Saturday Night Live returns after the traditional end-of-year holiday hiatus with one of those rare episodes that finishes far better than it starts.
Oddly enough, “Donald Trump Press Conference Cold Open” was the episode’s weakest sketch. Could be Trump fatigue, or that Baldwin’s caricature is starting to wear thin—or it may just be that the piece is clearly a Trump-trolling riff on that unverified Buzzfeed-published intel dossier, a purported Russian blackmail document on Trump that reads a bit like an SNL parody of a Russian blackmail document. Whatever the reason, this sketch never quite gets any lift, a making the prospects of a great show feel dubious right out of the gate.
“Felicity Jones Monologue” follows with a noticeably uncomfortable Felicity Jones (Rogue One) blazing through a couple of so-so jokes. Jones seems nervous, out of her element. But leave it to a hologram of Tina Fey to save the day and (no exaggeration) rescue the show. (Fey offers people like me—“there are way too many [SNL] reviews”—a far better critique of the show than I’ve ever written, noting several familiar SNL sketch-writing tropes that indicate failure.) It is as if Fey’s presence finally gives the show and it’s tentative guest host the confidence both were so desperately lacking. After that, the episode turns out to be one of a good season’s better efforts.
It is worth mentioning in the same breath as Fey the influence of SNL staff writer Anna Drezen. Drezen was the very first hire Reductress founders Beth Newell and Sarah Pappalardo made, and no fewer than five of this episode’s sketches—“Beard Hunk,” “The Princess And The Curse,” “Susan B. Anthony,” “Movie Interview” and “Corporate Retreat”—bear Reductress’ unmistakable comic tone. Not to imply Drezen wrote all of these pieces, but this much is clear—her sensibilities on the SNL42 writing staff carry weight. Like Tina Fey before her, Anna Drezen is setting the tone for the show.
“Beard Hunk,” a reprise from last season’s “Farm Hunk” with Blake Shelton, is a case-in-point—a Reductress-esque parody of “reality” dating shows. The women are vapid idiots here, of course (“Mmmm, I like this,” “Can I steal him for a sec?”), but none are more vapid and idiotic than the Beard Hunk himself, as played by Beck Bennett. Aidy Bryant really steals this sketch with one of her best characters—the preeningly sexual, grossly entitled and insecure woman-child. It’s so great to see Bryant having a breakout season.
The Oz Rodriguez-directed pre-tape “Shondra & Malik” may be the best piece of the night. Imagine a Key & Peele-like send up of the gangsta melodrama and you’ll get the idea. Kenan Thompson’s acting here is seriously good—a true episode highlight. The sketch might have been a contender for a best-of-season list, except for the lazy, tacked-on ending. Still, this is one to seek out if you missed it.
“Theatre Donor” is the kind of Saturday Night Live sketch that doesn’t work because there just isn’t enough time in the short production week to fully explore the concept. Not to mention, it was clearly a challenge to direct this script for live television in the tiny Studio 8H space. All the same, it’s worth noting for its ambition—and the makeup work on Mikey Day’s hands! The corny cell phone joke at the end isn’t great, and the piece could have been so much stronger had they been able to work the 106 year-old donor into the play-within-a-play a bit more, making the actors physically deal with him (ala Weekend at Bernie’s). OF NOTE: Kudos to those background actors who kept their faces straight the entire time.
Similarly, “Susan B. Anthony” is satirically ambitious. Yet unlike “Theatre Donor,” this sketch finds a way to succeed, taking to task the “it’s such a hard time for women these days” cliché and turning it on its head, as it pits modern-day, urban female martyrs against the living incarnation of a woman who led the fight for women’s suffrage. So good how the modern women patronize Kate McKinnon’s Susan B. Anthony: “Okay, Susan B. Anthony. Yeah. You’re so cool. We get it.”
You may not be a fan of Sturgill Simpson’s Delbert McClinton-style, roadhouse country-soul, but if you aren’t a fan after his second performance of the evening—“Call To Arms”—you simply hate music. Simpson’s first song, “Keep It Between the Lines,” is great, but man-oh-man, that second one… This is one of the best SNL musical performances of all time. A full horn section, one of the tightest live rhythm sections you will ever see, flipping that organ and face-planting that Telecaster at the end, the fact Simpson classes up the whole outlaw affair by wearing a black business suit… Q: When was the last time we saw a band have this much fun playing 8H? A: I can’t remember.
Things seemed a little wobbly at the start of Weekend Update, but like the episode itself, the segment really catches its stride after the forgettable “Pete Davidson’s First Impressions” bit—which offered the same comic sensibilities of a YouTube comment thread highjacked by middle schoolers. Still, Jost’s “Thank you Apple, for helping me ignore my family” quip and Che’s race rant were strong. And Beck Bennett’s new pop star character—echoes of Garth & Kat?—was more than tolerable. Hopefully we will see this character again.
A couple of late-in-show, hidden gems, “Movie Interview” and “Corporate Retreat” demonstrate how to play low, sexual humor in a smart way. “Movie Interview” does it with biting satire, “Corporate Retreat” does it with deep character work by the actors. Both approaches work.
After a middling December, Saturday Night Live seems to be back in fine form and poised to end well in 2017. Here’s to Aziz Ansari’s SNL debut next week!
NEXT WEEK: Aziz Ansari and Big Sean
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.