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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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Saturday Night Live Season 42, Episode 21: Dwayne Johnson gives a strong ending to an eventful year

So…yeah, all that happened.

Perhaps no season of SNL since the season of Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin has felt so relevant and so unsure of its place in the firm, huge spotlight. More thoughts are to come, but this is a season of big questions and big transitions, and a season that’ll likely go on the books as one of its most important.

How’s the Cold Open?

Though perhaps this sketch stands in one of the weirdest moments of that importance nexus.

Look, it’s not a funny sketch. It’s deliberately not set up with jokes. I don’t even know if I like the concept, this seems like a weird angle to take, the show just kind of throwing up an equal time shrug of the shoulders. But it’s designed for everyone to see.

Maybe it’s just a remembering how weird all of this was? The administration that launched SNL back into relevance taking stock of the whole moment? I mean, not that I ever need to hear anyone but Jeff Buckley do “Hallelujah” again, but maybe that’s the purpose.

This is unfocused mostly because this whole bit just confuses me. Is it a goodbye to Baldwin’s Trump? He’s been rumored to leave, which I think would be good for the show, ultimately. He’s become more of a recitation than a performance lately, a new guy might give the show a kick in the pants satirically.

I wish I had more to say but I just earnestly can’t fathom the intentions here.

Who’s Hosting?

The third person to join the Five-Timers Club, Dwayne Johnson is one of those guys who increasingly seems like a totally natural fit for SNL. A consummate performer who throws himself 100% into anything he does, he’s a natural fit for a show as big as SNL. Combine that with a gift for comedic underplaying (see: This whole show) and Johnson is exactly up my alley for an SNL host.

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“World’s Most Evil Invention”

Like it’s most direct predecessor “Canteen Boy Goes Camping,” I kind of have to imagine this isn’t a sketch for everyone. As in, not for people who have anything resembling good comedic taste.

(Un)Luckily, I don’t. A dark central joke played masterfully by everyone here, with Johnson’s muted performance against everyone else’s exasperated shock, gets huge laughs for those who will take them. This sketch may also feature one of the darkest jokes in SNL‘s history. I don’t want to give it away if you haven’t already seen it, so know that the center of the sketch is a “child molesting robot” and just let it go from there.

“Enhancement Drug”

If Dwayne Johnson was a host made for me, then the writers knew appropriately enough to write sketches seemingly made just for me. “Enhancement Drug” is one of those sketches with an increasingly unhinged world being built and a totally deadpan explanation of that world. You know, think “Welcome to Night Vale.” Put together well and the slow-build through Johnson’s delivery and the cutting is awesome.

Hail Satan.

“WWE Promo Shoot 2”

A sequel to this work of beauty from a couple years back (and part of this show’s heavy featuring of departing Bobby Moynihan and Vanessa Bayer tonight), it’s basically the same sketch as the first time around, just new increasingly embarrassing or unnerving details revealed about his life. While nothing is quite as dark or insane as the first one, the sheer psychological terror Koko unleashes on Mutt is well-tuned for our amusement. Again, it’s the underplaying, the idea that Johnson seemingly has no idea the insanity he’s spewing, that makes it so funny.

“Rap Song”

A short, solid “Parade of Weirdoes” sketch that is almost entirely here for …

DAVID

S.

PIMPKINS

We need nothing else.

“Cartier Ad”

Vanessa Bayer’s specialty has always been digging into very specific archetypes. Not creating characters (though she can do that), but understanding types of people and blowing them up to proper comedic proportions. She digs into the trophy girlfriend of privilege here perfectly, turning her character into the center of the commercial gag here. There’s such a specific character here that it really works.

“Wingman”

Just a great little weird, quick performance piece that I like more than thing is actually good. Kinda rapid-fire with Beck Bennett’s dumb guy charisma really selling the verbal loops of the sketch.

“Scorpio”

This one just makes me giggle in a way I can’t quite explain. I think it’s his totally earnest flattery at being told how good his work is and how much they seem to honestly like it. There’s just something kind of nice about this one, and hey, that costume does actually look pretty dope.

“RKO Movie Set”

Why the fuck not? This is just so earnest and bizarre and goofy that the fact that it’s an extended fart joke fades into the background pretty quickly. I was laughing.

“Dwayne Johnson Five-Timers Monologue”

I won’t get political here, but we must radicalize Dwayne Johnson to Leftist politics for the good of this country.

What Didn’t Work?

