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Saturday Night Live Season 42, Episode 12: Aziz Ansari is a master of Saturday Night ceremonies

As you’re reading this, Trump is now President. That’s right time travelers, you’re too late. For SNL and its audience, it’s undeniably a dark weekend (with a rather massive bright spot). But SNL has always been at its best finding the laughs in the middle of the worst cases, so let’s give ’em a chance.

How’s the Cold Open?

Let me just be up front. I think Beck Bennett’s Putin might be my favorite impression the show has running right now. It’s not exactly accurate, but the best ones never are. It’s a character, arrogant and sinister and just the most blustering kind of fun. Bennett goes all into this one, and you gotta admire a dude who’s willing to play shirtless for a character.

This is the first “Political figure talks to the camera” open we’ve had in a while actually. It used to be WAY more common, and they ran it into the ground around the 2012 Election. This is an undeniably strong return for this format, Bennett using not so much the allegations of interference but rather powering the impression through the factual wrong that Putin has done. Joking about the interference is flavor, but the text is that Putin is an authoritarian who any level of influence should be concerning and Bennett plays that sinister with just the right humor to make it hit home.

Plus, it’s the best return of Olya Povlatsky. Always fun to see McKinnon appear there, and Povlatsky as a low-key revolutionary is a good move. Please keep this up.

Who’s Hosting?

It’s no surprise that Aziz Ansari is a great host, but it’s still such a pleasure that he is. He’s a charismatic stand-up with a distinctive creative voice and a TV sketch background, pretty much all you need to know that a host is gonna probably kill it. Aziz acquits himself in every sketch with confidence and takes every chance he has to shine. Not just in the stuff where he gets a chance to do his stock and trade (a Tom Haverford “NOOOOO” pops up in one sketch and it is glorious), but in playing support to the talent when given a chance. But Aziz definitely takes more lead in these sketches than any host since Chapelle, and the show benefits for it.

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“Aziz Ansari Monologue”

Look, I don’t think it gets better on this show than when stand-ups do the monologue. The stand-ups who make this show are usually the best of the best (also Dane Cook that one time), and their insight is always incredibly valuable. Ansari is no different, and that routine about the “lower case kkk” is sure to get a lot of traction for good reason. It was a funny, smart, nuanced set of jokes, I especially loved the bits about Chris Brown and Trump (“Look, I’m just here for the tunes, not the extracurriculars”) and tearing up at old George W. Bush speeches.

“Five Stars”

Another one of the downbeat texture pieces this era of the show has loved doing, I think this style really benefits from some of Ansari’s Master of None energy. It’s observational and brings it just enough to absurdity without crossing the line past the vague emotional realism of the whole thing. Plus, Bobby Moynihan gets a starring role (seriously, where has he been?) and does great things with his character, including one of the better sketch endings in a while. Big ups for the “San Junipero” shout out, SNL really knows the way to my heart.

“La La Land Interrogation”

As the kids say, it me.

Except, the police officers here. Those are me, as I have a heart.

I kid, I kid. But this is one of those sketches that hits a very specific groove of conversation that I see all over my life and I really loved seeing it play out here. Strong and Bennett being up to 10 as well as Ansari playing it very lowkey all works for this sketch, especially the jab at the cops for not having seen Moonlight (which you should go see, it’s wonderful and amazing). That Westworld tag is also glorious. Boy, Ansari really brings out all the references I get.

“I GUESS I JUST LIKE MANCHESTER BY THE SEA” 

YOU CAN LIKE BOTH”

“Kellyanne Conway”

One of the more interesting sagas for SNL has been figuring out Kellyanne Conway. For a long time, they seemed to play her as unwilling hostage or “Woman who sees the train coming at her.” But as Trump won, it’s become increasingly clear that Conway is much more complicit in the games his administration plays and is willing to ride the Trump Train to the top at whatever cost.

