The last time Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson hosted “Saturday Night Live,” in 2009, the show was in something of a presidential crisis with Fred Armisen’s version of Barack Obama seldom capturing the excitement surrounding the new commander in chief and his hopey-changey potential. Along came the action hero and wrestler to the rescue, playing a hulked-out Obama who sounded more authentic than Armisen’s and satirized the seething beneath the president’s unflappable exterior, years before Key & Peele’s “anger translator.”
The bit was such a hit that “The Rock Obama” returned a few months later. On Saturday, after a five-year hiatus and a withering of the president’s popularity, the buff Barack came back to take issue with a few opponents, shoving John Boehner (Taran Killam) out a window and amputating the letter-writing-to-Iran hand of Tom Cotton (Kyle Mooney). Upping the ante (and further validating the show’s recent African-American hiring binge) was the debut of another White House avenger when enraged Michelle Obama (Sasheer Zamata) transformed into beefier She-Rock Obama (Leslie Jones).
Dependably energetic and charismatic in his three previous host outings, Johnson scored another strong one this weekend, taking charge of scene after scene on an episode that, for a while, was as good as any this season. The man who starred in sequels to “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” “The Fast and the Furious” and “The Mummy” kicked things off by winningly singing about how he’s the “franchise Viagra” who could stimulate any film series — say, killing Osama’s ghost in “Zero Dark Thirty-One.”
He returned to his ringside roots as a Hulk Hogan-esque wrestler whose trash-talk of his opponent goes beyond the intimidating and into the disturbingly, accurately personal. And in a funny fake trailer, he was the antlered ass-kicker in a live-action sequel to “Bambi,” vowing the hunters who killed his mom would pay — “deerly.”
The scene that most excited Twitter was so physical, it was practically vaudevillian. An Indiana Jones-like adventurer (Johnson) and his sidekick (Pete Davidson) kept getting hit with darts that required the other to suck out the poison — first on the neck, then on the nipple and on and on until they were assuming positions not seen here since “The Ambiguously Gay Duo.” If the extended display of Johnson’s side-butt wasn’t reward enough for you, Kate McKinnon’s bug-eyed work as his adoring, envious translator was the clincher.
For my part, the bigger giggles were in Johnson’s role as a lout crashing the date of a guy he met at jury duty. There was a lot of satisfyingly silly stuff here, from his constant references to male arousal to the clipped British tones of Cecily Strong as his girlfriend to the order of 200 onion rings.
Unfortunately, the show took a tumble after Weekend Update. It’s not impossible to find laughs in a sex offender (see the door-to-door work of Will Forte), but the cooking show hosted by a man so convicted (Kenan Thompson) had none, just attempts by the perv to get on the Internet and relapse. And an interrogation scene went nowhere despite Johnson’s commendable sell of his nonsensical lines.
• An ad for a college baldness cure called Brogaine had fraternity jokes old (a line from “Borat,” liberally quoted in Greek houses everywhere) and new (Why the stress? “You chanted the n-word in a viral video”).
• “The Jinx” villain Robert Durst (McKinnon) was interviewed for material by an improv group headed by Aidy Bryant, intimate with this sort of thing after her hundreds of hours on the Chicago stages of iO and Second City.
• The last time Michael Keaton hosted was in 1992, when he had done two Batman movies and zero Birdman movies. He comes back next Saturday, fresh from a season of big awards buzz. Will he throw out an audience member? Or do revenge impressions of Matthew Perry and Taran Killam?