Personal Faves: Maya Rudolph Hosts ‘SNL’

Instead of ending the year with a slew of Best Of lists, BlackBook asked our contributors to share the most important moments in art, music, film, television, and fashion that took place in 2012. Here, Joe Reid writes about Maya Rudolph’s return to Studio 8H as host of Saturday Night Live.

Since the beginning and the "Not Ready for Primetime Players," Saturday Night Live has always boasted something of a familial atmosphere. Even when—as has been documented often—those families were fucked-up and quarrelsome. The eras of SNL close ranks around themselves in our memory, though, and even when the reality resists it, we write these narratives anyway. This is why I will never not be fascinated by what goes on during the goodbye hugs at the end of each episode. Such a great peek into family dynamics. This sense of family on SNL has been especially strong on the last several years. The overlapping Tina Fey/Seth Meyers eras have been characterized by constant opportunities for crossover—on 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon—and a sense that graduated cast members are welcome back at Studio 8H any time.

And yet even by those standards, Maya Rudolph’s hosting gig last February felt especially familial. In the nearly five years since Rudolph ended her time as a cast member, she’d been back several times, but this was her first gig as host, and the sense of rallying around her for her big moment was palpable. Despite the fact that she was already starring in a sitcom on NBC, there was no reference made to Up All Night (the same would be true of Christina Applegate’s hosting gig in October, helping to cement Up All Night as one of the great "is that still on?" sitcoms of our time). It was the previous summer’s Bridesmaids that provided the boost in stature for Rudolph to host herself. Bridesmaids was a big influencer on SNL last season. Melissa McCarthy had been on to host in October, and the success of the film was probably that last push that Kristen Wiig needed to declare this her last season on the show. Which meant, in addition to Rudolph experiencing an old home week, there was also a sense that she was helping to usher Wiig into that great Beyond-SNL phase of her career, a sense that was only galvanized by Amy Poehler’s extended cameo.

Everybody figured Poehler would be back for a reprise of Bronx Beat, her and Rudolph’s popular recurring sketch. Betty and Jodi fell right back into their world-weary rhythms (it feels like Hoarders was a phenomenon created specifically to be gabbed about on "Bronx Beat"), and it only felt appropriate that their guests would be the sound guys played by Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake (one of the more popular recurring hosts of the Fey/Meyers era, keeping us on trend). 

NEXT: "The 2011-12 season had turned into Senior Week at high school."

Both Poehler and Timberlake would show up again during the show: Timberlake as Bon Iver in an "At Home with Beyonce and Jay-Z" sketch (though he would later TOTALLY puss out by carrying an "I <3 Bon Iver" sign during the goodbyes), and Poehler in her triumphant return to Weekend Update, and specifically to "REALLY??!! With Seth and Amy." That Beyonce and Jay-Z sketch was one of those treasure boxes filled with random fantastic celebrity impersonations, specifically Taran Killam’s Brad Pitt and Nasim Pedrad’s Nicki Minaj (which tragically was never paired with Kristen Wiig’s Bjork before Wiig left the show). But it was the return of "REALLY??!!" that sold the homecoming theme better than anything else. Seth and Amy had such great chemistry together, and his happiness at having her back for a week was practically radiating through the TV.

With Wiig and Samberg on their way out the door (and Jason Sudekis rumored to be as well), the 2011-12 season had turned into Senior Week at high school, with sketches seeming loopier and more likely to devolve into a pile of giggles. Wanton character-breaking like that can often test an audience’s patience with the show (see: the entire Jimmy Fallon-Horatio Sanz era), but for viewers who knew what was up, the season felt like watching fantastically funny old friends have a well-deserved goof-off day. (That day lasted 22 episodes, but whatever.) Thus the appeal of something like "Super Showcase," which consisted entirely of Wiig and Rudolph using weird voices to make them (and Bill Hader) laugh. The fact that Vanessa Bayer—new, still-trying-to-prove-herself Vanessa Bayer—was the only one to hold it together only strengthened the "Senior Skip Day" impression. 

