Critics of the HBO show “Girls” may not have found a lot to love about “Saturday Night Live” last night, as the show’s creator and star Lena Dunham hosted and tapped into the good-natured obliviousness and awkwardness of her character Hannah Horvath (or somebody who looks and sounds a lot like her) for a majority of the sketches. Fans of Dunham, though, may have found a lot to enjoy about the show, as she threw herself into her scenes and proved she has a comic sense of timing and capability beyond the gawky moments that make up “Girls.”
The best intersection of Dunham’s signature character and funny writing was in “Scandal,” where Dunham played a new girl who can’t stop marveling over how ridiculously attractive and efficient everyone on the show is. Instead of making Dunham the butt of the joke by making her seem inadequate for not traveling to Mexico and back in ten minutes, she portrayed the actual humans who watch “Scandal,” saying things like “How are you not texting 1,000 people right now?” as Olivia Pope (played by Sasheer Zamata) conversed with her boyfriend, the president (Taran Killam). A bonus about the sketch was that it was still funny and understandable to those who don’t watch “Scandal.”
In contrast, an actual “Girls” parody seemed to be missing something. In this particular version, the show takes place in the Garden of Eden, poking fun at Dunham’s frequent nudity on the show but otherwise the sketch rehashed the “Girls” parody from the Tina Fey episode, down to Vanessa Bayer as Shoshanna and Taran Killam as Adam (in this case, a double Adam.)
Speaking of Taran Killam, homage must be paid to his spot-on Matthew McConaughey impression during “Weekend Update.” In honor of the actor’s Oscar win and the season finale of “True Detective,” Killam nailed McConaughey’s good-spirited loopiness, homespun mysticism and verbal jazz. Perhaps in a future episode we can watch McConaughey face off (get it?) in a future “Update” against Nicolas Cage.
Back to Dunham: one sketch that had promise but unfortunately didn’t grow in the right direction was one where Mike O’Brien is the only man at a jewelry party and, to top it off, he’s a men’s rights activist. O’Brien is quickly shamed and humiliated by the women at his party as well as by his sexy Sofia Vergara-type girlfriend, played by Cecily Strong. However, the scene didn’t quite take off, partially because it wasn’t clear how much Strong’s language barrier was supposed to be a joke in and of itself and also because a men’s rights activist who is instantly neutered by a group of intelligent women was missing a certain bite, especially when one considers the types of messages men’s rights activist bloggers post online (if you’re not familiar, spare yourself.) The concept was good but the scene needed some more left turns.
Dunham did show off one skill that she doesn’t often get to on her own show: her sense of rhythm. In “Ooh Child,” Dunham was one of a group of friends participating in a car singalong to the Five Stairsteps song, only each time her part came up, she was interrupted by the talking GPS system (a concept that looked simple onscreen but probably involved some tricky timing and rehearsing.) In “What’s Poppin’,” Dunham, Aidy Bryant, Cecily Strong and Mike O’Brien played a group of flowing-robed hippie jazz musicians blissfully performing their interpretation of rap music on a hip hop show (lines included “We love rap. We love rap,” and “This is an example of a great rap.”)
Speaking of great rappers, two actors who are not known for rapping made unexpected cameos in the episode. Liam Neeson stopped by the cold open to assist Jay Pharoah’s President Obama with the Ukraine/Russia situation by spinning it as a mix of Neeson’s “Taken” movies and a Chuck Norris project. Later in the episode, Jon Hamm stopped by “What Are You Even Doing? You’re Crazy” (a “Girlfriends”-type talk show about middle-graders), the best part being that he actually played Jon Hamm dropping by a middle-grade girls’ talk show. No explanation was ever given why he was in the scene, as himself, and Hamm seemed panicked that any moment he’d get in trouble for being there, and the weirdness of it all worked.
“SNL” will be taking next week off but will return March 29 with Louis C.K. as host and possibly also musical guest (none has been announced so far.) Is this the start of his rapping career?