Saturday Night Live Season 43, Episode 3: Kumail Najiani stands above a bizarrely muddled episode

How’s the Cold Open?

Look, I’ve said everything I can say about these at this point. Baldwin’s Trump is limp at this point, any hint of vitality just totally drained through repetition and the fact that he was definitely never supposed to be playing the character this long. They’ve tried to move into the idea that this is just what it is now, think every other Presidential impersonator, but Baldwin’s not got a quite deep enough take for that.

The stuff with Pence is kind of funny even if the timing feels really off. I wish we could go a little deeper into Bennett’s Pence, just as kind of unnerving and creepy as the real thing.

SNL has got to find a way to inject a new energy into these, they’ve got four years and they’re already running out of steam with a character more ripe for mockery than ever.

Who’s Hosting?

Kumail Nanjiani is one of comedy’s brightest lights, a guy with movie star presence, character actor specificity, and podcaster endearingness and openness and weirdness. His turn in The Big Sick shows his potential as a leading man and I hope getting his chance here makes him into a star.

He’s great in this show, even when the material around him isn’t. His great underplaying and connection with the performers around him shows an old hand and the kind of guy who VERY clearly could have been a cast member. If the show had given him more to do, he would have made a much clearer place as the best of this season so far. He still is, but it could have been clearer.

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“Kellywise”

Something of a sequel to the Kellyanne Conway/Fatal Attraction sketch, this time placing McKinnon’s Conway into IT as a clown dredging the media into the sewers with her (a surprisingly apt metaphor). McKinnon’s Conway has definitely evolved as a character since the early days of the “put-upon babysitter” and crossing that more sinister interpretation with McKinnon’s surprisingly apt impression of Skarsgard’s Pennywise to create a character that’s surprisingly unnerving and pulls off laughs and a couple startles. The cinematography here is also just great, how good has the craft gotten on these pre-written sketches as of late? A smarter core and some great performances make for a great sketch.

“Bank Breakers”

While my sympathies towards game show sketches may be different than most (I love ’em), this is still a seriously solid one. The great situation it puts Kumail’s character in is really elevated by his perfect exasperation at the whole situation. Strong underplays really well and while I wish there had been a twist here, I do love this thing’s slow pushing in of the knife.

“Customer Service”

Julio Torres is one of this show’s most quiet all-stars, a writer of sweet and bizarre and quiet sketches that get laughs and pull on the heartstrings in just the right way. After being the Gosling episode MVP for “Papyrus,” “Customer Service” comes along and becomes something quiet and lovely in an episode that didn’t tend towards those things. Strong’s Melania as a prisoner of Donald feels more accurate than those choices for any other woman and the connection between her and Kumail’s character really does feel genuine. Give this man a TV show/movie/whatever and I’ll be there.

“Kumail Nanjiani Standup Monologue”

For those of you who aren’t all-in on podcasts or haven’t had the pleasure, Kumail Nanjiani is a truly phenomenal stand-up and I’m thrilled to see him get a chance to show that on such a national stage. A unique and deeply funny voice, Nanjiani’s speaking on Islamophobia is a bold routine and I hope this motivates to get out and watch his stand-up.

What?

This week, I don’t know if the stuff so much didn’t work as just left me sitting there baffled.

“Nursing Home”

There’s one really solid joke here. McKinnon’s bizarre wordless grandma versus the description of her sexual proclivities to her shocked descendants. Nanjiani’s very cavalier doctor gives an extra layer of absurdity that never quite covers it all. But there was a bizarre looseness to the sketch and a problem with endings that seemed to carry through the whole night. Just couldn’t ever quite get off the ground rather than crashing.

“Hotel Check-In”

As a piece of writing, a less-good version of the far more specific and bizarre version of this sketch that Louis C.K. did a couple years back. As a piece of performance, Nanjiani basically doing his recurring character from Portlandia carried this through really strongly. And at least it had an actual ending, even if it just felt like a lesser version of what we’ve seen.

“Film Panel”

Ehh, I’m not quite sure we should have another Debette Goldry. As much fun as McKinnon has with the character, the writing and the reaction just feels too muted to work at this point and this is a character that can’t be coming in with expectations, it only works when unexpected. It’s smart to use this for the Weinstein stuff, but it feels like the point of the sketch (it’s nothing compared to the old days) feels tone-deaf when the details of Weinstein’s harassment rings loudly in everyone’s ears right now. It’s showing how little change there has been, a sketch like this misses the point. I know the show feels the need to address it, but this wasn’t the best way.

“Office Halloween Party”

A sketch with bizarre energy for its placement in the show. This is a 10-to-1 that was up at the top, maybe the first thing that really derailed this show’s momentum. I really like the low-key reactions and the monotone work, but the premise just never finds its twist or its timing and it ends up just feeling like a trip than a strut.

Weekend Update!

The continuing evolution of Che and Jost into clapter machines moves along unabated here. They go after Weinstein pretty hard here, getting a few fairly solid shots off (Jost’s joke about the alternative to a cushy sex rehab “Yeah it’s a prison” is particularly strong) and Che’s later rant about Trump’s use of the Christmas culture wars is on-point. While SNL has always had a weirdly mushy politics to avoid pissing anyone off, Trump is such an easy target that it’s focused these anchors in a way they’ve really needed. Che’s sloppiness feels passionate, Jost’s blandness feels deliberate.

One correspondent tonight, Strong bringing in new character Ivana Trump, Donald’s wife from back in his 80s-heyday (*sigh* well, first heyday). Strong’s character work is really strong here, carving out a different take than Jan Hooks’, and plenty of great details even if Ivana is a minor player right now. Strong is maybe one of the better character players on the show right now, and considering they lost two of their best, it’s needed.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

I did!

P!nk puts on a good show!

MVPs!

Between her great work in the Bank Breakers sketch, her Ivana Trump character, and her ability to play along better than anyone else tonight, it’s Cecily for the MVP tonight. One of the show’s best actors and one of its most important assets, it’s gonna be harder to lose her than we would think.

Kate McKinnon – 1
Aidy Bryant – 1
Cecily Strong – 1

Final Thoughts!

Boy this show feels limp transitioning back from a big season, doesn’t it? It always tends to be weak coming back from an election, having had all the attention focused on them and having blown through a whole lot of ideas because of that. Plus as the show moves into the transition to its next cast (McKinnon is the center and it’s clear we’re hitting the time for most of the cast to make their move), the show’s obviously got a lot ahead of it.

So maybe that’s why this one feels so sloppy. No one quite knows what’s happening, the cast is enthusiastic if messy. A lot of talent is flying around and it doesn’t feel focused. Nanjiani is a great host, but would have been even better with a more energized cast. Hopefully the break can whip them into shape and Larry David can bring them some good shit.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

  1. Kumail Nanjiani
  2. Gal Gadot
  3. Ryan Gosling
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