“Gemma w/ Dwayne Johnson 2”

I’ll give this Gemma sketch props since it’s the only one since the first that gets that this sketch was written for a guy like Dwayne Johnson, and uses him. The gag still pretty much ran out the first time, so not much positive to report here.

“Senior Video”

Apparently the goodbye sketch for Moynihan and Bayer (though their Weekend Update appearances did that much more effectively), it’s a shame they got such a lame one to send them off. Kind of an abruptly ended fizzle of a sketch that built to no joke and said almost nothing.

Weekend Update!

There’s a degree to which Jost and Che just kind of have to throw their hands in the air this week. No joke is more insane than this week’s actual twelve-ring-fuckery-pile-up, no jab more cutting than things that people actually did. A few good punches (“President-for-now Trump”) were given and it appears that Update has pretty much found its line on attacking Trump, pulling above him for mockery. It works, and the groove that Jost and Che have settled into really does work.

But Update this week really wasn’t about the anchors. It was a wave good-bye to the two long-time performers.

Bayer got to do a character introduced last week, Dawn Lazarus, that reminded us how talented she is on the technical side. That barrelling through barely legible spoken-English is brilliant work and her ability to play anything with a straight face is gonna be sorely missed.

Moynihan brought back Drunk Uncle, his most famous creation. A few good malapropisms, some non-PC ranting, just like old times. It’s a reminder of the sheer commanding force Moynihan was on this show and how much he can get a laugh out of just a look.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

Nah.

MVPs!

I’m giving Moynihan and Bayer an MVP point to wave goodbye to two of the quiet pillars of this cast over the last few years. They’d deserve it even without them saying goodbye, as both nailed their performances across a series of sketches, with Bayer killing it in the Cartier ad and Moynihan turning out great gags in the Wingman and WWE Promo Shoot ads.

Also a point for Zamata, who got shafted by this show for the whole time and then didn’t even get a chance to actually say goodbye.

Beck Bennett – 4
Cecily Strong – 3

Bobby Moynihan – 3
Kate McKinnon – 2
Mikey Day – 2
Vanessa Bayer – 2
Jost and Che – 1
Leslie Jones – 1
Kyle Mooney – 1
Kenan Thompson – 1
Melissa Villaseñor – 1
Sasheer Zamata – 1
Ensemble – 1

Final Thoughts!

At the end of the season, they’re fortunate enough to end on one I really like. Johnson’s talent blended with a lot of Bayer and Moynihan’s to produce a rippingly funny, deadpan, and goofy show. A solid note to end on for a season that’s had a long journey to take us through.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

  1. Dave Chappelle
  2. Tom Hanks
  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

Tomorrow: A Season 42 wrap-up with the Best and Worst!

Saturday Night Live Season 42, Episode 19: Chris Pine Sings!

How’s the Cold Open?

It’s actually pretty standard for the Cold Open to feel a little out of step with the rest of the episode. It’s attacking different subjects, usually political ones, at a totally different clip.

Still, in such an episode that was so bizarre and exuberant and off-kilter as this one, this one still felt a little off comparatively. Now, fortunately, it wasn’t just wheeling out Baldwin in the Trump makeup and calling it done. He was here, but the focus was on Moffat and McKinnon as the recently announced-to-be-engaged hosts of the MSNBC show Morning Joe. Their lovey-dovey physical comedy here is plenty amusing, and at least a welcome change from talking into the camera during the Cold Open.

And when Baldwin’s Trump returns, it’s got more energy than it’s had in multiple sketches, perhaps because all Baldwin has to do is the voice. While Anthony Atamanuik is currently spanking Baldwin’s impression weekly over on The President Show, this one is at least better than normal, giving Baldwin a chance to indulge in the weirder parts of the persona by playing as John Miller, Trump’s fake publicist.

But overall, the sketch just feels out of step with the rest of the episode, a bit of normality on a weird one. Nothing too strange, just physical comedy and some fill-in-the-blank jokes.

Who’s Hosting? 

I certainly know that no one would have expected as much musical comedy out of Chris Pine, a guy who’s talented and handsome and desperately trying to differentiate himself from the other talented and handsome actors named Chris that are filling out the ranks of our Genre franchises.

Though, perhaps his SNL appearance shows that differentiation. Besides his go-for-broke goofiness, there’s a real talent there, an acting through the whole body through every bit of weirdness. Pine is the most actorly of the Chrises, but he’s the one who disappears into goofiness the quickest. Also, I can’t reiterate this enough…he just keeps singing. So much singing. It’s kind of great.

