Last night, Saturday Night Live, the ostensible flagship comedy show in the country, was rocked by visits from a pair of our most uptight citizens: the long-promoted appearance from Governor Sarah Palin; and a "surprise" cameo from actor Mark Wahlberg. Amid a usual run of horrid sketches, play-it-safe SNL has lucked out recently from some unusually biting satire -- first, from Tina Fey's recurring devastating impersonation of the Republican VP nominee, followed last week by Andy Samberg's brilliantly Dadaist "Mark Wahlberg Talks to Animals." It was only a matter of time before the party got crashed, and Palin and Wahlberg's odd convergence (promoting, respectively, the McCain campaign and the new Max Payne movie, a toss-up over which has received worse reviews) made for unfunny television yet fascinating psychoanalysis.
I had been curious how the Fey-Palin collision would play out, given the former's well-publicized distaste for her target and the latter's clear reluctance to leave her comfort zone, which appears to be roughly the size of a graham cracker. SNL's solution was primitively simple: Don't have them meet at all. We saw instead the real Palin watching Fey imitate her at a press conference, an awkward appearance by Alec Baldwin pretending to confuse Fey with "that horrible woman" (which I sensed was a reiteration of an actual conversation), then finally the two Palins passing each other near the podium. The Governor popped up again a little later on "Weekend Update," where she sat and bobbed unplayfully to Amy Poehler's "Palin Rap," the entire show's only jolt of energy or inspiration. At least John McCain pre-dementia occasionally exuded a sense of humor about himself; Palin's purported charms are undercut by a mean-spiritedness fun only for those on her smack-talking wavelength.
While Sarah Palin looked as tense and trapped as the guests at Michael and Jan's party on last season's most excruciating episode of The Office, Mark Wahlberg pretended to play good sport by stalking into the frame and, in a moment of alleged levity, repeated the catchphrases from the previous week's sketch while threatening to beat the shit out of Andy Samberg if he ever did it again. That the latter didn't come across as a joke isn't just due to Wahlberg's prior grousings about the imitation. He has become heavy weather lately, completely at odds with his light touch onscreen.
I think Wahlberg's acting career has been one of the most improbably interesting to come along in years, with several good performances (Boogie Nights, Three Kings, The Italian Job, Invincible) and a couple of great ones (The Departed, I Heart Huckabees). What's hilarious about Samberg's sketch is that he captures the man's unique blend of hostility and sincerity, as well as applying one of Wahlberg's most appealing qualities as an actor -- his ability to listen -- to a gallery of animals, so that that quality hangs in the air as though encased in amber. Since his Oscar nomination for The Departed, where Wahlberg took a backstage part not even in the Hong Kong original and blasted by DiCaprio, Damon and Nicholson for some well-earned accolades, he has made a couple of missteps, starring in M. Night Shyamalan's latest folly and now the lead in a videogame-adapted crapfest. Wahlberg needs to lighten up a little. He had better. Thanks to Samberg, "Say hi to your mother for me" is sure to be how he's greeted for some time to come.