NEXT: "The entire episode was consistently strong, a near-impossible feat for SNL."

The entire episode was consistently strong, a near-impossible feat for SNL. At 90 minutes worth of crammed-together sketches, perfection is an unattainable goal. (It also means that even the worst episodes can be redeemed by one great sketch, so it works both ways.) But Rudolph’s episode was remarkably steady: the cold open about racist "Lin-sanity" is so much more dated than anybody ever thought possible (it’s only been ten months but feels like ten years) but it also nailed that moment in time. The "what would it take for African Americans to not support Obama?" sketch was better than what usually gets tossed out at 12:45 AM. "What’s Up With That?" is never going to be for everybody, but it manages to get me every time, if for no other reason than the gleeful look on Sudekis’s face while he’s doing the running man. But, fine, say that’s the one "bad" sketch of the night. It’s more than redeemed by something like Maya Angelou’s prank show, if only for the part where Angelou assures Dr. Cornel West that her goof on him was not an act of malice but an act of whimsy. 

But really, what are we even talking about? Why did I just spend all that time talking about the rest of the episode when the show attained perfection via 30 short seconds in the second-last sketch? Not even the full "Obama Show" sketch. Just those perfectly calibrated Cosby Show opening credits. My favorite moments from those credits, in order: 1) Maya as Michelle Obama as Clare Huxtable, wagging her index finger at the camera; 2) Maya as Michelle Obama as Clare Huxtable dancing; 3) Jason Sudekis as Joe Biden as Theo Huxtable dancing; 4) Fred Armisen as Barack Obama as Cliff Huxtable doing the thing with the fingers; 5) Fred Armisen as Barack Obama as Cliff Huxtable dancing around Agent Conners. In the months since, I have watched those credits roughly seven thousand times. They don’t lose their luster. I only regret that the tag at the end of the sketch, where Poehler shows up as Hillary Clinton to lip-sych Ray Charles in parody of the greatest moment in Cosby Show history, isn’t available online due to the scourge of our time: music rights. MUSIC RIIIIIIIGHTS!!! [shakes fist]

It was only fitting, really, that this particular episode of Saturday Night Live was highlighted by a parody of one of television’s great families. Here’s hoping there’s one more of these homecoming episodes before Meyers, Hader, and company all move on. When does Kristen Wiig’s next movie open, anyway?

Follow Joe Reid on Twitter.  

Oscar Buzz Watch: Helen Hunt Is Definitely Getting Another Oscar Nomination

Okay, here’s how it’s going to go: you’re going to start hearing a lot of craaaazy talk in the upcoming weeks about Academy Award-winner Helen Hunt. About how she’s in a movie again, and that she’s actually really good, and that she’s on her way to a second career nomination. And your first instinct is going to be to not believe it. Not Helen Hunt! She’s history’s greatest monster! She won the 1997 Best Actress award for As Good As It Gets for being a prickly but warm-hearted waitress who had the good fortune to be the object of Jack Nicholson’s OCD affections. She beat such actresses as Judi Dench, Kate Winslet, Helena Bonham-Carter (back when she was a respectable star of English dramas and not an eccentric thatch of brambles), and Julie Christie.

At the time, it was not all that controversial a victory. As Good As It Gets was a crowd-pleaser and Hunt held her own with Nicholson (who also won the Oscar). She was also critically acclaimed for her TV work on Mad About You, and believe it or not, she had been considered overdue for an Emmy by the time she won in 1996. Of course, that was the first of four consecutive Emmys, and combined with four Golden Globes and that Oscar, it’s not all that surprising that the worm turned on her popularity. That Oscar win was looking more and more suspect. What did she even do in that movie besides sass at Jack and care for her sick kid? And what about the homerism of the one American in that category besting four Brits? Typical, right?