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“SWAT Recon”

The theme of this night is “Holy shit, this is a weird one, and I LOVE it.”

Perhaps the biggest case in point is this one. A sketch that starts with going for broke, a premise that makes no sense but in the best way, and just keeps spiraling upwards and upwards until its end. Entirely too much fun (Cotton Candy Dance Party actually sounds like a good Saturday night) and reasonably well-structured, this was the sort of bizarre exuberance that made the whole night work.

“World Peace Rap”

I’m still not entirely sure what’s happening here, and I love it. I like that Pine seems to jibe so well with Bennett’s weirder sensibilities tonight, and he plays at each turn. This is definitely a bizarre sketch (that Tommy Wiseau wig) that must be based on SOMETHING, and holy hell I’m just glad to have seen it happen.

“The Handmaid’s Tale”

This seems to be a sketch with an obvious direction, so when it takes the turn it does, I’m all the more appreciative. The angle of “men ignorant of women’s problems” is incredibly well-played and the delivery between the actors here is A+, a smarter tear of satire that the standard Trump stuff.

“Star Trek Lost Episode”

Just another big, goofy one that strikes me as one of those sketches that makes it hard to believe anyone managed to come up with it. It’s also a sketch that makes you realize that you’re probably gonna miss Bobby Moynihan when he leaves, there’s a level of sheer fun and interplay with any member of the cast that nobody else does even half as well. No one outside of Kenan can get so much with one bug-eyed look.

Also, fun fact, Leo Yoshimura, SNL’s longtime set designer, is the man playing Sulu, reprising his role from the first Star Trek sketch in 1976.

“Where In The World Is Kellyanne Conway?”

I’m a big fan of “deflater” sketches, where there’s a HUGE wind-up for a deliberately hilarious thud. So this one totally works for me, pulling off a pretty well-done recreation of Where in the World is Carmen San Diego, including a pretty good impression of The Chief (though not as hilarious as the one Carl Tart has been doing over at Comedy Bang! Bang!), and then ending in about 15 seconds. Short sketches really do benefit SNL.

“The House w/ Chris Pine”

I’ve missed these Good Neighbor sketches, these chances for SNL to hew closer to anti-comedy and Tim and Eric-esque sketch making, so I’ll praise any time they come back around. The stilted delivery is always a special kind of brilliant, especially out of sketch actors as good as Bennett and Mooney, and the way this one chugs forward is just such a delight to watch.

“Chris Pine Monologue”

Our first signal for how much singing was gonna happen, and also how much fun Chris Pine would end up be in this episode. I kind of love him leaning into the Chris dilemma (by the way, Chris Evans is the only one who hasn’t hosted yet, get on that), and it’s the one time the musical monologue feels of a piece with the rest of the episode. So, points.

What Didn’t Work?

“Couples Game Night”

Cute idea, weird punchline, but it kind of just takes too long to get there and doesn’t find quite enough laughs along the way to justify the length of the sketch.

“Auto Shop”

Again, cute premise, and that lip sync battle at the end is amazing, but the sketch tips its hand too early. You know where it’s gonna go and the pivot doesn’t function like it needs to at all.

Weekend Update!

   Anchors

Che and Jost were in reasonably fine form this week, going in on a week of fairly supreme Trump stupidity and evil. The AHCA passing was the center of the week’s best jokes, with Jost commenting on Trump’s building of a wall “between Americans and their healthcare” and Che noting the overwhelmingly white House Republicans were celebrating like “they had just invented sickle cell.”

Their groove is so established that it comes down to the specifics of the material, and there’s just too much going on this week to not have a few good gags.

Correspondents

Two this week. One is Leslie Jones doing a solid bit of stand-up. I’m never going to protest when Leslie Jones comes on as herself, and she’s killing it as herself here. The other is Dawn Lazarus, played by Vanessa Bayer, who I’d love to see more of. It’s a variation on Kristen Wiig’s travel agent character, taken to an extreme where her nervousness has gone so far that it’s looped past making her unable to perform and has her speaking gibberish with total confidence. Bayer does amazing things with this character, an absolutely tightly controlled performance.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

Nope, I feel like I should get into LCD Soundsystem at some point though.

MVPs!

Bennett wins it almost solely on the back of the World Peace Rap. In general, he seemed to vibe the most with what has happening this episode, acting through the singing and the musical number, but World Peace Rap is such an insane thing that it’s hard to not give him credit for how well it was done.

