'Maya & Marty': TV Review

Lisa Rose/NBC
'Maya & Marty'
Jiminy Glick finds a new home, if that's an inducement.

Maya Rudolph, Martin Short and Lorne Michaels join forces for a bland, product placement-filled primetime take on 'SNL' for summer.

Kenan Thompson rushed onto the stage five minutes into NBC's Maya & Marty, looked around and asked hosts/stars Maya Rudolph and Martin Short, "What is this?"

"We're still trying to figure that out," Short quipped, one of several early jokes about NBC's latest attempt to simultaneously crack the live primetime variety format — Best Time Ever With Neil Patrick Harris, we hardly knew ye — and to build a primetime outlet for Rudolph, a prodigious talent who was both best served and yet never well enough utilized on Saturday Night Live.

Premiering on Monday, Maya & Marty isn't as challenging to describe as the opening pretended. It's a cut-rate summertime version of SNL, with Lorne Michaels experimenting with the sketch format in primetime for the first time since the nine-episode run of The New Show back in 1984, while also testing new muscles for next season's evolution of SNL. 

In addition to SNL veterans Rudolph, Martin and Thompson, Maya & Marty features SNL scribe Mikey Day as a recurring player and head writer, and the opening episode included guest appearances by SNL castmember Kate McKinnon and frequent SNL hosts Tom Hanks and Miley Cyrus, as well as Larry David, who took up residence at 30 Rock this year thanks to his interchangeability with Bernie Sanders. Dropping by for an unannounced cameo was SNL favorite Steve Martin, who also was a guest on the first episode of The New Show and will return next week in a bigger role along with Tina Fey, who once shared the Weekend Update desk with yet another Maya & Marty premiere guest, Jimmy Fallon.

Other than the disorienting night and time period, Maya & Marty was disappointingly easy to pigeonhole. What audiences were treated to in the premiere was basically a not-hugely-funny episode of SNL, an hour that occasionally made use of its gifted stars, but more frequently left them in sketches that fizzled out before reaching a real crescendo.

Thompson doing his Steve Harvey? Always vaguely funny. Throw in two horrible children with dutch-boy haircuts (played by Fallon and Short with bad teeth). OK. And then? There was no "and then."

Short as a grandmother reading Goodnight, Moon to her granddaughter? OK. And they're both bunnies? Um, sure. And Rudolph as a boozy bunny who teaches the Miley bunny new sexual slang? That could work. And then? There was no "and then."

Rudolph as Melania Trump pitching her new "edible diamonds"? I'm not sure Rudolph cares what Trump looks or sounds like, but I'm always happy to laugh at her doing funny accents. McKinnon as Heidi Cruz? Not her funniest impression, but at least the absence of McKinnon's Hillary Clinton confirms this isn't SNL. And then? There was no "and then."

The sketches generally felt like 12:30 a.m. SNL bits: interesting high-concept starting points, but not loopy or surreal enough to end the show, nor crafted with the steady build and clear hook necessary for the opening half-hour.

The closest a sketch came to fully embracing its intended lunacy was an appearance by Short's Jiminy Glick (Martin also was a guest on the first episode of Primetime Glick, for those seeking further symmetry) interviewing David as himself. Yes, it required finding Glick funny, but David was so amused by him that it gradually became vaguely infectious as Glick pushed the interview in more and more anti-Semitic and misguided directions. 

Maya & Marty set itself apart from SNL mostly in its musical performances. Cyrus' thematically paired, wardrobe-swapping covers of Leonard Cohen's "I'm Your Man" and the Lieber & Stoller standard "I'm a Woman" were a reminder of her cheeky versatility and also gave an opening for Rudolph to join her on the second song. A show-closing production number with Savion Glover and the cast of Shuffle Along was lively and energetic and the sort of thing probably made complicated on SNL by the shooting schedule.

It's also possible that Maya & Marty is Michaels' testing ground for an upcoming SNL season that promises to have more interwoven corporate integration than ever before as the show attempts to hold live viewers with fewer ad breaks. The opening filmed sequence with Hanks as a wife-dodging astronaut included plugs for three different Apple products, Burger King's chicken fries, a shiny automobile and NBC's Chicago Fire. Thompson's Steve Harvey bit was tied to NBC's Little Big Shots. I'll accept that Rudolph's "drunken skank" bunny working for Dunkin Donuts didn't involve promotional consideration. Actual advertisements starred Rudolph, Thompson, Leslie Jones and Will Forte, presumably curated so that almost all boundaries between programming and commercials blurred. I'm not saying it's good, but it's the future and better to see it coming.

The mystery of what Maya & Marty might turn out to be, amplified by cryptic promos, skewed my expectations for the premiere. Expecting an SNL with more expansive musical and performance opportunities, less edge and topicality and more obtrusive product placements would have settled hopes accordingly. It was my mistake to think that maximizing Rudolph's talents would inspire something either more innovative or more charmingly retro. The short-lived Dana Carvey Show might have offered a template for sponsorship opportunities, SNL-style sketch work and creative freshness, but instead we got something safer and blander. With the right guests and a little more finesse from the writers, Maya & Marty has the elements to be amiable and doesn't require staying up late on a weeknight. How's that for tempered enthusiasm and revised expectations after one show?

Cast: Maya Rudolph, Martin Short, Kenan Thompson
Executive producers: Maya Rudolph, Martin Short, Lorne Michaels, Matt Roberts, Erin David, Dave Becky and Marc Gurvitz
Airs: Mondays, 10 p.m. ET/PT (NBC)