It’s a shame that it has taken Saturday Night Live a year’s worth of episodes to find its groove, writing-wise. But here at the end of it’s 41st season, the show has found its voice—making the most of its talented cast and live broadcast aesthetic.
Host/musical guest Drake turns in a serviceable but mostly forgettable performance. He is the very definition of “ready-for-primetime”—easy-going, winning, completely inoffensive. Drake is the rapper your parents tell you about: “His Pandora station is fantastic!” He’s the affable actor who will be playing the loveable dad on a hugely popular sitcom in fifteen years. It actually becomes a running gag: Drake—Canadian—white-bred—happy-go-lucky—what’s not to like?
But that’s not a complaint. Showbiz needs a Drake. He fills a space few have the courage to want or raw talent to fill. He’d actually be a better early-season SNL host…when things are bumpier, less predictable. That’s when it needs a settling influence. But now, as the show actually has a little swagger, a little power, Drake becomes a drag. Saturday Night Live is shooting for great.
This collection of sketches: “Rental Car,” “American Ninja Warrior,” “Office Boss With Drake,” “Black Jeopardy with Drake,” “Drake’s Beef,” “Dennis Walls & the Cookies,” and “Chaperone” represents the most consistently funny material of the season.
The evening’s only misfire comes early. “Donald Trump/Chris Christie Cold Open” barely touches on the latest Trump outrage, choosing instead to push the Chris Christie as Trump’s simpering lapdog angle. It’s fine, but the week’s news gave us audio recordings of Trump posing as his own cocksure publicist. Darrell Hammond could have been brilliant playing off that. Though to be fair, the story broke mid-week…after the episode’s sketches were written and selected. There was little time to get a full sketch on its feet. (Also, Weekend Update led with the story and made several great jokes about it.)
“Drake More Than a Meme Monologue” was a little bumpy, too. Or at least it started nice and ended strange. The temptation to riff on internet memes is fraught with danger. As ubiquitous as everything I see on social media seems, the fact is it’s infinitely curated and culled. Not one of us is watching the exact same world on social media. One man’s Drake meme is another man’s latest case for Bernie Sanders or local crime conspiracy or prayers-for-my-uncle or “Sugar Glider Saves Owner from House Fire.” To boot, The Tonight Show had a funnier Drake meme bit when he appeared earlier this week.
“Drake’s Beef” was a standout pre-tape sketch in an episode of strong material…and not just because the song Drake performs was actually better than his two studio performances. In a behind-the-scenes parody, we find Drake becoming increasingly offended by small, inoffensive interactions with SNL cast members and Executive Producer Lorne Michaels. It’s funny because it’s true—we too often inflate neutral interactions with friends and colleagues into hurtful slights. And for affable Drake, he’s liable to turn his trumped up insecurity gangsta.
Only time will tell if we see Kate McKinnon’s return to Saturday Night Live next fall, but her Olya Povlatsky on Weekend Update may have been her best as that character. Povlatsky is a spoof of the longsuffering, Cold War-era Soviet villager cliché…she has nothing, nothing, and pines for the sweet release of death. It’s a character that wouldn’t quite work in sketch, and shouldn’t work as well as it does on Update. But McKinnon (alongside straight man Colin Jost) finds a way to make it hilarious, pointed, and a scathing critique of First World complainers.
10-to-1 “Chaperone” may be the weirdest sketch of the season, but it works: Drake as a Harley dude in a Hulk Hogan moustache and wig chaperoning a high school dance, waxing inspirational about what he’d do to save the world if only he could travel back in time fifteen years. There’s really no explaining the plot or even the feel of this masterpiec—only that it is the sketch’s gonzo commitment to character and premise that pushes it forward. (Thank you Lorne for not cutting this one at Dress.)
Drake’s two live performances of “One Dance” (introduced by SNL alum Chris Rock) and “Hype” weren’t great. Or…they were great, if you adore Drake, I guess. Suffice it to say, he’s a better actor than rapper…and may actually be a better celebrity than actor or rapper. Which is not a knock on Drake! The guy is a talent, no doubt. But his knack is for being likeable on camera, not raw artistic expression.
Saturday Night Live has set itself up for a knockout of a season finale next week when Fred Armisen returns to Studio 8H as guest host. Indeed, the show is at its best when former cast members return to host. This season’s episodes hosted by SNL alums Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, Larry David and Tracy Morgan were some of its best. And now, with a tuned-up writing staff peaking at just the right time, we should expect nothing less.
NEXT WEEK: Season Finale with Fred Armisen and Courtney Barnett
Chris White writes and directs independent feature films. His latest is
a southern gothic comedy starring Patti D’Arbanville and Michael Forest. Follow Chris on Twitter.