Season so far:

Beck Bennett – 4
Kate McKinnon – 2
Bobby Moynihan – 2
Cecily Strong – 2
Mikey Day – 2
Vanessa Bayer – 1
Jost and Che – 1
Leslie Jones – 1
Kyle Mooney – 1
Kenan Thompson – 1
Melissa Villaseñor – 1
Ensemble – 1

Final Thoughts!

Overall, I like when the show goes goofy, and I like when the show goes weird. This was both in spades, and Chris Pine was a surprising delight to watch. A good week.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

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

Next Week: Melissa McCarthy!

Saturday Night Live Season 42, Episode 18: Jimmy Fallon takes up all the air

Saturday Night Live has an ensemble problem. Specifically, it seems to be annoyed it still has one.

I can’t think of the last time it had such a reasonably talented cast, and Beck Bennett and Kate McKinnon are probably two of the finest actors that have been on SNL in sometime.

Yet the show increasingly seems annoyed, especially in this back half, when it has to use them. It’s a bigger fan of its splashy celebrity cameos and the stuff that’ll go viral at the expense of actually managing to use its cast. It feels less like an incubator for talent at this point and more the starfucking comedy it’s been accused of being.

How’s the Cold Open?

Case in point.

Trump is outside of the ensemble, Kushner is outside of the ensemble, and Bannon is a member of the cast under a mask. That leaves ONE visible member of the cast (Bennett as Pence) who disappears pretty early on. It’s the Cold Open, but the “Live from New York…” goes to Fallon and Baldwin. That’s annoying.

It’s also that I am increasingly tiring of Baldwin’s Trump. It’s a plug-and-play performance where they seem to put the latest Trump stuff in his mouth without an idea of a consistent character (he’s sometimes really aware and sometimes not). He’s funny insofar as Trump is a hilarious joke, he’s not funny in anything they’re actually doing or pulling off.

The sketch just never pulls out of that initial nosedive problem. Fallon’s Kushner feels like a cop-out, a political character that is literally never loaded with an actual political statement. Bannon is still a funny concept, but one that has little beyond its initial concept. The sketch is kind of structurally formless, never really committing to any presence.

If I didn’t know better, I’d feel like SNL is lashing back against its “HERO OF #THERESISTANCE” status, but there is nothing so deliberate. They’ve definitely slid down hill since the great political sketches of the first half, and I think that might rest mostly on how tired Baldwin’s Trump is getting.

Who’s Hosting?

So, real talk, Jimmy Fallon was one of the worst SNL performers. He was perfectly fine at the Weekend Update desk playing foil to Fey’s more serious anchor. But as a member of the Ensemble? He barely was one.

Fallon sucks all the gravity of any sketch into himself and his direct partners. The corpsing that he became famous for isn’t irritating because it shows a performer who couldn’t keep it together, it’s the instincts of a performer who can’t not make a sketch about himself. Fallon demands all the attention at the expense of the other performers in any given scene.

Which MIGHT be fine if it wasn’t for the fact that his persona is so gosh-darned irritating. Fallon is a comedian so relentlessly inoffensive as to suck any comedy out of what he’s doing. That’s been his success, he’s so concerned about people not liking him that he can’t take a chance or tell a fucking joke. A host, never a comedian.

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“Take Me Back”

This is the kind of sketch that I wouldn’t terribly mind seeing more of. Short with a pretty decent punchline. I also like that Bennett’s Pepsi Director is now technically a recurring character. A little straining to keep topical, but it totally works.

“Before the Show”

I’m now pretty convinced that one of the new head-writers is an ex-theater kid. These sketches are consistently the most funny and real. Even if it’s the same joke, there’s such a specificity to the way these get pulled off and a real care to the whole thing that it comes out towards something around charming pretty much every time.

“Easter Message from Sean Spicer”

On the other end of the Baldwin Trump is the McCarthy Spicer. It’s the same character every time, yes. But McCarthy throws herself into the performance so hard that it almost doesn’t matter what’s actually happening, McCarthy is just having so much fun and it’s absolutely worth watching each time she shows up.

“New Shirt”

Just a goofy enough idea to kinda work and “Turn Down For What” may be the greatest comedy juxtaposition song ever made.

What Didn’t Work?

“Jimmy Fallon Monologue”

THERE’S NO FUCKING JOKES HERE HOLY SHIT.

