Saturday Night Live Season 42: Final Thoughts

It was a season for the books. The sort of big record-setter that only ever comes to SNL at cost to the whole country. With the Trumpian parade and his loud screeds against the show, more eyeballs were tuned than ever. I’ll discuss a little bit about all of that later on, but I just want to give some shout-outs and jeers for a season of solid performing and writing buoyed by an intense up and down schedule with a darker world around them.

The Good

Best Cold Open

“VP Debate Cold Open” – Lin Manuel-Miranda

While I must admit that over the course of this season, Baldwin’s Trump began to tire me, this is the Cold Open where he still held the most power and seemed the most lively as a performer and as a piece of satire. Focused before he became overly focused and tired out, this is about as good as Baldwin’s Trump impression ever got.

Plus, this material was perhaps the most potent of the whole electoral season. God, remember when we thought this was the end of Trump’s campaign? How sad and naive we were. Cecily Strong’s anchor here is such a great straight woman, her dawning horror is just pitched so damned well, the audio gags well put together. This is solid sketch work, which can be all too rare in the Cold Opens.

Top 5 Sketches Worth Watching

5) “Wells for Boys” – Emma Stone

To be honest, this sketch is 90% here for Emma Stone’s “Everything is for you. And this ONE THING is for him” line reading. She deserved the Oscar for that one, let’s be real.

But also because this is just a great and sweet little sketch. Actually kind of nuanced and sensitive in its portrayals of sensitive and thoughtful kids, it also mines those specific things for laughs. This is just an enjoyable and kind sketch, a little too rare.

4) “Birthday Clown” – Louis C.K.

Plagiarism accusations aside, this one just feels so specific to C.K.’s sensibilities in a way that really works for SNL. Moynihan’s awkward birthday clown interacting with C.K.’s sadsack feels real without ever losing the humor underneath. It’s such a bizarre escalation and the delivery from everyone is just perfect. Plus, any sketch that ends on a joke this dark should absolutely be recognized.

3) “Black Jeopardy with Tom Hanks” – Tom Hanks

I was tempted to put this in the Politics category, but honestly, that feels like underselling how strong of a piece of satire this is, how well-pitched it is as both a piece of comedy and a piece of commentary.

Essentially a sketch on how the divisions between people aren’t quite as clear as we might make them, how class may mean more than we give it credit for for the groups that it puts people in, and how we have more common ground than we think. Plus, there’s simply some amazing comedic timing and writing and Hanks’ performance is pitched so perfectly on the high-wire that it’s much of what sells the sketch from being either preachy or misguided.

2) “Totino’s with Kristen Stewart” – Kristen Stewart

The Super Bowl Totino’s commercials have quietly become the show’s best recurring sketch, an annual frame around which to stretch whatever conceptual weirdness they can put onto Vanessa Bayer’s nameless wife (realizing now that she’ll be gone, and this is perhaps the best ending for the Trilogy of Totino’s).

This one works almost because it’s played so straight. The cinematography is legitimately gorgeous, pulling on French cinema techniques, and the music is beautiful. The chemistry between Bayer and Stewart is real and the joke isn’t “lesbians” but the juxtaposition between the passionate scene and the mundanity going on right next to it, plus the use of Totino’s Pizza Rolls in lovemaking. It’s just an incredibly clever concept put together very well, a sort of audacious weirdness with heart.

1) “Haunted Elevator (ft. David S. Pumpkins)” – Tom Hanks

If you’re surprised I’m putting this here, you’ve not been paying attention to my reviews.

The Haunted Elevator and its bizarre denizen David S. Pumpkins is everything I love in comedy. A bizarre character that forces a meta examination of the premise. Specific detail that continually escalates. A deadpan confrontation with an increasingly strange world. All wrapped up in that weird-ass Spirit Halloween Pumpkin suit. I don’t think I’ve had any sketch this year pop into my head quite as often, and for that, David S. Pumpkins and his B-Boy skeletons take the top spot.

Any questions?

