Has Saturday Night Live actually been listening to its critics? Last night’s episode was the best of the season so far, and should serve as a model of what the show aspires to. Not every sketch was great, or anything, but the annoying traits that so often sink the show mostly never showed up. It didn’t feel like another tired retread, which is legitimately kind of shocking coming from SNL of late.
First off, the political cold open scrapped the tiresome Trump Administration impressions. Alec Baldwin’s weekend arrest might’ve forced the show’s hand (in which case, thanks, NYPD), but instead of rolling out celebrity cameos to aimlessly repeat the show’s toothless, cartoonish caricatures of Trump officials, the opening actually had a strongly defined voice and point of view. SNL making fun of Fox News isn’t anything new, but their Fox & Friends sketches tended to focus less on the network’s hypocrisy and bad faith and more on the bumbling oafishness of Fox hosts. Last night’s cold open squarely targeted Fox’s systemic disingenuousness, ripping into the network for its shameless and misleading coverage of the refugee caravan headed towards the U.S.. Various cast members got to appear as Fox personalities, but the jokes weren’t about those people or the show’s versions of them; they were about the absurd lies being told about the caravan by the right-wing media. The political cold open isn’t going anywhere any time soon, but hopefully they can be more like this and less like the typical Baldwin-as-Trump charade SNL usually leads off with.
This episode also largely avoided recurring characters. Yeah, they overdid the Five Timers’ Club again in Jonah Hill’s monologue (the #MeToo angle at least gave it a unique spin this time), but the only other returning bits hadn’t been seen in so long that they almost felt fresh again. Hill predictably dragged his six-year-old Borscht Belt comedian Adam Grossman back out again, but that sketch has only ran four times in over a decade, so it hasn’t worn out its welcome. Kenan Thompson’s David Ortiz impression returned to Weekend Update to discuss the Red Sox’s recent World Series win, but again, it’s been a while since we’ve seen that one, it’s timely because of the Sox’s victory, and it’s still actually funny. The rest of the show saw nothing but new concepts and original sketches, and although they didn’t all work, we’ll always take something new over a played-out character’s eighth sketch.
Not only were the rest of the sketches new, they also avoided SNL’s overplayed go-to framing devices. There were no game shows or talk shows. There was one local news cast, but it was a platform for an absurd character piece between Hill and Cecily Strong, and not another sketch making fun of local TV personalities or small town provincialism. That sketch was largely unpredictable, which is usually the last thing you can say about SNL sketches.
Finally, those original sketches tended to have the kind of tone you’d expect from the last sketch of the night. They were ridiculous in a good way. That local news cast sketch kept piling weird details on top of each other until it ended in a climax that recalled last season’s best sketch. An uncharacteristically understated Kate McKinnon helped turn an absurd trifle about a driver’s ed. teacher falling down in the classroom into a minor triumph. Again, the unexpected details turn what seems like a pretty limited idea into a consistently funny sketch that isn’t as repetitive as it easily could’ve been.
Jonah Hill showed why he’s earned his Five Timers’ Jacket, seamlessly fitting into the cast in the way that the best hosts tend to do. In another timeline he could’ve been a cast member himself, and probably a great one. His quiet confidence was a crucial part of the show’s success, whether he was hawking wigs for pugs in a New Jersey accent, or rapping terribly as the director of an embarrassing off-Broadway political musical.
The only genuinely bad part of the episode was Weekend Update, which remains a sinkhole at the middle of the show. If it wasn’t for guest commentaries by Pete Davidson, Thompson as David Ortiz, and Melissa Villaseñor doing a very Heidi Garner-esque turn as Every Teen Girl Murder Suspect on Law & Order, this would’ve been one of the worst Weekend Updates yet. Michael Che’s ambivalence and Colin Jost’s blankness make it almost impossible for them to effectively pull off political comedy, turning most of Weekend Update into a big, empty waste of time every episode.
Otherwise this was a strong episode all around. Even the musical guest, Maggie Rogers, was a pleasant surprise, despite some flat singing and awkward dance moves. If SNL can string together more episodes like this one, this season could be in line for a nice turnaround.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.