Like, I get it. Fallon’s whole thing is that life is a party and please don’t get mad at me for doing anything. That’s fine, whatever. But there’s not even ostensibly an attempt at finding something funny or some pathos or whatever the fuck needs to be done. It’s Fallon dicking around for 5 minutes so he hopes we all find him charming. UGH.

“Celebrity Family Feud: Time Travel Edition”

I kinda put Celebrity Family Feud in here automatically because it’s perhaps the palest imitation of other sketches that at least ostensibly try to have some point outside of it. Celebrity Jeopardy had the brutal sort of mockery of celebrities with the exasperation of Trebek playing off of it.

Family Feud is trying to do that with none of the wit or the meanness. This one even less so, as it seems entirely based on some Jimmy Fallon trickery that ONLY seems interesting watching it live. Another sketch where, out of 9 performers, 1/3 are non-cast members. Annoying and not enough to make up for that.

“Civil War Soldiers”

Harry Styles’ part totally could have been played by a cast member.

Yeah, feels a lot like a Tonight Show sketch, something inoffensive and goofy and just bland bland bland. I’m all for having fun, but when it becomes the overriding mode to go bland at the expense of finding an actual interesting laugh, it gets annoying across a whole episode.

This is a total Fallon sketch, and I just don’t vibe with that.

“Sully and Denise”

Recurring character that’s definitely been run into the ground starring two people who aren’t on the show anymore? Check.

Considering they bring this one out every time Fallon hosts, it doesn’t really feel like a welcome return. It feels just like another part of this episode’s willingness to sacrifice its ensemble. I love Rachel Dratch though, so it is nice to see her around. She should host, she was always great at ensemble work.

“Basketball Scene”

I recognize that this one might be funny, but I just never found anything here. Big and loud and just kinda goes nowhere.

Weekend Update!

Jost and Che went dark this week, wow. Like, I guess we’re all feeling it lately, but the uneasy laughter at the North Korea jokes hits home. I think that works weirdly better for these guys, their groove and affability lets them end up having those darker jokes sail home a little better. Jost and Che are selling it hard, and they really should let themselves go bigger and darker. That might work better for them, give them a little more personality overall.

The two correspondents are both recurring, but reasonably welcome recurring characters. Jacob The Bar Mitzvah Boy is a reliable character, and I really like how Che interacts with Bayer here, even compared to Seth Meyers.

But I’m really excited to see Bruce Chandling. Mooney is a seriously talented performer and Chandling is what he’s particularly good at. Dark and understated and truly bizarre, Chandling is just such a deeply funny character for me in particular. Give him his own show I say, have him recur time and time again!

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

I’ll wait until Harry Styles’ second solo album to pretend to give a shit.

MVPs!

Ugh, this was a hard one. Just because no one got a real chance. So you know what? Kyle Mooney. I love Bruce Chandling.

Season so far:

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

Final Thoughts!

Look, I will totally admit to my bias, but Fallon is absolutely the shit I don’t like in SNL. One of my least favorite performers who usually has had someone else to cut his presence. Here, he’s undiluted and irritating and the show feels subservient to his need to be the #1 performer at any given time.

This is perhaps the most indicative of an SNL where the need for attention and virality has overwhelmed what’s more interesting or important about the show. Let’s hope that passes come May.

Season Rankings (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

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

Saturday Night Live Season 42, Episode 16: Scarlett Johansson soars through a night of big hits and numerous misses

As much as these articles tend to be fairly positive celebrations of the show, I want to start by pointing you towards a far more adept writer and his musing on the recent exhaustion setting with Jesse David Fox’s article “SNL Has Never Been More Popular and Less Fun.” I bring that up because…

How’s the Cold Open?

I couldn’t help but think about that article while I was watching this sketch. Once incisive and cutting, it feels like SNL and Baldwin have grown exhausted doing this impression (a notion that Baldwin himself confirmed on EXTRA) and that the pressure and schedule is really starting to show through in Baldwin’s work and in the writing of the sketches around him.

A few solid jokes (“Does Trump have businesses on Zorblatt 9?”) and a decent sketch idea (I can’t lie that I think about this concept all the time) doesn’t get around how deflated this whole thing feels. Baldwin goes through the motions he’s expected to, the jokes go through the same stuff they’ve played to a hundred times without anything necessarily new or interesting, and it feels like this is another case of a sketch they kind of pulled together last minute.

