For the second episode of this transitional season, Saturday Night Live swapped a comedy safety net (last week's host, Tina Fey) for one of the most controversial celebrities of the moment in the form of Miley Cyrus, who pulled double duty as the host and the musical guest. Did SNL capitalize on the confluence of curiosity and Cyrus' easily lampooned recent past?
Unfortunately, they did not. Instead, the writers burned through Cyrus' twerky quirks in the show's first few moments, sending Vanessa Bayer's now obsolete Miley Cyrus Show persona (aka "Past Miley") into the future to warn her future Cyrus not to take the stage before her infamous MTV VMA performance.
The stale premise was punched up by Cyrus' answer to why she is constantly sticking her tongue out ("I'm having tiny strokes, yo") and Bobby Moynihan's walk-through as an emotionally abused teddy bear. But after we saw Moynihan nudely straddling a wrecking ball and while Cyrus threw out a few wooden jokes about twerking during the monologue, it seemed clear that we were both done with Cyrus' past and in for a long night with only a few bright spots.
Of those bright spots, none had more punch than the 50 Shades of Grey casting session sketch that followed the monologue. The writers went back to a familiar well with this one, repeating a bit that has worked so well over the years with Star Wars and Back to the Future. Rebel Wilson and Mary Louise Parker aren't characters that are usually going to find a way onto the show, so it's nice to see these fringe-y impressions get a chance to live. The best among them, though, was Taran Killam's outstanding Christoph Waltz, which stood beside Cyrus' passable Scarlet Johansson.
This was a stand-out episode for Killam - who also went for it with the very physical and exaggerated performance in the government shutdown inspired parody of Cyrus' "We Can't Stop" video - this is the kind of episode you expect from someone who people are looking to as a leader during this new era on SNL.
Jay Pharoah is another senior cast member that got a chance to grab the spotlight last night, presenting impressions of Will Smith, Shaq, President Obama, and Tracy Morgan - but as is often the case with Pharoah's work on the show, they come off as one-note jokes and compliments to something else. This is Pharoah's fourth season on SNL and he still hasn't really created any memorable characters or found a way to carry his celebrity impressions beyond the identifiable catchphrase stage. Maybe it's time that we realized that his limit is as a valuable bit player, but not the star that some foretold when he debuted and unfairly had Eddie Murphy comparisons hoisted onto him.
Speaking of unfair comparisons, Cecily Strong is sitting next to the measuring stick for her own success every time she sits beside Seth Meyers at the Weekend Update desk, but in her second week, it seems like she's starting to belong there, exhibiting a bit more confidence with her fake news reads this time around. Bayer and Kate McKinnon took over Update, though, with the return of Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy and also, a Grand Theft Auto 5 addicted wife and mother, whose absurd dissent into Los Santos hits all the right notes.
Maybe Kyle Mooney will get to that point, but after debuting the disappointing Bruce Chandling on Update last week, Mooney got another chance to step above his fellow rookies (who are a bit quieter this week than last) and whiffed with a pre-recorded video co-starring an amorous Cyrus wherein Mooney gets somewhat freaked out by Cyrus' willingness to please.
That was the night's closer, but it followed a series of other lackluster sketches that made the last 1/3 of the show feel like a joyless slog. Again, there were bits of brightness, even in those bad sketches, but all in all, this is a two steps back situation for SNL after last week's slight step forward.
Don't blame Miley, she did an adequate job on the show and she turned in some surprisingly mellow musical performances. This one falls on the writers who pulled their punches and missed an opportunity in a week that offered them a full cupboard of material.
Saturday Night Live airs on Saturday's at 11:30 PM
Photos: Dana Edelson and Mary Ellen Mathews; NBC