-week tonight revolves around a car accident in which a paparazzi-coveted princess and her bodyguard are killed, but it may be more than it seems. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is an exact copy of a “popular” conspiracy theory surrounding the death of Princess Diana. (As the theory goes, Diana was getting it on with the son of an Egyptian billionaire and had gotten pregnant, and thus was murdered for disgracing the royal family.) Likewise, in the “Scandal” universe, the princess of “Caledonia” was murdered for an affair with her bodyguard; the Scandal twist being that the Queen herself ordered it. Oh boy! After four seasons it’s just all getting too predictable.

Meanwhile, Olivia and Fitz are back together, which is…. something. I don’t know. It’s exhausting at this point. But apparently it’s going to stick; Fitz goes so far as to serve Mellie papers (at her Senate confirmation, no less). More significantly, it is revealed to the world via Sally that Fitz and Olivia are an item as the episode’s “shocking ending”. We’ll have to wait till next week to see what that entails, but my guess is it’ll be just like the last time the world found out about them a couple of seasons ago.

Mellie, obviously, is pissed that Fitz wants to divorce her. She yells at Lizzie Bear, who responds quite ferociously. Nice to see Portia de Rossi get the first monologue of the season. She resorts to going to Cyrus for help, and they mostly just sulk for a while about how Fitz doesn’t love them anymore.

Overall, the “Scandal” opener plays it surprisingly close to the belt. Aside of the end of the episode’s twist, which still wasn’t that shocking, it’s pretty much standard fare for the show. Maybe after four seasons they’re simply running out of twist material, which is perfectly understandable. It will be interesting to see if the show can keep up its steam despite the beginning signs of age shining through.

Other Notes

  • Always good to see Artemis Pebdani (“Always Sunny”) pop up as her absurd VP character, even if just for a brief moment
  • Huck and Jake are apparently teaming up, out of which nothing good can possibly result
  • Kerry Washington is pretty good at this whole acting thing
Drama

“the muppets.” – Pig Girls Don’t Cry (Pilot)

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Adaptations are tricky. You want to engage those who love the previous iterations of your characters and their stories, while also being accessible to a new audience. It may take time to find that voice, but so often in today’s crowded television landscape that time simply doesn’t exist.

I watched The Muppets when I was little, but remember very little about them. I recognized the characters, and at the very least remembered Kermit and Miss Piggy’s personalities, but aside from that I entered this with a fresh point of view.

The show revolves around the behind-the-scenes action of the in-universe late night show “Up Late with Miss Piggy”. Essentially, the pitch seems to have been, “What if we combined ‘The Larry Sanders Show’, ‘The Office’, and ’30 Rock’, but also they’re all Muppets?” The end result is less jarring than it sounds, and there is plenty of promise in both the premise and the show’s willingness to poke fun at its mockumentary format.

The action here revolves around Miss Piggy’s feud with guest Elizabeth Banks, apparently tangentially prompted by her breakup with Kermit. Meanwhile, in what feels like a cringe-worthy attempt to equate Muppet-ness to race, Fozzie Bear struggles to gain the approval of his human girlfriend’s parents, as they don’t want her dating a bear.

Speaking of cringe-worthy… it’s time to address the jokes. Again, there is potential here, and we also must account for attempting to reconcile with the humor of previous installments of The Muppets (or so I assume; again, I don’t really remember that). Nonetheless, the jokes in the pilot are hit or miss, with the balance leaning toward misses. In one particularly groan-inducing flashback bit, Miss Piggy blows her audition for “The Hunger Games” because she thinks Katniss is supposed to want to play the game, and because she is hungry. The show is only going to get so far on Miss-Piggy-is-fat jokes; these characters are being treated like humans, so they’re going to need to be as three-dimensional as humans. There has to be more there, and it’s not yet apparent if there will be.

I wanted to give this a C+ or even a C, but as I kept writing and thinking, I started softening my view. There is plenty here to work with, and presumably the popularity of The Muppets will give the show the ratings needed to allow it a chance to work through its flaws.

Random Thoughts

  • ABC placing the word “FUNNY” in the corner seems a bit excessive. Come on guys, have enough faith in your comedy shows to assume viewers will, at the very least, identify them as comedy shows.
  • A bit heavy on the cameos here, especially for a pilot episode. Elizabeth Banks, Tom Bergeron, and Imagine Dragon, who I thought had disappeared. Hard to tell if this is them taking a cue from “The Larry Sanders Show” and its frequent guest stars showing up under the guise of appearing on its titular in-universe show, or just a gimmick.
  • Yikes, that’s a corny episode title.
Discussion