So this Chicago parody plays right at it. Not a joke heavy, but a strong premise they commit to like mad. Seriously, the production value is awesome on this one, and the parody (which I admit, I had to look up) is dead-on. McKinnon’s Conway is finally figured out, an adept liar with that lean, hungry ambition. It’s a great character, and it’s time to see what they can do with it.

“Bedroom”

This is almost certainly the sketch Melissa Villaseñor auditioned with. It plays into her weird energy, gives her a chance to do her odder impressions (Owen Wilson, Wanda Sikes), and is clearly the sort of sketch she has a ton of fun with. If you were wondering why she got hired, this is the explanation. This is a total laugh riot, and it’s all from Villaseñor’s performance, one flub is made up for by some absolutely killer delivery. Just solid sketch comedy.

“Broderick & Ganz: Personal Injury Attorneys”

This is definitely an older-feeling sketch, a Wiig/Hader/Armisen-era sort of weirdness. At one point, it definitely would have been Wiig as the straight attorney and Forte as the weirdo who screwed it all up. But McKinnon and Moynihan are just as good, bringing a whole hell of a lot of energy to their characters, especially as Moynihan’s lawyer is slowly revealed to be an insane collection of personal failings. Again, Ansari does really great work here as the straight man, supporting the steadily climbing crazy Moynihan’s doing. MVP to them working together.

“Beat the Bookworm”

This is the sketch with the Tom Harverford “NOOOO.” It’s delightful. As short as it is, the rest of the sketch is pretty delightful, Ansari stumbling all the hell over every answer after the preening arrogance he starts with. He’s the lead in a lot of these, but this is probably his biggest sketch, where he takes full charge of the joke.

“Pizzatown”

The spiritual sequel to the forever-underrated “Space Pants,” just a big weird sketch taking place during a crime movie. Everyone’s kind of fun to watch, everyone’s clearly having a good time. Just the kind of five-to-one that ends the show on the right note.

What Didn’t Work?

“Tribute to President Obama”

Woof. Guys, just…guys. I appreciate the sentiment but boy this did not play right.

Weekend Update!

I kind of like it when Weekend Update is clearly rewriting jokes up until the last minute. They’ve got stuff here about the insane Sean Spicer press briefing about the size of Trump’s…inauguration. It gives them a little fire, being the first comedians to actually be able to comment on it, and the compensation is comedy gold. They’re lucky because you basically can’t be hacky since you’re the first, and they have a pretty solid bead on how to keep up with Trump and the way he talks about himself and about policy. Being casual is their secret weapon, almost a resigned bafflement. Che’s mini-standup bit didn’t work for me, but it’s totally fine.

There are two correspondent bits this week. One is a Leslie Jones bit, which is always welcome. Going off Hidden Figures, she riffs on her own image and the limited range that we force onto Black History Month with plenty of real sentiment.

The other is…it’s bad guys. It’s really bad. It’s a Friend Zone bit that would have been stupid if it was done 6 years ago. It’s a lazy bit that rings nasty now, and this was probably just not the weekend for it. Bad.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

I did not. Big Sean has never really done much for me, nothing he does that others haven’t done better.

MVPs!

YAY BOBBY MOYNIHAN!

Look, Moynihan is probably one of my favorite members of this cast who gets almost nothing to do these days. He can wring so much out of a look or a line reading, and he kills it in two co-starring roles this week. Just really impressive stuff, always glad to see more of him.

Also, shout out to Melissa Villaseñor who made her first wave this week.

Season so far:

Beck Bennett – 3
Kate McKinnon – 2
Cecily Strong – 2
Jost and Che – 1
Leslie Jones – 1
Bobby Moynihan – 1
Kenan Thompson – 1
Ensemble – 1

Final Thoughts!

This is just a solid, confident week. The writing, minus one or two major holes, works really well. The performances are mostly all together and we’re getting some highlights from people we usually don’t. That plus the great Aziz Ansari really hosting the hell out of the show means this is the show getting its legs back under it. Keep it up guys.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

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

Next Up: Kristen Stewart is gonna be here which actually should be interesting to see.

