There’s a clear and obvious trend with SNL this season: really good hosts making do with weak material. Chadwick Boseman brought the charisma and chameleonic gifts he’s displayed in the movies as Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Black Panther, but other than one standout sketch and a great pretape this was about as forgettable an episode as any this season.
Forgettable sounds bad (and, uh, it is), but it can actually be a kind of very faint praise. Not much made an impression this week, but that cuts both ways—most sketches weren’t that great, but there weren’t a lot of outright stinkers. Let’s hit the bad first, though. Alec Baldwin’s black hole of a Trump impression returned in the cold open, doing the Homer Simpson gag of constantly reminding himself to not say something before immediately saying it. Weekend Update was another round of smug, toothless comedy, with a couple of solid appearances from Alex Moffat, who played a robotic Mark Zuckerberg delivering an empty apology about misuse of Facebook users’ data, and Heidi Gardner, who reprised her Every Boxer’s Girlfriend From Every Movie About Boxing Ever character to diminished returns. A sketch about the first man to get pregnant was so hackneyed that its script could’ve been found at the bottom of a 30 Rock file cabinet that hadn’t been touched in 35 years. These were the only moments that made me yearn for the fast forward button.
The rest of the show was better, but still nothing to crow about. Aidy Bryant delivered another surprisingly accomplished rap in a pretape about feeling inspired by this week’s musical guest, Cardi B; Bryant is good at quickly alternating between apologetic timidity and an unearned confidence rooted in anxiety that manifests itself as assholery towards her castmates, but the video quickly runs out of steam as it repeats the same beat in every vignette. A sketch about a Magic Mirror attraction at Disneyland that shows guests their “inner Disney Princess” lets Boseman do an on-point impression of R. Kelly—he’s all creepy, leering, sinister sexuality—but the central concept just feels absurd for absurd’s sake, without really saying anything about R. Kelly’s disgusting misdeeds or Disney’s outsized impact on the culture. Boseman, Kenan Thompson, Cecily Strong and Kate McKinnon play spectacularly coiffed, alarmingly cheesy singers who deliver their complaint to a restaurant manager in a very long song in a sketch that’s amiably goofy but also just kind of aimless. And even Boseman seems to lose interest in a sketch about a fireman who needs to get off exactly at 6 PM so he can go prepare for a business meeting that’s revealed to be utterly ridiculous. There’s some beautifully written lines in that fireman sketch—like how Boseman keeps talking about how he squirted the fire and is now ready to take off his fireman suit—but it dissolves into its own silliness and comes off like the show’s just trying to kill time before 1 AM more than anything else.
There were two legitimately good pieces worth seeking out, though (and you’ll probably be able to stream them here at Paste soon enough). The first was a return of Black Jeopardy, a sketch that tends to surprise by finding new angles with each installment. Instead of a well-meaning white man afraid of seeming racist, or an openly racist Trump supporter who’s revealed to have a lot in common with his black opponents, this time the third contestant isn’t white and isn’t even an African-American. It’s a character straight from Africa itself. And since the star of Black Panther is the host, it’s pretty obvious who that character is. Boseman plays T’Challa (aka Black Panther) as the wise and respectful leader that is he in the Marvel movies, answering questions like “why is the cable bill in grandma’s name” in the wholesome and positive way you’d expect from the resident of a utopia like Wakanda. Of course that makes his answers the exact opposite of what the show expects them to be; he guesses that the cable bill is in grandma’s name to honor and respect her memory and importance to the family, when the correct answer is because she’s going to die soon and won’t need that good credit anymore. If the sketch just ran through variations of that one joke it would be a smart setup with bad execution; instead T’Challa pivots and understands what the game expects, leading to a great final answer about telling a white friend not to bring her potato salad to a cookout because she doesn’t use any spice on it and also includes stuff that doesn’t belong, like raisins. Black Jeopardy hasn’t worn out its welcome as a recurring sketch because of details like that—despite the identical format and unchanging characters played by Thompson, Leslie Jones and Chris Redd (and Jay Pharoah and Sasheer Zamata before them), the third contestant always has a fundamentally different relationship with black people and black culture, and that lets the sketch keep not just its jokes fresh but its commentary on racism, as well.
The other highlight was a fake Nike ad for leggings that seems to have resonated deeply with every woman I know. Starting off like a standard Nike ad for sportswear, with aggressive shots of Gardner jogging and Melissa Villaseñor boxing in workout pants, it veers into showing how women tend to actually use their leggings: as comfortable pants to wear while sitting on the couch all weekend watching reality TV. With Bryant and McKinnon as the couch potatoes, this sketch is full of funny observations about our modern day sedentary lifestyles, from how you have to wear something when the delivery guy brings that single bagel to your door, to how it just feels wrong to sit your naked butt down on your couch. It’s the kind of low stakes but fully realized and keenly detailed comedy that SNL occasionally nails, and that the show consistently does better than political comedy. It’s so relatable that the odds are pretty high that you’ve already seen it on your social media feeds several times today.
Cardi B performed a couple of songs from her brand new album Invasion of Privacy, full of the confidence and sense of self-empowerment that Bryant was riffing on in her film. Fans of her music will probably love these two performances, assuming they aren’t still celebrating Cardi B’s pregnancy, which she revealed on air during the second song.
So yeah, the trend continued: Boseman was a good host, fully committed to every idea the writers gave him, no matter how lackluster they were. This is what happens when you have a season where almost every episode is hosted by either a comedian or a genuinely accomplished actor. You get performances that are great no matter how good the writing is. Maybe that’ll improve a little bit over the last few episodes of the season.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.