Best Political Sketch

“Sean Spicer Press Conference” – Kristen Stewart

While Baldwin’s Trump may have loomed a little larger in the zeitgeist, no one captured the spirit of the Trump administration better than Melissa McCarthy’s anarchic and riotously funny performance as Press Secretary Sean Spicer. Equal parts aggressive and stupid, McCarthy’s Spicer occupies this weird place of incompetence and insanity that seems such a perfect fit for ripping this Administration. Spicer seems more indicative of the bizarre zone we live in since the beginning of Year Zero. Plus, McCarthy gets more laughs out of this sketch than some whole episodes, it’s a truly dazzling feat of comedic performance.

Best Weirdo Sketch

“Sectionals” – Louis C.K.

The best weirdo sketches should feel like you can’t imagine who the hell thought of this, and you can’t imagine why they put it out there, but you’re glad they did.

“Sectionals” is precisely that, such a weird concept that you can barely imagine the thought process that led to a sketch like this and performed with such an anti-comedy bent that it feels more Adult Swim than SNL. Just a fun and truly bizarre piece of comedy.

Best Mood Piece

“Love and Leslie” – Dave Chappelle

My favorite recurring “Not quite comedy” bit this season was the romance between Leslie Jones and Kyle Mooney, so it only feels fitting to recognize where it all began.

The reason this recurring bit has worked is because Mooney and Jones feel like they have a legitimate chemistry, like their romance is actually real, just exaggerated. The bits have a great continuity, weaving the story together slowly and elaborately, and they usually manage to pull at least one great punchline out of the surprisingly sweet proceedings. Again, I’d like to put all three here, but this is the one that kicked it off, and the one that showed what Leslie Jones could do for the show.

Best Weekend Update Correspondent

Bruce Chandling (Kyle Mooney)

We can never have enough Bruce Chandling. Mooney’s bizarre, sad stand-up comic is a character that almost no one else has ever gone to well of before, something that hews very close to the alt-comedy circles many of the new performers are coming up through.

The Bad

Worst Sketch

“Honda Robotics”  – Emily Blunt

Holy fuck is this bad.

I’m a defender of this show (obviously) but this is the sketch that I imagine every parody is playing on and that most of the detractors think of when they think SNL. Just painfully lame and unbearably long and pointless and confusing and just an awful few minutes to watch. Is this a product placement sketch? They should ask for their money back.

Recurring Sketch We Should Never See Again

“Celebrity Family Feud”

This sketch just doesn’t work any time they’ve done it. An attempt to replicate “Celebrity Jeopardy” is admirable, but that sketch had jokes and ideas beyond the impressions. This one is always just a parade of impressions, some good and some very much not. I get that it’s here because people love those impressions, but my god it’s such a drag to see pulled out time and time again.

Worst Cold Open

“Hallelujah Cold Open” – Dwayne Johnson

Just…uhhh…what?

The Cast

Cast MVP

Beck Bennett

While Kate McKinnon is still the most talented performer on this cast, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Beck Bennett is right on her heels, becoming an increasingly powerful presence both as a comedic actor and as a sheer raw generator of laughs, playing utility in almost every sketch he can show up in and doing amazing things with the lead when he can. While he’s not quite gifted with a breakout character yet, Bennett stands to have a tenure like Bill Hader’s, always useful and always funny.

Host MVP

Kristen Stewart

I really honestly didn’t expect Stewart to be my favorite host of this season. But her bizarre energy took the whole show off-kilter in the best way, made for a looser stranger show and one rather unlike the other ones last season. Great hosts run with the flow, but some of the most memorable alter it, and that’s certainly what Stewart did here.

Most Improved Cast Member

Leslie Jones

Jones was (perhaps unfairly) maligned in the first days of her time on SNL. She didn’t come up through much of a performance background, so her sketch work was undeniably sloppy, often stopping sketches cold for flubbed line readings or missed cues.

But this year, Jones has become a force to be reckoned with on the show. While the writers still don’t quite know what to do with her, she’s certainly come into her own, making the most out of her stage sketches and then killing it in the filmed ones, where she really gets to show off her talents. It’s become a pleasure to see Jones feature in a filmed sketch, where you know at the very least, she’s gonna do something interesting.

Most Likely To Succeed (on SNL)

Mikey Day

Day is the one new cast member that made his utility known from Day One, an easy transition given that he was a writer and already performing for the Martin Short/Maya Rudolph variety show. He’s easily slotted into the role that Taran Killam had on the show, as the sort of ur-generic white guy. He’ll be here for a while.

