It’s been more than a decade since Matthew McConaughey hosted Saturday Night Live—the last time on his promotional tour for How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, which even the most devoted McConaugfans mark as the beginning of a long drought of half-acted roles in weightless rom-coms. He returns to SNL as the Oscar-winning best actor of his generation—his easy, Texas charm fully intact, ready to work his tail off for a laugh…eager to play along with the 8H gang: “Welcome to the zoo, we are the monkeys.”
McConaughey’s opening monologue is not really a monologue at all, more a breezily offered barstool tale with drinking buddies at last call. It’s more charming than funny, which works. Because it’s true, or seems true, and it serves to remind us why we like this drawling, handsome actor. But it also gives us a clue to what writing for McConaughey might have been like this week: an older, cooler cousin has shown up for the family reunion, and we cannot help but gravitate toward him and want to impress him, to please him.
And so, SNL has written a show that is good for McConaughey, while not entirely good for itself. This is a woefully average episode. Nowhere near good, and miles away from a homerun. In McConaughey parlance: The Lincoln Lawyer, not True Detective.
A growing concern: the episode, more than any of the current season, trips over political satire potholes that are problematic—specifically, its blossoming infatuation with candidate Clinton, who grows increasingly above satirical reproach since her cameo a few months ago. An entire sketch, the solemnly down-punching “Should You Chime In On This?,” preaches that know-nothing morons need to shut up and let Hillary talk. It’s a strange posture for the show, but not entirely unexpected given SNL’s recent infomercial for Republican front-runner Donald Trump and ongoing riffs on too-grouchy Bernie Sanders.
Saturday Night Live has become unapologetically pro-establishment this political season, and it is disheartening to say the least. “Fox & Friends: Syrian Refugee Crisis Cold Open” offers Kate McKinnon’s DNC chairman Debbie Wasserman Shultz as a mouthpiece to rip Republicans and not as a character parody, though Jay Pharoah’s Ben Carson returns with his (hilarious) send-up of the seething surgeon. Again, tip-toeing around the powerful, while lampooning their rivals.
And then there is “Town Hall Meeting” which takes punching down to a new level, wallowing in four minutes of populist corrective. Debunking “But, we’re smarter than you idiots!” was the entire premise of the Marx Brothers oeuvre. How did this happen? SNL has become Margaret Dumont, while fans crave Groucho.
Pre-taped “A Thanksgiving Miracle” is the episode’s finest moment, offering a fresh take on the “bickering family at Thanksgiving” trope. This is ambitious, super-smart sketch comedy that Saturday Night Live seems to be more comfortable producing out-of-studio. True, the Adele music video jokes are custom-made for film, but one wonders if the same script would have been just as effective performed live on stage.
“Star Wars Auditions” is back, and one can only assume (hope?) more are coming. This incarnation features all-in-fun cameos from J.J. Abrams, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Jon Hamm, Michael Bublé and Emma Stone, but it is Bobby Moynihan’s George Lucas that steals the show with his Force-ful “You will get me a Coke Zero” bit, which has to be the night’s funniest moment.
A most pleasant surprise of SNL Season 41 has been the re-emergence of cast member Vanessa Bayer, who seemed perfunctory at best last season. Bayer has come into her own this season, appearing in (by my count) as many if not more sketches than any other cast member. She shows up in the best sketch of the night “A Thanksgiving Miracle,” but also gives the evening’s finest performance as kid actor Laura Parsons reading the news on Weekend Update. This character has appeared before, but not on Update. It’s a great fit, and one hopes she will return.
Sketches like “Blues Shack” and “3D Printer Man” are typical SNL fare: rushed, unfinished one-joke premises that play out about like you’d expect. Perhaps “Blues Shack” offers a tidier conclusion, but neither sketch is very memorable. “Should You Chime In on This?,” a pious commentary on annoying social media posts, is similarly bland and uninspired. All three sketches give Mr. McConaughey something fun to do, but run short on laughs.
Weekend Update’s best joke comes from Michael Che: “You may know Radio Shack from their slogan: Hey, didn’t that use to be a Radio Shack?” Which falls on the heels of Update’s worst joke, also from Che: “Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal announced that he is ending his campaign for President after getting really tired of telling the other candidates that he was not the IT guy.” Note to Michael Che: if you make a racist Indian joke, it isn’t any less racist (or more funny) to put it in the mouths of GOP candidates for President. It’s still you, telling a racist joke.
Musical guest Adele is as good as one might expect, performing “Hello” and “When We Were Young,” both mournful ballads of romantic regret. Adele outshines all of the considerable comedic talent in the room when she sings, and placed in the middle of a mostly disappointing SNL episode, her lyrics cut in unexpected ways…oddly apropos when offered to Saturday Night Live, from its woebegone fans:
“It’s hard to win me back. Everything just takes me back to when you were there….A part of me keeps holding on just in case it hasn’t gone. I guess I still care. Do you still care?”
SNL returns December 5 with guest host Ryan Gosling and musical guest Leon Bridges.
Chris White writes and directs independent feature films. His latest, an award-winning showbiz comedy about looking for Bill Murray, is called Cinema Purgatorio. Follow Chris on Twitter.