By the time 2000 rolled around and Hunt struck out on four high-profile releases in the final three months of the year, she had become something of a punch line among Serious Movie People and her Oscar win an object of scorn. That 2000 quartet is an interesting case study. Hunt ended up starring in two of the top five box-office hits of the year! How did it end up killing her career?? Well, her character in Cast Away wasn’t likeable, and it’s not like you could pin the success of that movie on anyone but Tom Hanks. Her chemistry with Mel Gibson was nonexistent in What Women Want, and back then, nobody could chalk that up to Gibson being a misogynist psychopath. Dr. T and the Women was a forgettable Robert Altman effort, though hardly worth sinking a career. But Pay It Forward… wow. Pay It Forward was such a complete flop commercially and critically that it sucked Hunt’s entire narrative down the toilet. The rest of the aughts saw her in only four more movies, five if you count the HBO adaptation of Empire Falls. As career nose-dives go, it was pretty dramatic, and it was proof positive for Hunt’s many detractors that she could neither act nor pick a good role.

Starting this weekend, Helen Hunt is back in theaters with The Sessions, Ben Lewin’s new movie about a polio-stricken John Hawkes who hires a "sex surrogate" (Hunt) to help him lose his virginity. It was a big ol’ hit at Sundance, and Hunt in particular got rave reviews. The positive critical notices continued at the Toronto and London film festivals, and what do you know? That old friend Oscar Buzz is back. This sounds, frankly, insane. Helen Hunt, who starred in the worst movie Woody Allen ever made (Curse of the Jade Scorpion), who cast herself in her directorial debut as Bette Midler’s daughter (the widely ignored Then She Found Me, though it should be noted that Rex Reed loved it!), is now Oscar-worthy, and possibly on a track to win her second Oscar?

As we learned with Ben Affleck last time, though, arc is everything in the Oscar race, and Helen Hunt’s comeback story gets better the more unlikely it seems. The prodigal daughter returns. And in The Sessions, she’s got a lot working for her chances at a nomination. She plays a good woman whose role in the film is to help a man achieve greatness, as reliable an Oscar niche as there is. That the "greatness" she helps Hawkes achieve has to do with having sex with a beautiful woman doesn’t hurt. She’s also, as of right now, due to be campaigned in the Supporting Actress category, despite the kind of screen time and story prominence that would support a Lead Actress claim. Ask Jennifer Connelly how that strategy worked out. (OMG, Jennifer Connelly! If Helen Hunt gets to shake off the dust of a terrible post-Oscar decade, won’t that give Jennifer so much hope that she might do the same??)

Here’s another Oscar tendency that works in Hunt’s favor: the Academy tends to hand out backup nominations every now and then, as if to prove that certain questionable award choices were justified. Remember all that grumbling about Marisa Tomei winning for My Cousin Vinny (grumbling that is TOTAL bullshit, by the way; Marisa was amazing in that movie)? Follow-up nominations for In the Bedroom and The Wrestler put that win in a different context. Charlize Theron’s win for Monster gets called a fluke? Follow-up nom for North Country. Hilary Swank and Sally Field managed to win on their follow-up nominations, so don’t think that can’t happen.

By the way, while we’re on the subject of The Sessions, John Hawkes’s chances for a second career nomination aren’t looking too shabby either. If you think the sex surrogate for a polio-stricken man in an iron lung trying to make it through like with dignity and wry humor is a winner of a role, try playing the guy with polio. It might be condescending, it might be tunnel-visioned, it might be cheap, but Oscar voters tend to leap at performances of disabilities.

I’m just saying you might want to be prepared. Try and remember how Helen Hunt looked on red carpets, because she’s coming back. (Does she still pretend to date Hank Azaria? That could be fun!)
 

Follow Joe Reid on Twitter.