Best Impression

Vladimir Putin – Beck Bennett

I wanted to avoid doing any impressions of non cast-members, so sorry Melissa McCarthy.

I chose Bennett’s Putin because as an impression, it seems like the fullest character, the one most accurate to the spirit of the original person. Bennett’s Putin is just kind of a crazy idea (poor guy must miss carbs), and Bennett is clearly having so much fun with him, that’s it’s just infectious to watch. It gets at some central sinister nature just barely cloaked beneath a layer of performative masculinity.

Final Thoughts

Season Ranking:

  1. Tom Hanks
  2. Dave Chappelle
  3. Kristen Stewart
  4. Lin-Manuel Miranda
  5. Louis C.K.
  6. Dwayne Johnson
  7. Emma Stone
  8. Aziz Ansari
  9. Chris Pine
  10. Melissa McCarthy
  11. Scarlett Johansson
  12. Alec Baldwin
  13. Kristen Wiig
  14. Margot Robbie
  15. Casey Affleck
  16. Benedict Cumberbatch
  17. John Cena
  18. Felicity Jones
  19. Octavia Spencer
  20. Emily Blunt
  21. Jimmy Fallon

Reflection:

This season of SNL, when it goes down in the next edition of Live From New York, is going to be defined by two things.

One is being weirdly on the forefront of the Trump era. Our Man-Child-Sultanate is particularly obsessed with both his media perception and his rejection by the wealthy institutions of New York. Given that SNL is a wealthy media institution of New York, it’s ripe for him to give SO many fucks about what it thinks of him, especially as something he once thought was his friend (remember that controversial hosting gig? Yeah).

So, his early attacks on the show and on Baldwin’s impression, as well as the continued attacks on the rest of his administration (including apparently making Spicer and Bannon’s jobs just a little bit harder), put the show weirdly on the forefront of #TheResistance in a way that it was never comfortable with.

I hashtag because the particular attachment to SNL is part of the performatively liberal resistance, the resistance that’s about cultural signifiers and lame jokes over political action. SNL slides in alongside RT’d memes and Drumpf jokes, surface level and never digging underneath to the root issues. About appearing resistant without the engagement with systems, without the real rage or resistance.

Which is not an attack on SNL. Actual political satire has never been SNL‘s function, it became a part of the show because young angry comics love to make fun of the Powers That Be, and that’s what this show started out as and has always been. That surface level engagement has been the point, making a show of it without ever going below. It engages with politics insofar as they can make them funny.

Part of why Baldwin’s Trump hasn’t worked and why the satire and their engagement with the broader world around them can misfire is because we’re getting to the point where politics are funnier than the jokes we can make. Trump is a rolling comedy routine, The Stupidest Man in America is now President, what joke can you make that he won’t top, what thing can you have him do that he won’t do sillier the next day? For the love of god, this picture exists:

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I DO NOT BLASPHEME THE ORB. ALL GLORY TO THE ORB.

What the fuck can Baldwin do that’s weirder? SNL can’t top reality, and it’s why they’ve done better and better this season with they choose to disengage from it.

The other thing that has defined this season is the choice to move towards virality, taking of the former all-eyes-on-me. That stands to be a problem for the purpose of SNL because what it’s meant is trotting out the celebrity impressionists at every opportunity.

Right now, Donald Trump, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, and Sean Spicer, key satirical figures, are being played by non-cast members. Trump and Spicer have sketches revolve around them. We’re supposed to be incubating the cast members, and yet the cast members are not important to the show.

This is gonna be a problem. As this cast starts to cycle out after being relatively stable, you’re facing a deep bench with no real stars. McKinnon will eliminate most of the starpower in this cast when she leaves, and I’m struggling to find (even among people I really like) who will take the center of gravity in the show.

SNL is at a moment where it needs to be building its reserves, and it’s focusing on its splashy cameos. This misses the scrappy nature of SNL and it’s frankly boring. I know these famous people are talented, surprise me with new talent.

The cast should be the center and when the sitting Presidential Impersonator isn’t a cast member, that’s a problem.

This show has never had more raw talent and never had more eyeballs on it. I really hope I can see that be used, and I hope it can shed the mantle put onto it.

See you all at Season 43.

If we’re all still around.

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