Adam Levine is among the very select group of singers who've hosted Saturday Night Live without also singing—the last example of which was Katy Perry in 2011. Levine had a good excuse for taking the night off as a musician: Maroon 5 was the musical guest just two and a half months ago. But never let it be said he's not a workhorse; Kendrick Lamar's two performance slots represented just about the only post-cold-opening bits in which Levine wasn't being trotted out on screen.
We all know Levine has moves like Jagger, figuratively speaking. But does he also have moves like Justin—as in singer-turned-funnyman Timberlake ? Or like Bruno Mars, who just about set a new gold standard when he hosted SNL (and got huge ratings) in October?
Levine's hosting gig probably won't be as well-remembered as Mars', if only because he went less for mugging and more for the deadpan, which leaves less of a lasting impression. But Levine evidenced even better acting chops than Mars, even if he was mostly playing the straight man—a role that proves he has moves like Dean Martin, to Bill Hader's Jerry Lewis.
The hour-and-a-half's high point was a fairly riotous digital sketch from Samberg's Lonely Planet crew—a theme song for the web meme "YOLO," which took the acronym for "You only live once" not as a reason for fearlessness but as a jumping-off point to urge young people to be paranoid about every tiny threat life might present. The rapped advice from Sandberg, Kendrick Lamar, and company ranged from the sensible ("Don’t take drugs cause they’re not legal/And bury all your money in the backyard like a beagle") to the most delightfully nonsensical of frightened non sequiturs ("Two words about furniture: killing machines"). It was up to the host, of course, to interrupt the rapping with a recurring musical hook ("Don't trust anyone... You Oughta Look Out"). Adam Levine, chastity-belt advocate—who knew?
There should probably be an Emmy category for Ability To Maintain A Straight Face During An Effeminate Bill Hader Tirade (which Hader himself would lose, based on his serial near-crackups doing Steffan on "Weekend Update"). Levine would be in the running for that award after admirably keeping his cool during the particularly inspired "Firehouse Incident" sketch, in which Hader played a volunteer fireman driven to almost literal drama-queen extremes by the sight of an ex-girlfriend at a fundraiser. "Hello, Judas!" Hader bellowed (in a particularly prissy way) to Levine, whose refusal to flinch merits inflappability props.
Levine got his own chance at some of those mannerisms as co-host of a Gay Network series, wearing a ponytailed, floppy-banged blonde wig and affecting a Southern accent while dishing out advice to straight guests who are all inevitably accused of being closet cases. Going flamboyantly gay can be an overly easy way to laughs for SNL hosts, but Levine had a particularly deft way of dropping lines like "What are your children’s names—Van Dyke and Goatee?—because those babies are beards!" that made him seem right at home alongside Hader.
Levine also played himself as slightly flamboyantly gay-ish in a "rumble" sketch that had Maroon 5 facing off in a potentially deadly conflict against cast members playing Train, Jason Mraz (Jason Sudeikis scatting with a ukelele), and John Mayer (Hader doing Mayer's guitar-squealing "O" face). The "battling soft-rockers" premise seemed a little dated, since Maroon 5 has kind of graduated from lite-rock band to dance-pop crew. But any time SNL can betray a former musical guest with vicious mockery, as they did with Mraz, makes for good TV.
Levine portrayed himself once more in the episode, as he went home after a gig with a homely and unusually honest Yonkers groupie named Janet (Bobby Moynihan, unexpectedly at his best in drag). Pressed for verbal intimacy, Levine started by offhandedly admitting, "I was once in a band called Kara’s Flowers—we were terrible." "I agree." "Why would you say that?" This was SNL at its perhaps unnecessarily lewdest, but worth it, maybe, just for the seemingly spontaneous, expertly deadpan way Levine said "Wow... wow... wow" in response to his one-night-stand's unsolicited sexual candor.
A stronger highlight, albeit one that barely featured Levine, was a commercial for a Carrie Diaries-style Sopranos prequel series. Levine being cast as the early-'80s high school version of Big Pussy can only be counted as deliberately absurd casting, but impressions don't get much scarily better than Kate McKinnon's take on Edie Falcon's Carmela Soprano as a teenager.
Thankfully, SNL got the low point of the show out of the way early on with Levine's monologue, which squandered the night's lone opportunity to satirize The Voice. (Not that Levine or his network hosts were ever likely to get very cutting about the music-contest series that was presumably the raison d'etre for his hosting gig, as a commercial touting the upcoming season's March 25 premiere reminded us.) Andy Samberg popped up in a swivel chair to offer his skills as a "coach" for Levine, followed—for no apparent reason whatsoever—by Cameron Diaz and Jerry Seinfeld. It could scarcely have been unfunnier if it were the series finale of Seinfeld, though the climactic shot of a shirtlessly buff (and heavily tatted) Levine might have redeemed it for a few admirers.
After a cold-open that had Obama meeting the Beyonce-obsessed ghost of Martin Luther King Jr., and a commercial for Rosetta Stone's Thai edition, SNL never let Levine go off-screen for an entire comedy sketch again, with the exception of a more-wan-than-usual "Weekend Update." Even when it looked like he might go MIA for a concluding bit about a Joe Biden inauguration party, there he suddenly was, as a Neil Diamond impersonator with an inappropriate mustache.
Maybe it all had to do with network-mandated Voice promotion, but more likely it was producers' recognition that Levine—unlike so many hosts—has considerable facility with cue cards and can keep a sketch alive with skillful reaction shots. Coming from a profession rife with Lead Singer Disease, Lambert is surprisingly adept at being a supporting actor. (Sung to the tune of "You Will Be Loved":) He wiiiiiiillll be back.