Saturday Night Live’s 42nd season will be remembered as one of its best—even though the season’s finale, hosted by five-time guest host Dwayne Johnson, isn’t its best episode. Seeing him there, standing alongside host legends Alec Baldwin and Tom Hanks in “Dwayne Johnson Five-Timers Monologue,” is interesting. Johnson is the biggest movie star in the world right now. And he is here, hosting SNL, due to the release of his new action-comedy Baywatch. But it is strange to see him occupy TV comedy’s center stage. The action movie star-turned-SNL guest host is a role Johnson himself pioneered, and it’s a role he willingly inhabits and plays to perfection. But it is this precision—honed over years of film acting, stunt choreography and professional wrestling—that ultimately makes his SNL work come off flat. Could it be that The Rock is just too good at this?
“Hallelujah Cold Open” is a strange opening to the last show of the season. At once a curtain call for the basket of Trump deplorables SNL has given us this year (including Scarlett Johansson as Ivanka, but without Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer) and a riff on one of this season’s most earnest and controversial moments—Kate McKinnon as Hillary singing “Hallelujah” the Saturday after Leonard Cohen died and Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump—it is difficult to discern what the intent is. What is clear is that SNL believes its Trump-inspired work is this season’s raison d’être (a claim the president himself might assert), and that they deserve a moment of congratulations for that. But the piece offers little if any political bite at all—which is odd given the week that was in U.S. politics. This is a season roll call and bow—nothing more, nothing less. And no matter what you think of McKinnon’s achingly earnest Hillary farewell last November, this riff dismisses it—or at the very least diminishes it.
Still, the episode quickly moves past its convoluted cold open, and becomes a joyful showcase for exiting repertory company members Vanessa Bayer (seven years on the show) and Bobby Moynihan (nine years) who leave us doing the kind of character work they do best.
Moynihan gives the best performance of the entire episode as a MAGA-gloating (but still petulant) Drunk Uncle during Weekend Update, as well as playing a troubled wrestler opposite Dwayne Johnson in “WWE Promo Shoot,” rapper Skiffle in “Rap Song,” a 1940s Hollywood soundman in “RKO Movie Set,” a mad scientist emcee in the wickedly satirical “World’s Most Evil Invention,” a walk-on creeper in “Wingman,” and a bored high school burn-out in “Senior Video.”
Bayer is just as strong with her gibberish-spouting meteorologist Dawn Lazarus during Weekend Update (this season’s second-most memorable new character creation), a fidget spinner-dependent socialite in “Cartier Ad,” rap queen Dat Snatch in “Rap Song,” water-logged foil of Cecily Strong’s Gemma in “Gemma With Dwayne Johnson,” a farting Hollywood ingénue in “RKO Movie Set,” a pretty bar fly in “Wingman,” and an earnest, but bad-acting high school kid in “Senior Video.”
Both Moynihan and Bayer have served as reliably funny, blue collar cast members—meaning their workmanlike approach to comic character building has been an incredible asset to SNL writers and producers. Bayer in particular has really grown into one of the show’s most valuable players over the past two seasons. Expect both of these actors to excel in television and film roles in the coming years. (Moynihan’s sitcom Me, Myself, and I was just greenlit by CBS and will debut in the fall.)
What a wonder of live television production “Gemma With Dwayne Johnson” is! The incredible set, the live directing, the immaculately executed water gag: this was a very expensive and complicated piece to pull off. I’ve spent a lot of time praising the show’s pre-tape production unit in the past, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out how stunning an accomplishment this sketch was. It was funny, too. Strong’s Gemma is one of her best characters.
“World’s Most Evil Invention,” an annual meeting of the International Mad Scientist Society, may be the season’s darkest (and most thrilling) sketch. Johnson’s performance here, as the creator of a child-molesting robot, is his best of the night. This is dangerously wicked satire, but the show’s writers walk that tightrope with great precision. The sketch argues that what we identify as evil actually matters—if only to disqualify the things that aren’t.
Weekend Update wraps up the season with a strong set of Trump-focused jokes—some of their most personal and pointed yet. Though it seemed Michael Che rushed through a couple of punch lines early in the set, both he and Colin Jost eventually settle in to a good rhythm. Still, what fuels the segment is Bayer and Moynihan’s send-off—with Moynihan almost stealing the entire show with the return of his iconic Drunk Uncle.
Both Katy Perry musical performances—“Swish, Swish” and “Bon Appétit”—were spectacular pieces of live production and performance that both elevated the songs and raised the bar for Studio 8H music performances. Perry has played SNL before, but never with the kind of big stage ambition she put forward in this episode. Perry was supported by loads of background dancers—those costumes!—and featured performers too numerous to properly credit. Suffice it to say, she came to SNL with big ideas. And that always pays off—especially for pop/rap/electronica performers who often struggle to create live performance energy on the tiny stage.
It’s been a most unsettling year in American politics—no matter your ideology. This season of Saturday Night Live has offered an empathetic vent for our passions, well-crafted laughs to settle our anxiety, and more often than not, a wise friend who insists we look past the Sturm und Drang of modern statecraft to the flawed and funny people making all the racket—these lamentable emperors without clothes. SNL42 helped us see them more clearly—and in doing so, eased a bit of the burden of living in these strange days.
Chris White writes and directs independent feature films. His latest is
an award-winning, southern gothic comedy starring Patti D’Arbanville and Michael Forest. Follow Chris on Twitter.