And here’s the thing. It’s okay for SNL to not be the most politically incisive thing on TV. It never really has been, always more interested in the soft and easy target because it’s funny. Incisive and cutting satire is difficult and hard, and maybe SNL was never designed to be the vanguard of #TheResistance. Yes, SNL uniquely gets to Trump but of course it does. It’s a popular media and New York institution, a representative of all the things that the uncouth and unpopular-until-he-espoused-white-nationalism Donald Trump was always kept out of. He has the power to be pissed off at it now and have people pissed off with him, why wouldn’t he go after it?

All this is to say that yeah, this is a pretty lame sketch, and maybe realizing that they’re getting to this point could be the best sign for SNL to back off and get back to incubating its talent, get back to having fun. The first half of this season was its best in a long time because there was an energy, an urgency. This half, the pressure creates smashed coal, not diamonds.

Who’s Hosting?

Scarlett Johansson officially joins the Five-Timers Club tonight, so let’s all welcome her to that illustrious club. She is the fourth female member of the Five-Timers Club and absolutely a welcome addition.

Johansson is interesting as an SNL host because she’s perhaps one of the least vain of any host. She’s willing to every time blend in with the cast, playing as part of the ensemble without ever demanding attention to herself. She’s funny and she absolutely can carry a sketch, but she’s just as good in the background. Plus, her and Kate McKinnon are about as funny as it gets together.

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“A Sketch for the Women”

The most underutilized weapon of SNL is Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney together. They’re an energy the show has never really had, outside of maybe some of the weirdest moments of The Lonely Island, in being that absolutely weird and overly sincere and almost off-putting sort of awkward, more anti-comedy than traditional sketch work. This is a particularly brilliant application, using that total awkward sincerity to lead into a smart joke about allyship, and speaking for women by speaking over them. Kudos to the ladies of SNL for selling this all through wordless reaction and for that brilliant step of having them speak in unison. This is just extremely well put-together and further evidence for more weird Good Neighbor anti-humor.

“Zoo Pornographer”

Okay, so yeah, this sketch is one joke, I can’t lie about that. But that one joke made me laugh basically the whole time and the button on this one works so well (www.dannybangsanimals.com) that I gotta hand this one a crown for being a halfway decent rake joke that came around to being funny instead of repetitive.

“Translator”

There’s an analysis of this sketch that speaks to the liberal tendency to look at the (still horrible) beliefs of fervent Trump voters and give no attempt to understand and to also let it override any other qualities about a person. Then we have an attempt to bridge communication gaps and they’re shut down. I don’t know if that’s what’s going on, but that’s what’s here.

However, I just think it’s funny when dogs say people things and I’m impressed at Bennett’s improv to keep the sketch moving. So, this one works for me.

“Complicit”

This sketch works almost entirely on the fact that Complicit really does sound like a perfume name. Also that it makes a pretty good point. Ivanka’s rise was almost entirely facilitated by her father and her willingness to ignore the uglier parts of her father’s persona and plant stories that her and Kushner are steering him away from them. Short and blunt, where SNL‘s political commentary really actually works.

“Olive Garden”

Okay, this sketch probably goes on 3 minutes too long and is possibly a product placement sketch, but the line

“I wouldn’t laugh at a little person.”

“But an Olive Garden customer would.”

is pretty much all I need to say this sketch works.

What Didn’t Work?

“Fire Island”

Fun performances from all involved, but maybe too nonspecific a parody without any real direction to make any of its jokes land. It just feels like it comes out around fine, a mood piece that doesn’t find the mood.

“Shud the Mermaid”

This is more of a Kristen Wiig sketch than a McKinnon (in fact, it kinda seems like her version of Dooneese), so maybe that’s why the return of Shud doesn’t quite work for me. It’s a lot of makeup and attempts at details that never really go anywhere. Shud maybe shouldn’t be a recurring character dream to pin things on.

“Shanice Goodwin Ninja-Rivals”

Another returning sketch that doesn’t quite find its place. I get the parody, but it feels too weird and sluggish for what it needs to work. Perhaps it’s a victim of the fact that Jones seriously injured herself the last time she did this sketch? Whatever it is, it ends up a lot of meandering and weirdly blown line readings in search of something more.

“Funeral Service”

The “Funeral crashing” sketch is a weirdly common one for SNL and this will not join the pantheon of all-time greats (which, if you’re curious, includes Ben Affleck’s wherein he played a horrible human being who faked his own death and tried to give his own eulogy). This one just seems like they never actually found what the joke was. The old guy made sexually explicit EDM and his friends came along and they? I don’t think they ever necessarily got shocking or weird enough to work.