Oscar Buzz Watch: Ben Affleck Is Definitely Getting Oscar-Nominated

Ben Affleck is definitely getting Oscar-nominated for Argo. When it opens in theaters next weekend, and you make it your compromise movie because nobody can agree on Pitch Perfect or Seven Psychopaths (and no one wants to see Here Comes the Boom, come on), you should watch it with the full knowledge that Ben Affleck is a stone-cold certainty to be nominated come January, for either Best Actor or (more likely) Best Director. It’s just absolutely going to happen.

You can try to pretend it won’t happen—maybe you’d rather it wouldn’t? Maybe you’re still holding on to some of that Bennifer resentment. And who could blame you? He was actually kissing her butt in the "Jenny from the Block" video! That’s how much they thought the public wanted to see them! Or maybe yours is a more high-minded resistance. Maybe it was that five-year-or-so stretch in the 2000s where he made an unbroken string of terrible movies, roughly from Bounce in 2000 through Surviving Christmas in 2004 (we’re being kind and granting his Golden Globe-nominated role in Hollywoodland as a streak-breaker. You’re under no obligation to do so). For a long while, Ben Affleck was about as far from Oscar material as you could possibly be. But that is exactly why it’s even more certain that he’s DEFINITELY getting Oscar-nominated for Argo

If there’s anything Oscar loves more than an actor-turned-director—do I even have to mention the award-winning names? Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, Kevin Costner (Kevin COSTNER!)—it’s a comeback story. Particularly a comeback story where the individual is "coming back" from trying to make studio heads and agents lots and lots of money with movies like Armageddon and Pearl Harbor and Daredevil. Oh no! How will these businessmen ever forgive him for pulling in $118 million domestic for The Sum of All Fears?? Of course, what he’s really coming back from is a reputation as a great Hollywood doof. Sure, he won an Oscar seemingly right out of the gate with Best Original Screenplay for Good Will Hunting, but having to stand on all those red carpets next to perfect little Hollywood-sized Matt Damon, Affleck couldn’t help but look like the big dumb galoot along for the ride. Then Damon proceeded to go on one of the more interesting career arcs in recent memory, careering from art house disaster (noooooo, All the Pretty Horses!) to Bourne billions, ultimately becoming one of the better-liked A-listers in Hollywood. All of which only made Affleck look even worse in comparison, when people even bothered to think about him at all. (Never mind that while Affleck was getting slammed for cashing a paycheck on a movie actually called Paycheck, Damon wasn’t exactly covering himself in glory as Greg Kinnear’s conjoined twin in Stuck on You. See? You’re starting to feel a swell of sympathy for Affleck even now, aren’t you?) Then, in 2007, Affleck made the dubious-seeming decision to step behind the camera, and the result was the quite good Gone Baby Gone. So good that it nabbed an Oscar nomination for Amy Ryan and at least made people stop chuckling when talk turned to "Ben Affleck: Director." Three years later, Affleck directed The Town which, this writer’s contrary opinion of it notwithstanding, was very well-received by critics and was generally considered to have missed the Best Picture top ten that year by a hair’s breadth.

And next weekend, Affleck will see his third directorial effort hit screens with Argo, the "based on recently de-classified documents" political thriller / Hollywood farce (like chocolate and peanut butter, those genres!) that sees Affleck co-starring with a serious ’70s beard as a CIA operative who gets the bright idea to impersonate a Canadian film crew in order to infiltrate Iran and rescue six Americans during the 1979 hostage crisis. By the way, if the logline doesn’t sell you, Argo might end up being worth the ticket price for the sheer volume of character actors alone: John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Chris Messina, Bryan Cranston, Kyle Chandler, Phillip Baker Hall; I could go on (Clea DuVall!) and on (Titus Welliver!). This is classic Hollywood mythmaking (Zeljko Ivanek! Sorry, last one), where the very idea of The Movies is the apparatus that will free six American heroes during one of the darkest times in American history. Who’s NOT nominating this thing?