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A Relatively Awesome Emmys

I didn’t watch the Emmys last night. Just don’t want to lie to you up front. I fell asleep about 8:30 and don’t have cable anymore. So, this whole list is based on my after-the-fact reading of the winners.

I also want to disclose upfront that I’m not necessarily a TV guy. Which I know is actually a flashpoint opinion right now given the current post-Emmy discourse, but film has always been my thing, TV an interesting way to tell stories more than my dominant mode of cinematic expression. If people would love to hear about it, I’d write more, but yeah, TV is always a side thing, a diversion to my main love of film. There’s some truly fantastic stuff, but I’ll never love my favorite shows quite as much as my favorite films. This also means this piece will mostly just be mentioning the stuff that I know about.

That being said, there’s still a hell of a lot of talent out there and a hell of a lot that deserves to be recognized, and the Emmys last night did a far better job of recognizing the real talent on display in the television industry than the Oscars have in some time.

First, let’s talk the big winner of the night: Game of Thrones. My feelings on the show and this season are very clear. So, I’m absolutely thrilled to see Season 6 recognized for the level of prowess and skill involved and (more happily than last year) am glad to see it take Best Drama, even if it’s mostly just because I’ve recently learned Mr. Robot is not fully my bag and I’m going to cop that I haven’t seen The Americans. 

More exciting is that Miguel Sapochnik took home the Directing Award for “Battle of the Bastards.” His work on that was absolutely phenomenal, while I may ultimately prefer “The Winds of Winter,” and that final battle sequence was truly a sight to behold. This is the kind of directing I want to see rewarded, huge and ambitious and as telling of the scale as it is of the character.

The longest running “bridesmaid” of the Emmys has been Tatiana Maslany, a fantastic character actress and the star of Orphan Black, a sci-fi show about cloning that requires her to play roughly 11 different characters, playing about 5 as regular cast members. A difficult enough feat to pull off on a show that often demands seeing these people together. It’s doubly impressive that she distinguishes them so much not only through physicality, but through tiny character decisions that have play on that delicate line between clone and differentiated humanity. When a performance alone does 90% of the show’s work, that’s impressive. Even if Season 3 wasn’t Orphan Black‘s best, it still deserves to be recognized for what it has pulled off with her character season in and season out.

Comedy is also more and more indicative of the pulse of the comedy television industry as it’s shifting. Not only did basically the three most critically acclaimed shows take home the awards (Last Week Tonight, Key & Peele, and Veep), but the actors and writers who are legitimately shaping the landscape are bringing home trophies.

Like Kate McKinnon. Seriously, I could not be more happy that she was chosen for recognition. This is the first time a member of the actual SNL cast proper has won an award for their work on the show, and it couldn’t be more deserved. Not only does she functionally own the show at this point, but she’s done consistently enjoyable work at the front and back of sketches and that alone deserves to be recognized. Few recent era stars can support as well as McKinnon does. Of course, we still have to recognize this award is being given for her leading roles like Hillary Clinton or the bizarre Alien Abduction Lady. Still, few deserve it like she does.

Like Aziz Ansari. Master of None is a phenomenal show and “Parents” perhaps one of its most remarkable episodes. It’s a perspective we all too rarely see on TV, that of the first and second generation Asian immigrant, and even if the episode wasn’t so funny and heartwarming and true, that alone would deserve it some recognition.

Like Jill Soloway. Partially, I root for her to succeed ever since I found out she had a hand in The Oblongs, one of my favorite bits of adult animation ever made. But also because what she does on Transparent is simply great, giving the show a tactility and an impressive indie movie technicality that makes the show as inviting as it is.

In other words, TV isn’t my favorite, but it’s still pretty awesome. We’re lucky to live in a time that there’s so much to watch.