“Scarlett Johansson 5th Monologue”

I feel bad for the Five-Timers who don’t get a lot of fanfare. How are you to compare to Timberlake or Hanks taking us behind the scenes to the FiveTimers Club?

Weekend Update!

Jost and Che bring another mid-level performance tonight, a smooth and confident delivery with a few barbs that work and a few that are funny but don’t stick. Jost’s jab at defunding Planned Parenthood (“You won’t be able to keep your insurance, but you’ll be able to keep something else”) is solid, and Che actually makes a good point about Trump refusing to associate his name with the Republicare Health Plan (Che jokes that he once put his name on a Ponzi scheme, showing the Trump University logo on the chyron). But yeah, nothing necessarily special this week.

Two correspondents this week. The first was a joint appearance by Moffatt as Al Franken and McKinnon as Jeff Sessions. I still don’t really like McKinnon’s Sessions, it feels like the wrong target, it turns his evil into this weird hick thing. He’s racist because he’s evil, not because he’s a bumpkin, It’s scary to look at no doubt, but it just feels wrong (as an Alabamian). The Franken is fine (though isn’t about time for Franken to appear?) and it’s a half-decent two man duo. But if Sessions is wrong, it’s all wrong.

Davidson’s return is much appreciated, and I like First Impressions as a political Hollywood Minute. This makes me realize how much Davidson reminds me of a far more likable David Spade. Yeah, good to have him back.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

I did!

I’m a big fan of “Green Light” (also, Lorde in general, if I’m not gonna lie to you all) and seeing Lorde do it live here gives the song a very different energy. It seems like Lorde is a darker performer live, hits a very different emotional place than the studio versions. The other song is great too, let’s bring on the new album shall we? And she’s suitably dramatic, a great watch for a live show.  Welcome back Lorde.

MVPs!

So, Mikey Day is absolutely getting set up as the next anchor cast member right? He has a lot of lead parts tonight, he’s fairly versatile, and he can write. Day proves that he’s earned that responsibility tonight, playing a number of great parts and particularly underplaying to sell the Animal Pornographer sketch.

Season so far:

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

Final Thoughts!

Overall, the hits were big and the misses were numerous, but small enough to not bring the whole thing down. I liked the vibe of the episode and I like Johansson being back. SNL is dying to take the burden of #TheResistance off of itself, and it’s starting to show more than ever, but still reasonably amusing.

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. Scarlett Johansson
  8. Alec Baldwin
  9. Kristen Wiig
  10. Margot Robbie
  11. Casey Affleck
  12. Benedict Cumberbatch
  13. John Cena
  14. Felicity Jones
  15. Octavia Spencer
  16. Emily Blunt

Next Time: Join us again on April 8th for Louis C.K.!

Legion Season 1, Episode 1: I Can’t Believe This Show Actually Exists

Let’s begin with a brief history of the way that the X-Men and the various surrounding mutants have been treated in live-action over the years.

Like shit. History complete.

But seriously folks, if there was ever a franchise more consistently underperforming to its potential, it would be the X-Men. A rich group of characters with potent dramatic scenarios ripe with tension and subtext and cultural potential that constantly get shoved into action movies and action movies. Great individual portions (Jackman, McAvoy, Fassbender) have never amounted to a necessarily cohesive whole, and it’s a universe that has ultimately had more failures than successes.

Which makes Legion (based on the character created by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz) all the more impressive for simply how much of a success it is coming out of a franchise that has so often settled for good at the best. This isn’t just “good for a superhero show.” This is great television, announced by a pilot that packs one of the most potent opening punches I’ve ever seen.

So…What The Hell Just Happened?

Legion is the story of David Haller (Dan Stevens), a young man currently living out his years in a mental ward after a schizophrenia diagnosis and a psychological break that has left him disconnected from reality. He shuffles through with his friend Lenny (Aubrey Plaza), going to his appointments, taking his pills, occasionally seeing his sister Amy (Katie Aselton).

One day, he meets another patient named Sydney “Syd” Barrett (Rachel Keller). She doesn’t like to be touched. He falls in love with her. On the day Syd is released, the two kiss, which causes David and Syd to switch bodies. Syd loses control and unleashes a torrent of power from David’s body, which draws the attention of the Government.

