Jimmy Fallon returns to his Saturday Night Live stomping grounds in a late-season episode that mostly plods along, dutiful but uninspired. Fallon’s Tonight Show is broadcast just two floors below SNL’s Studio 8H, and that short trip up the elevator points to the lack of effort that might’ve made this episode such a dud. The two shows share some of the same writers and producers, so maybe it just never felt like anyone had anything to prove this week; at the end of the day, it was all an inside-job.
There are two major problems with “Donald Trump Cold Open” that ultimately doom the piece to relative obscurity amongst the season’s typically on-point political riffs. One, the sketch is premised on rumors of palace intrigue within the Trump White House—something only political junkies know or care about. And two: who still watches The Apprentice? In an episode hosted by one of NBC’s biggest stars, the reference to the NBC reality show Donald Trump once emceed may be expected, but it need not be the premise for an entire sketch. Still, Alec Baldwin’s Trump is a thing of wonder. All is not lost.
Tonight Show host and former SNL cast member Fallon trades the traditional opening monologue for an opening song and dance number—remaking David Bowe’s “Let’s Dance.” Much has been made of Fallon’s penchant for singing and dancing on his show. In particular, are these half-joke, half-serious excursions into variety show antics funny? It’s worth noting that Fallon’s intent here is to kick off a party, to have a good time. It makes sense that he would see it that way. Guest hosting SNL must have a kind of playing hooky feel to it. Still, to the audience watching at home, it is odd that a sketch comedy show would forgo tone-setting monologue laughs in favor of a karaoke game.
“Celebrity Family Feud: Time Travel Edition” offers an intriguing twist on SNL’s Family Feud joke form by pitting 2017 celebrities against 1977 celebrities. More to the point, the time travel twist gives Jimmy Fallon an excuse to play old John Travolta and young John Travolta in the same sketch. Fallon’s dueling Travoltas are cute, but probably funnier as cocktail party banter. Here, Fallon’s lightning fast costume and wig changes do little to elevate the sketch beyond Jimmy doing Johns.
“Before The Show” and “Basketball Scene” are showbiz comedy pre-tapes that probably play funnier in the writers’ room than with the more diverse SNL audience. Still, each was successful enough, and collectively the best part of the episode. With “Before The Show” and its many other amateur theatre spoofs, SNL often seems to be punching down. I think these pieces come from a place of self-reflection and self-parody, not anything truly snarky or snide, but occasionally it’s troubling to realize we’re watching a huge, national broadcast corporation make fun of middle school kids putting on a play.
On occasion, SNL gets pushy with its musical guests, insisting that they appear in comedy sketches, and in turn, that we get on board with their acting prowess, too. Harry Styles’s appearance as musical guest is a case-in-point. Styles was not funny as Mick Jagger in “Celebrity Family Feud.” Nor was he funny as a Confederate soldier in “Civil War Stories.” Add to that, the fact his performances of new songs “Sign Of The Times” and “Ever Since New York” were without much merit (or melody). Somebody’s agent may think Harry Styles is the new Justin Timberlake, but Styles himself needs get better at as actor or a singer before he asks us to consider him as both.
“Take Me Back” is a pleasingly old-fashioned sketch about a guy who crashes his ex-girlfriend’s apartment for an awkward midnight serenade he hopes will win her back. (Fallon sings again!) The sketch turns out to be an over-wrought set-up for a United Airlines joke—too hard and too easy at the same time. And like pre-tape “New Shirt” and throwback “Sully & Denise” (featuring the return of Rachel Dratch), it’s a little lazy. So much of this episode felt like season leftovers. Even Melissa McCarthy’s third appearance as White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer (“Easter Message from Sean Spicer”) felt a little exhausted and out of gas. Perhaps this is just what happens near the end of a best-in-a-decade season at SNL. The natives are restless. It’s time to get to their summer projects.
Weekend Update was strong, joke-wise (in particular, Michael Che really hit his stride with the Trump Administration quips), but floundered at bit with the return of Kyle Mooney’s woebegone stand-up comedian Bruce Chandling—which seemed rushed—and Vanessa Bayer’s Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy, which has grown stale. Again, these are symptoms of an episode that never quite finds its groove. Which isn’t devastating—the season’s been fantastic—but could mean that ending Season 42 on a high note may be too much to ask.
SNL RETURNS May 6 with Chris Pine and LCD Soundsystem
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.