Saturday Night Live Season 43, Episode 1: Ryan Gosling giggles as the cast shakes the rust off

And we’re back! After a summer that was funny in only a dark “Hahahaha the nuclear blast is coming right for us” sort of way, can SNL make us laugh? Can Ryan Gosling’s ridiculously handsome face giggling at everything make us smile? Can Alec Baldwin’s Trump find something interesting?

How’s the Cold Open?

Well…maybe not.

Look, I’m on record as of last season that whatever was enjoyable about Alec Baldwin playing President Trump early on in the season has been sucked out of the room as SNL turns him into every other recurring character, a cheap set of point scoring parodies of the most difficult man to parody in the country.

And this sketch didn’t necessarily prove me wrong.

A summer of bizarre choices and decisions and statements provided plenty of ripe ground for the direct mockery and psychological examination that the Trump administration requires. I mean, The Mooch alone.

But this one never managed to find the energy. Trump’s feud with the San Juan mayor (Melissa Villasenor) is played with an air of “Can you believe this?” that seems to undersell the more general reaction and lose a pointedness to the comedy. The cavalcade of firings largely exists as a throwaway line. Not a whole lot of laugh lines, just a lot of limp jokes.

McKinnon’s Sessions injects a little extra energy into the sketch, a bizarre Little Rascals-esque take on everyone’s least favorite Alabamian. With her weird drawl and possibly monster teeth, it’s at least more off-kilter.

Overall, a bit of a blunder to start the season off.

Season Premiere Update!

Who’s in? Who’s out?

Who’s out this season are two long-timers and a short-timer who never got served like she should have. Announced was Bobby Moynihan and Vanessa Bayer leaving, both invaluable show presences and both definitely missed in this season’s premiere. Moynihan was a relentless presence, an out-sized performer who had little dignity in the best of ways. Bayer honed in hard on her characters, was one of the few who could bring a character back and wring the same laughs out of them each time. Unfortunately, departing alongside them was Sasheer Zamata, an actress with a gift for reaction on par with Kenan Thompson, and who never got her due on the show.

Who’s in? Well, for once, SNL took three out and put three back in. The most notable of the three is Chris Redd, who turned a memorable supporting role as Hunter the Hungry in Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, and is the kind of committed and consummate performer who could do great here when he finds his groove (and was already getting some laughs from me). Also joining the cast is Heidi Gardner, a Groundlings graduate and voice actress, and Luke Null, an iO Theater mainstay known for his musical comedy.

Who’s Hosting?

Ryan Gosling is a fun sort of host, the host whose entire appeal seems to be how an actor who’s famous for being as stoic and serious as he is (to be fair, the man can indulge in light-heart and comedy with the best of them) is being so goofy and so unable to keep his shit together. There’s a certain level of endearing to how much time Gosling spends breaking in these sketches, never mugging, but earnestly so amused by what’s going on around him that he can’t stop laughing.

And on a related note, he’s also such a great actor that he’s the kind of guy who can really mine laughs out of performance, even with thin premises.

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“Papyrus”

Case in point. Of course, for true comic effect, it really helps to put him in a sketch where he’s not live.

Basically a sketch where one small Tweets-worth of joke (literally) is pulled out to its emotional conclusion, Gosling really sells his extended breakdown over the font of the logo for Avatar. The heightened drama of it is hilarious and the moody filmmaking really helps to tie a bow on the best sketch of the night.

“The Fliplets”

I don’t know who else this one was for, but I loved the hell out of it. Day and Moffat have become a very strong asset for SNL, especially as a pair, so their weird “we could probably be siblings” chemistry has been a surprising delight. This one takes it and ratchets up the insanity just a bit, producing this weird bit of sibling disaffection. It’s also a chance for Gosling to really show off his comedy acting chops, leaning hard into the intensity in a fantastic little dark monologue there at the end.

Kinda?

“Dive Bar”

I don’t know how much this one has what one might call a point. Just seems like a weird costumes and weird voices sketch with a refrain that breaks up the acts, but I laughed! It’s so go-for-broke bizarre and all that great specificity (Kenan’s constant refrain about his good jeans) finds something enjoyable even if it isn’t anything but a series of non-sequitur.

“Another Close Encounter”

Look, it was one thing when they brought her back as a recurring character for other hosts, the magic was that Gosling’s cracking up was so unexpected and McKinnon seemed to be deliberately encouraging it. This is SNL trying to make lightning strike twice and I don’t know if it’s a great idea. Sure they do it and McKinnon is never more a comic tour de force than in sketches like this (being a sketch center of gravity works better for her than someone like Wiig), but it just feels lazy to do the repeat.

“Ryan Gosling’s Jazz Monologue”

Look, if we’re gonna do musical sketches, this is my kind of musical sketch. I don’t know if it really is a funny joke, but Gosling’s ridiculous commitment ends up really selling the whole bit.

“N’Erlins.”

What Didn’t Work?

“Italian Restaurant”

Again, we’re retreading ground (this is basically the Chris Farley coffee commercial or the Blue River Dog Food) but it just feels a little too sloppy to match up to those. Besides Gosling’s horrible cue-card face in this one, the product placement nature of the sketch ends up leaving a bad taste in the mouth.

“Henrietta & The Fugitive”

I’m gonna be real…I’m not totally sure what this is. Way too long, seemingly totally dramatic except for that angle of “She’s a big chicken,” and just too slack to ever really sell the premise in the right way. A weird sketch that feels like they were just out of ideas is never a great thing for a show this early in the season.

“Levi’s Wokes”

I just can’t for the life of me tell what the direction of this sketch is. Who is it mocking? Is it making fun of social justice terminology? Is it making fun of brands co-opting that terminology to sell products? Who’s the point here? It’s possibly a sketch SNL really shouldn’t be doing, it’s possibly a great piece of satire. But it’s too unpointed to work.

Weekend Update!

Jost and Che are perhaps the least out of practice in this whole cast, having done Weekend Update over the summer. So they’re already in normal form, though the partnership felt a little unbalanced tonight. Jost was fine, but none of the material ever really punched hard. Che on the other hand was on fire. Though neither got off a great joke, Che unleashed a pretty nice angry rant and there’s something cathartic about hearing him whip off “You cheap cracker” at Trump.

Our correspondents were both solid if unspectacular. McKinnon’s Merkel seems to have lost some of her luster as a character under Trump, less the outsider but not quite leaning into the terrified change in the world order. So it’s mostly shoehorning in the older jokes. Moffat’s Guy Who Just Bought a Boat is an older concept (Mr. Subliminal) but it’s so dead-on and well-performed that it’s watching, even if this is maybe the last time it’ll be funny.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

I did!

Jay-Z gave a solid set of performances, the confessional rawness of the second one something you just don’t see on SNL very often.

MVPs!

Let’s just let this one go to Kate McKinnon. No one else was so consistently enjoyable to watch, and her centerpiece in the Alien Abduction sketch is still a reminder of how good she is. Her becoming the center of the sketch never feels selfish, just an anchored assurance that everyone around her can play off.

Final Thoughts!

A rough start. I get it, that’s pretty normal. Shaking the rust off is needed, but there was a little more rust than normal. Gosling is an enjoyable performer, but one not ready enough for live TV to anchor a show like this. More misses than hits, let’s see how that continues.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

  1. Ryan Gosling
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