Saturday Night Live Season 42, Episode 15: Octavia Spencer’s energy can’t keep a wobbly episode on track

I’m sort of starting to wonder how much the rapid and insane news cycle is helping SNL. While it’s likely receiving the most attention it ever has, especially for the political mockery that’s quickly becoming its stock-and-trade, the pace of the news cycle demands staying constantly on top of things or else be left behind.

A sketch written based on an insane Tuesday news item becomes old hat by Thursday which becomes older hat on Friday which becomes ancient history by Saturday. There’s no chance to develop out a sketch, you pretty much have to meet the demands of whatever the big story news story is come Dress Rehearsal and pray for the best.

How’s the Cold Open?

Case in point.

It’s undeniable that Jeff “Grand Wizard of the Keebler Kookie Klan” Sessions and his lying under oath about contact with the Russian ambassador was the big story of the weekend and it certainly would have seemed odd if SNL didn’t have something up top to address it.

But this sketch feels like the “We had to cobble something together” version of this sketch. You see the thought process of “He’s Southern…Forrest Gump? Forrest Gump.” Sessions’ problem isn’t exactly that he’s a Southern yokel, it feels like you’re missing the main target here, playing him as accidentally and stupidly racist rather than maliciously so.

It’s a listing of the facts, well-played by Kate McKinnon I will admit. But there’s just not enough of a satirical target. It’s all recognition and reaction, a step above the “Campaign Ad” cold open that used to be the trademark. This whole thing feels thin, made to be on top of the story rather than to dig down into it.

Points for the Putin joke though. Bennett’s Putin continues to be a hilarious sight gag.

Who’s Hosting?

Octavia Spencer’s comedic prowess has always been the most underexplored part of her acting persona in the mainstream. She absolutely does not get enough chances to play into her chaotic/wild side and her very fun sort of energy as a comedian. SNL is ripe for that and sure enough she gets her chance. SNL doesn’t quite know what to do with her, but she’s very game for whatever they do end up throwing. She’s a little sloppy, but a ton of fun to watch, as she’s clearly wringing whatever she can get out of the material and definitely enjoying herself.

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“Republican Movie Trailer”

Short, sweet, and to the point, this sketch is about as close as I’ve ever seen to an SNL advocacy sketch. The essential point being that if ONE Republican would start consistently and actually standing up to Trump, he would probably be a national damn hero. Yet no one does, no one even really coming close. It’s pitched a little obviously, but the joke is just right. Plus, points to anything making fun of Paul Ryan.

“Zoo-opolis Voice Actors”

This isn’t so much awards for the actual sketch as it is for Melissa Villaseñor finally getting the chance to show off her impression skills. Jennifer Lopez, Owen Wilson, Kathy Griffin and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss are all absolutely surprising, but fellow SNL women Kristen Wiig and Kate McKinnon are dead-on to the point where you can hear a gasp in the audience when she does Kate McKinnon. Her Wiig voice could legitimately be a double. Just raw skill, very impressive to hear.

“Youngblood”

A small, weird character piece that I’m mostly into for Octavia Spencer rocking the hell out of the background role. Just a fun sort of Key & Peele-ish sketch about an archetype getting totally subverted and Thompson is clearly having a hell of a lot of fun playing it. It’s kind of Spencer’s sketch though, she’s rocking those reaction shots.

“Girl at A Bar”

Probably the winner of the night, it’s the one that feels the most specific and pointed and well put-together. This is definitely one of those things I’ve seen get reenacted in countless online spaces and I can only assume happens at bars in real life. The cast here plays their reactions totally perfectly and the way Bennett leads up to his is so so good. This is just a well done bit of satire.

What Didn’t Work?

“Drug Company Hearing”

Woof. Talk about one joke that you could not stop beating into the ground. Your performance is phenomenal here, but there’s something off about a whole sketch revolving around making fun of black names. If there was anything necessarily absurd or original about it, I could maybe get behind this one. But as it is, it’s one sketch that goes on the same riff for four minutes with no variation.

“Sticky Bun”

Just another one of those nothing sketches that never found its direction, just kind of a lot of weird details that don’t quite stick. Nothing original or weird enough to be funny, even with decent performance. Too long for how little is here.

“Wine Bar”

Oh god. Make it stop. Just a flabby sketch that ground on and on.

“Spencers Gifts HQ”

This at least has the benefit of a great joke in Octavia Spencer owning Spencers Gifts. Plus, those googly eyes glasses are doing a lot of the work here. Other than that, goofy and just kinda boring. It feels like they had the premise and nothing else.

“The Chocolate Man”

I’m willing to accept that I’m missing the boat here on a great new character, but Tommy Chocolate is just sort of actively off-putting in both premise and execution. Just one of those aborted attempts to start a thing that makes me more uncomfortable for the people performing than makes me actually laugh.

Weekend Update!

Jost and Che seemed a little more able to handle the surfeit of political material that had been handed to them over the past couple weeks, jumping from topic to topic with a fairly comfortable groove. Che’s “I know we’re fucked, and deep down, you do too” attitude seems to be delving nicely into the human anxiety behind a lot of what’s going on, I especially like his joke about Conway doing “customer service.” I also like that they still have room for a few normal and goofy bits of news, especially the joke about the lawyer suing U2 working “pro-Bono.”

Actually, can I change from earlier? Eric and Donald Trump are the MVPs of tonight, Day and Moffatt playing them as a straight-man and manchild duo of trust-fund kids trying to keep a lid on whatever it is they’ve managed to get going. Moffatt’s physical comedy here is aces, and I totally would love to see more out of these two.

Laura Parsons return is always welcome, Bayer loves playing these dramatic theater kids and I like watching them. Nothing new here, but it’s always funny.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

Father John Misty is the musical equivalent of craft beer that managed to grow a big bear. In theory, being a dude meeting those qualifications, I should love him. But I’ve never really managed to find my way into his music since Fleet Foxes, so his performance didn’t do too much for me.

MVPs!

I’m giving it to Melissa Villaseñor because that was a legitimately impressive bit of performance in the voice acting sketch and there deserves to be some kind of recognition for pulling that off.

Season so far:

Beck Bennett – 3
Kate McKinnon – 2
Cecily Strong – 2
Vanessa Bayer – 1
Mikey Day – 1
Jost and Che – 1
Leslie Jones – 1
Bobby Moynihan – 1
Kenan Thompson – 1
Melissa Villaseñor – 1
Ensemble – 1

Final Thoughts!

Overall, just a really weak episode. Nothing I actively hated like the Emily Blunt episode, but it just seems like this one was all over the place. Some strong sketches can’t save a number that were totally directionless and bland. Spencer’s skills deserved way better than what she had here.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

  1. Dave Chappelle
  2. Tom Hanks
  3. Kristen Stewart
  4. Lin-Manuel Miranda
  5. Emma Stone
  6. Aziz Ansari
  7. Alec Baldwin
  8. Kristen Wiig
  9. Margot Robbie
  10. Casey Affleck
  11. Benedict Cumberbatch
  12. John Cena
  13. Felicity Jones
  14. Octavia Spencer
  15. Emily Blunt

Next Week: ScarJo!

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