"Sure, for Best Picture, maybe," you say. "There could be ten nominees. How can you be so sure Affleck will be one of five directors so honored?" To that I say: ARE YOU SERIOUSLY CRAZY? You’re seeing all the ingredients here, right? Actor-turned-director. A wet dream of a campaign narrative. The slight air of being "owed" for his previous movies coming so close. Oh, and also, everybody who saw Argo at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals freaked out and started screaming "OSCAR!!!!" out their hotel windows into the late-summer air. Not every movie currently sits atop the "Gurus o’ Gold" Oscar prediction charts, you know. Argo also sits comfortably in the Best Picture ranks on both Hitfix and Vulture, though Vulture is RIDICULOUSLY blind to his Best Director chances, which is just too preposterous to consider. This is HAPPENING! Accept it.

Argo opens in theaters on October 12th. Oscar nominees are announced on January 10th. Which leaves Ben Affleck almost exactly three months to figure out how to convince us that he didn’t even know he was nominated until his agent called.

Follow Joe Reid on Twitter.

We’re Breaking Up With ‘The Voice’

You watch too much TV. No, you do. So do I. We all follow too many series and overload our DVRs to the point where we have to spend Sunday afternoons clearing them out like they’re our junk drawer. And there are new shows premiering all the time! Some of them worth a look—okay, most of them aren’t, but SOME. But we can’t just keep piling on like this. We’ve gotta start weeding shows out. On the plus side, if you’re a wonky sort, a good TV purge is often a great way to examine what you’re looking for in your entertainment. What you value. So each week here at BlackBook, we’re going to tell you what show you should be giving up on. It won’t be easy, but it has to be done. This week, we’re letting go of The Voice.

Getting Dumped: The Voice

What’d They Do This Time? Look, we all know why we started watching The Voice. We’d just gotten out of a grueling relationship with American Idol that left us disillusioned and with nightmares about LeeDWyze. At the time, The Voice was as good a rebound choice as anything else. A leopard never changes its spots, after all—we’re always going to need some kind of music-based talent show to rally around. And The Voice had a lot of great elements. For one thing, they seemed to value exactly what their title said they would, preferring impressive vocals over gimmicky, freakshow auditions. And the focus on mentorship, rather than throwing contestants out to the wolves not knowing anything, was a cool twist. But let’s be honest: we had one thing on our minds when we were falling for The Voice: those chairs. They were a brilliant innovation, bringing all the spontaneous excitement of a Whack-a-Mole game to the traditional singing competition. Watching the power shift from the judges one minute (will they hit that button??) to the contestant the next minute (which mentor will they choose??) is legitimately exciting TV.

This is the problem, though: everything that’s great about the show is swiveling around in those chairs, and after the audition rounds are over, there are still weeks—MONTHS, even—to go before the show settles on a winner. Which, also, not for nothing, but can you name one winner of The Voice off the top of your head? Do you even know how many there have been? The simple truth is that the contestants have never been more compelling than the judges, and the later weeks really suffer for that. After multiple seasons of trying to make the middle and later rounds as compelling as those wonderful chair-turning rounds, isn’t it time to admit that this is all the show is capable of offering, thank it for some hot rebound action, and start looking for something more stable?

Anything Else? Carson Daly. Why? Why is Carson Daly? Why is he constantly introducing himself to the families? Do the other judges even know he’s there? We should be fine with not knowing the answers to any of these questions, by the way.

What We’ll Miss: The judges, of course. Their competitive camaraderie is a lot of fun to watch. But that’s actually another reason to call it quits now, with Christina Aguilera and Cee-Lo Green leaving after this season. If the sad last few years of American Idol have taught us anything, it’s that the desperate search for random celebrities to plug into judges’ chairs is a sad spectacle indeed. We’ll be able to get our fill of Adam Levine on American Horror Story, and THAT show will get him naked, so we’re fine with the tradeoff.