This is then intercut with scenes of interrogation by a mysterious figure (Hamish Linklater) who appears to be working with a shadowy governmental organization to keep David under their control, as they believe he may be one of the most powerful mutants who’s ever lived. This is also intercut with flashbacks to David’s childhood and his breakdown, flights of fancy (including a Bhangra musical number), and the recurring appearance of the unsettling “Devil with the Yellow Eyes.”

There’s a lot going on here, this is as linearly as I can tell the basics of this story.

What Works?

Where do we start?

This is probably one of the most aesthetically and formally ambitious television shows…ever. Showrunner and director of the pilot Noah Hawley has thrown down the gauntlet with the first episode of Legion. This is a kaleidoscopic, psychedelic, hallucinatory dose of pure television insanity. 60s clothing and architecture clashes up against modern technology and villainy. The aspect ratio shifts constantly, there are time loops and unknown visions, and as I said, David and his mental ward companions break into a dance number.

I hate to be so cliche, but I really don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like this on TV. Legion doesn’t care whether or not you can follow it, it’s so confident in the twistiness of its vision, borrowing heavily from Kubrick and the psychedelic and avant-garde filmmakers of the 60s. There’s something to admire in the basic level of a show that’s asking you to follow along with it and not necessarily minding if it leaves you behind. There’s such amazing confidence here that creates something so…fun out of something so fundamentally challenging.

See, this is where Legion crosses into great television. It’s mired in mythology and heavy ideas and psychedelic terror, but it glides through all that with such a sense of excitement, a giddiness that it brings you along with on every step. You’re having a lot of fun with what’s happening here, seeing the next twist the story will take, seeing the next little dark joke, marveling in the next visual firework.

Hawley seems to have abandoned necessarily sticking to the canon (the same success that led to the amazing Fargo) for finding the human and the extraordinary inside the property. It’s X-Men, but it feels like the product of a unique storyteller.

A storyteller who knows how to tell a story that welds its form to its function. You, the viewer, are absolutely as disoriented and as disconnected from reality as David is. You have no anchor on what the reality is, Hawley makes sure to keep you as off guard, as questioning as David. As the plot snaps into focus, we start to find our legs in the show, we lock into a story and into a reality.

It helps that there’s an extraordinary amount of talent here. Hawley’s direction I’ve said enough about, but his script crackles too, as much as it’s willing to let words get out of the way for images. It’s also willing to keep everything from getting buckled under the weight of “THIS ALL MATTERS” portentiousness and just have some fun.

Legion is also gifted with Dan Stevens at its lead. Stevens is a remarkable actor, absolutely in control of every aspect of his physicality and gifted with a truly staggering amount of charisma. The only thing Legion really takes from him are his good looks, turning him strung-out, but even through that he shines. His David is perfectly calibrated, constantly searching and processing and sorting through the haze of his unreality. There’s a casualness to his performance that really stands out, an acknowledgement of how normal this pain has become for him.

His supporting cast is still largely untested, but Rachel Keller and Aubrey Plaza definitely intrigue right away, and I’m dying to see what else they’re going to be able to do with them down the course of this show.

What Doesn’t?

If there’s anything I didn’t love here, it’s the future potential this pilot sets up. The plotline is clear here but the concern is how they’re going to keep this up while keeping some semblance of forward motion. Or more accurately, how do they balance the two of them? Legion could be a show of constant and incredible dazzling that becomes frustrating because it never really goes anywhere. It could also abandon all that makes it so unique in the pilot for a more conventional narrative. The pilot doesn’t do much to reassure how it’s going to pull off being a weekly show.

Soundtrack Cut of the Week.

There’s some great tracks, including “She’s A Rainbow” in slightly on-the-nose musical cue and “Happy Jack,” the track that kicks things off. But this week’s winner is “Pauvre Lola” by Serge Gainsbourg. It plays over the Bhangra number and is so delightful and unexpected and exactly what this show needs.

Fan Theory of the Week.

So, what is the Devil with the Yellow Eyes? Let’s go ahead and give out what I’m sure is the most common theory right now. Meet Mojo.

Mojo_(Mojoverse)_0001.jpg
Just saying what we’re all thinking.

Mojo is an X-Men villain who functions something like an intergalactic reality TV show producer. Besides the physical resemblance, there’s recurring motif of being monitored, of being watched, and David seeing the parts of his life playing out on TV, in addition to Hawley’s playing with aspect ratio and the cinematic form of the show. The possibility of Hawley using this whole thing to play with the idea of prestige television is too juicy to pass up, and Mojo could turn a show already playing with reality into an even more meta exercise. Food for thought.

Grade: A-

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.