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‘Saturday Night Live’ Review: Charles Barkley Doesn’t Dunk, But Also Doesn’t Dribble Around Politics or #MeToo

"SNL" worked well with Barkley's comedy strengths, but it did forget to feature its female cast.

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 1739 "Charles Barkley" -- Pictured: Charles Barkley as Ned during "Ned's Roach Away Commercial" on Saturday, March 3, 2018 -- (Photo by: Gianny Matias/NBC)

Gianny Matias/NBC

After a few weeks off the air (in an era when it feels like a year’s worth of news can happen in that time) “Saturday Night Live” dabbled in the political but still delivered a few bits of pure comedy, all anchored by a man who took pride in noting that he’s “been saying whatever the hell I want for 30 years and I’m doing great.”

Host: Charles Barkley

While this week’s host isn’t best known for his comedy chops, he did at least bring a veteran’s confidence — though it was surprising that Barkley’s lowest point was the monologue, given that this was his fourth time hosting and the guy’s job these days is literally just talking on camera.

Based on how wooden Barkley’s monologue delivery was, the best thing to be said about his performance in subsequent sketches is that he wasn’t as wooden as that. In fact, eventually Barkley warmed up enough to seem like he was really having fun!

This, unfortunately, didn’t really seem to happen until the very last sketch, but hey, at least it did happen, and in the meantime the writing did a lot to support his comedy strengths. Though, just throwing this out there — perhaps “SNL” should have borrowed a tactic from Barkley’s 2012 appearance and had Barkley whip out his Shaq impression.

Best Sketch of The Night: “Homework Hotline”

Was this the most sophisticated premise, with the most subtle execution? Most certainly not. Was it the sketch that inspired the most genuine laughter? Yep. Whether it be Mr. Leonard (Barkley) calling all the callers “turkeys,” Bobo’s love of hugs and kisses, or the increasingly inventive prank callers, this was a giggle factory of a premise for less grown-up minds. And sometimes that’s all we want.

Honorable Mention: “Roach Product”

It’s a smart move to focus a gun control message at the NRA, rather than any specific tragedy. For one thing the NRA has it coming, and for another it ensured that this sketch has a timeless quality (at least for the foreseeable moment). “The bang means it’s working.”

Sketch Most Likely to Go Viral: “Harassment Awards”

On Oscars Eve, a sketch focusing on the #MeToo movement and the red carpet felt both inevitable and timely — but “The Grabbies” could have used a much stronger point-of-view, or at least the balls to mention real people who have been a part of the conversation in recent days. To point out the elephant in the room: Is it shocking that an NBC comedy series chose not to bring up the allegations made against former NBC Universal employee Ryan Seacrest while he was an E! host? Nope, it is not. Is it also disappointing? For sure.

Best Pop Culture Parody: “Star Warriors”

Why was this cut for time? This was way funnier than the construction workers sketch, and wow did they spend real money on it. Introduced by J.J. Abrams as himself, this “Star Wars” riff isn’t just “look at us, we’re imitating ‘Star Wars,'” and while it’s kind of a one-joke premise, there are enough tweaks to it to prove fun.

Best Impression: Cecily Strong as Hope Hicks

We may not have much to go on when it comes to the question of whether Strong was really nailing the essence of the ex-White House Communications Director, since Hope Hicks wasn’t front-and-center all that much. But by capturing the ex-aide’s mean girl spirit and combining it with a summer camp-inspired monologue,

Worst Sketch of The Night: “Presidential Address Cold Open”

Apparently other people have been offering their own, perhaps biased, opinions regarding Alec Baldwin’s Trump impersonation lately, but those people aren’t professional TV critics so let’s just ignore them and instead focus on what’s just not working about these cold opens — they’re as badly conceived and unfocused as the political policies of the Trump administration.

For some time, these sketches have devolved to what’s become a truly tired format: vague mention of current events set up by another figure (in this week’s case, Alex Moffat as Anderson Cooper), followed by Baldwin-as-Trump rambling for five minutes. “SNL” can try to spice it up as much as it can with Kate McKinnon as Jeff Sessions, mentions of ongoing investigations, and “Black Panther” jokes, but the effect remains the same.

At this point, these cold opens have gotten toothless and lazy, and this is perhaps the worst conceivable timing for that to happen to one of America’s most popular sources of political comedy. The problem isn’t Baldwin’s performance. The problem is the writing, and there’s no sign of it changing.

Best Female Performer: Aidy Bryant

This was pretty hard to select, frankly, because of the eight main sketches that made it to air, the only one that really let the female cast talk was “The Grabbies” (excluding McKinnon in “Last Call”). But Bryant did an awful lot with her various supporting roles (especially as the first-ever woman to be recognized for a Grabbie), and her talents don’t get enough attention.

Honorable mention: Cecily Strong. McKinnon may be flashier, but we’re always impressed by Strong’s work as a utility player who can sell pretty much any joke you give her. She ensured that “The Grabbies” was watchable.

Best Male Performer: Kenan Thompson

God, what will “SNL” do if Thompson ever leaves the show? (They’ll certainly have to reevaluate how many different talk show/game show sketches they do, since that’s been his go-to format for so many years.) Whether he’s playing an outlandish character or serving as straight man to Barkley and McKinnon making out, Thompson makes it look effortless. It’s hard to imagine a performer better able to sell the underlying darkness of “Hump or Dump.”

Grade: B-

There was a lot of wasted potential and a lot of talented performers sidelined, especially on the female side. But at least the balance of good sketches to bad was decent, and we got to watch Charles Barkley get molested by a puppet. There are worse ways to spend a Saturday night.

“SNL” returns next week with Sterling K. Brown as host.

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