What We’ll Have More Time For: The Voice is on two nights a week, for three hours total, so it’s like breaking up with THREE shows at once! Mondays are kind of a wasteland if you’re not into Dancing with the Stars or Bones, though we’ve heard good things about Switched at Birth on ABC Family (seriously!). But on Tuesdays, you’ll have more time for the promising Ben & Kate on FOX. No singing on that one, but Lucy Punch kiiind of looks like Christina Aguilera?

Follow Joe Reid on Twitter.

We’re Breaking Up With ‘Boardwalk Empire’

You watch too much TV. No, you do. So do I. We all follow too many series and overload our DVRs to the point where we have to spend Sunday afternoons clearing them out like they’re our junk drawer. And there are new shows premiering all the time! Some of them worth a look—okay, most of them aren’t, but SOME. But we can’t just keep piling on like this. We’ve gotta start weeding shows out. On the plus side, if you’re a wonky sort, a good TV purge is often a great way to examine what you’re looking for in your entertainment. What you value. So each week here at BlackBook, we’re going to tell you what show you should be giving up on. It won’t be easy, but it has to be done. This week, we’re dumping Boardwalk Empire.

Getting Dumped: Boardwalk Empire

What’d They Do This Time? This past Sunday was the third season premiere of the most acclaimed cable drama you ever forgot was still on. It wasn’t a terrible episode. It’s not a terrible show. If we waited for shows to become straight-up terrible, we’d never stop watching ANYTHING. The problem with Boardwalk Empire is that it feels like an accumulation of all the things HBO dramas have taught us we SHOULD value in a TV show, rather than letting us discover something new and exciting. Even the praise you hear for Boardwalk Empire is so obligatory. It’s a great show because great shows have dark, flawed, possibly unredeemable lead characters whose amorality reflect an America with broken values. It’s a great show because great shows don’t shy away from the violent underpinnings of our society. It’s a great show because great shows makes their audience work to keep up with dozens of characters, each with their own stories and motivations that may or may not ever prove to be important. All these things CAN be (and have been) ingredients in great shows, but behaving like a great show would isn’t nearly the whole ballgame.

Sunday’s episode introduced a character named Gyp Rosetti, played by Bobby Cannavale, who’s your classic HBO hotheaded gangster who takes offense at the slightest provocation and is always eager to bash some guy’s head in. We’ve seen dozens of these guys, on The Sopranos, on Deadwood, probably The Mind of the Married Man at one point. Hell, there are at least three major characters like this on Boardwalk Empire already! It’s exhausting.

Nothing about the show feels exciting or fresh or fun, a problem that came into stark (pardon the pun) relief with the premiere of Game of Thrones, which did all those great-show HBO things but also managed to get viewers actually excited. Nucky’s dealing and killing and making the moves he needs to make to become a Prohibition kingpin—hey, way to get that Justice Department stooge in your pocket!—meanwhile, in Westeros, there’s beheadings and dragons and androgynous knights!

Anything Else? Okay: that metaphor of the lady biplane pilot seeking to fly freely over the continental United States, representing Margaret’s latent desires to be a free and independent woman? A little much. Like cake frosting applied with a shovel.

What We’ll Miss: Thick metaphors aside, Kelly MacDonald really is killing it as Margaret. This IS a character type we haven’t grown sick of: the compromising woman caught between her morals and success. Also: sad Richard Harrow with the half-face. You hang in there, buddy.

What We’ll Have More Time For: Time-shifting means that we don’t have to worry so much about time-slot competition anymore, but if you want to banter on Twitter while watching a show—and eeeeeverybody does that now, so let’s all stop acting offended by it—you’ve gotta watch it pretty close to live, so giving up Boardwalk Empire means more time at 9pm to cheer on Madeline Stowe’s return from the dead on Revenge, or maybe see how Kalinda deals with her ex-husband’s return on The Good Wife. No more waiting multiple seasons for Nucky to purchase highway land! You’re free!

Follow Joe Reid on Twitter.