Coming off the largest grossing movie of all time (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), newly-minted movie star Adam Driver is strong as first-time guest host of the first Saturday Night Live of 2016.
Though many of us first knew him as Hannah’s vainglorious boyfriend Adam Sackler in Girls, Driver’s deadpan self-absorption is now familiar to most given a string of movie-stealing film performances, including in While We’re Young, This Is Where I Leave You, Inside Llewyn Davis and Frances Ha. And it is his signature, underplayed but intense focus-just-over-your-shoulder that works so well in his SNL debut.
(For what it’s worth, good actors tend to perform quite well hosting Saturday Night Live. But it is the good actor with live theatre experience and a generous sense of humor about him or herself that truly excel on the 8H stage. Driver has both.)
The 2016 Presidential election year is now officially upon us, and though “Republican Debate Cold Open” is not one of SNL’s best politi-comic efforts, it is serviceable. It also looks like we’re locked in for the spring with Darrell Hammond as Donald Trump, Taran Killam as Ted Cruz, and Pete Davidson handling Marco Rubio duties. Pitted against Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton and Larry David’s Bernie Sanders, there is hope for at least a couple of homerun efforts before the summer hiatus. BEST LINE: Killam as Cruz on New York values: “Believe me, if I could say ‘liberal Jews,’ I would.”
“America’s Funniest Cats” and pre-tape “Golden Globes” are solid efforts that mostly succeed. In “Cats,” we have a good-natured pet video commentator (Driver) meeting his dour French counterparts (Cecily Strong and Kate McKinnon in a new character pairing as mademoiselles Joelle LaRue and Noelle LeSoup)...which, on its face, may seem fairly conventional, but in execution is cleverly subversive. “Golden Globes,” a riff on Hollywood award winners telling their kids at home to “go to bed now!” from the stage, is wonderfully dark and twisted. Plus, a Liev Schreiber cameo!
Conversely, “NFL Playoff Game” and “Aladdin” feel out of place…almost like SNL throwback sketches. “Aladdin” in particular plays like a leftover from the late ‘80’s: a moderately amusing three-part, same-joke sketch with an awkwardly tacked on ending. Neither piece gives its cast much to do character-wise, and both rest too easily on their one-joke premises. Television comedy has evolved past writing like this. Surely Saturday Night Live is aware…so it’s strange that either sketch made it past the table read.
“Undercover Boss: Starkiller Base” is the episode’s high point—yet another pre-taped wonder from the high-achieving SNL film production unit. In it, Driver as Star Wars villain Kylo Ren goes undercover as a radar technician named “Matt” to learn how to better empathize with his First Order employees. Predictably disastrous results ensue. Driver clearly enjoys returning to Ren’s black cloak and wind-swept wig for the gag, and the parody is spot-on. Never misses a beat.
Weekend Update returns with a few pretty good jokes and the sense that (finally) Colin Jost and Michael Che have settled in to their co-hosting duties. While still not the eagerly anticipated, mid-show diversion Seth Meyers’ Update once was, this Weekend Update does occasionally earn its keep…though hilarious characters like Vanessa Bayer’s pre-teen drama queen turned news reader Laura Parsons inevitably win the segment.
Chris Stapleton and his band (featuring wife Morgane on backing vocals) step into their SNL debut with two very strong musical performances (“Parachute” and “Nobody To Blame”) that prove why so many see him not just as a much needed answer to the uniform banalities of “bro-country,” but also as one of the finest rock vocalists working today. In particular, on “Parachute” there is something instantly familiar about Stapleton’s throaty howl that modern country and rock have forgotten.
“Fred Armisen Remembers David Bowie” is a lovely, late-show tribute to the rock/pop innovator who was lost earlier this week. One wonders if more of the generation of artists who’ve been the face of Saturday Night Live’s four decade musical history will be similarly eulogized as they pass on. Indeed, to rewind and re-watch the history of SNL musical guests is a grad-level course in pop music. At its best, no other broadcast platform has better captured these artists at their creative peak, or risked booking breaking artists just before they officially arrived. It is one of the show’s undeniable legacies.
NEXT WEEK: Ronda Rousey with Selena Gomez.
Chris White writes and directs independent feature films. His latest, an award-winning showbiz comedy about looking for Bill Murray, is called
. Follow Chris on Twitter.