Saturday Night Live Review: "Lin-Manuel Miranda/Twenty One Pilots"

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<i>Saturday Night Live</i> Review: "Lin-Manuel Miranda/Twenty One Pilots"

Saturday Night Live’s 42nd season opener was a stunner. The episode, hosted by Margot Robbie, played fresh, fast,and funny. But the show’s second episode—certain to be one for the ages with Hamilton creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda—fell flat. Why?

Perhaps the latest Trump outrage may have thrown off the show’s prep and rehearsal rhythm. (NOTE TO IN-THE-FUTURE READERS! Yes, there were many Trump outrages during the campaign of 2016. The one I’m referring to was the one where The Donald was caught on a live mic in 2005, giving Access Hollywood host Billy Bush sexual predatorials.) The bombshell landed Friday night, and it was as if “VP Debate Cold Open” and almost all of Weekend Update had been rewritten to accommodate it. This, of course, was the right call, though one wonders if the last minute push cost rehearsal time for Lin’s choreographed opening monologue, non-starting sketch “Campfire,” and the woeful Tina Fey/Jimmy Fallon “Denise McDonough and Doreen Troilo” bit.

It could be that there was just too much inside-joking about theatre stuff—which Miranda no doubt inspired, but might not play to a less stage-literate Saturday Night Live audience. “Lin-Manuel Miranda Monologue,” “Campfire,” “Wells Fargo Wagon” and “Crucible Cast Party” (which can only make sense to the deeply initiated) all had key elements only theatre nerds could appreciate. And in this, some comedic ground was lost. (FULL DISCLOSURE: Notice how I spell theatre? I am a theatre nerd.)

On paper, Lin-Manuel Miranda is a SNL dream host. Not only is he one of the most talented performers on the planet, but off-stage he comes across as an absolute joy—uncynical, up for anything, and, more than anything else, happy. Which, perhaps, is where the disconnect happens. These are not happy times we live in and Studio 8H is not known for its guilelessness. And though Miranda promises us his “naughtiest and bawdiest” in a show-opening “My Shot” parody song, that’s really not his wheelhouse.

Miranda is his character in the sketch “Substitute Teacher,” and Saturday Night Live is that classroom of jaded students he’s unable to inspire.

The best sketch of the night, pre-tape “Diego Calls His Mom,” manages to address this tension—between Miranda’s hope and SNL’s cynicism—beautifully, while “Wells Fargo Wagon” and “WWII Scene” are unmitigated disasters. Miranda delivers the right performance all night long, and yet…there is no lift.

“VP Debate Cold Open” takes full advantage of the aforementioned Trumptastrophe, but cracks in Alec Baldwin’s portrayal are starting show, as he seems more concerned with perfecting Trump’s pout than capturing the man’s self-justifying hubris. Since we will see far more of Baldwin’s Trump in the coming weeks, the hope is that with more experience under the wig (and rehearsal time in the studio), Baldwin’s send-up will find its stride and match Kate McKinnon’s seamless Hillary Clinton…which benefits from the impersonator’s perfected ease.

The most satisfying live sketch of the night, “Stranger Things,” offers the Duffer Brothers’ backstory to Stranger Things’ “black kid,” Lucas. Sasheer Zamata’s Lucas is her best SNL work to date, while Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Dustin and Melissa Villaseñor’s Winona Ryder are their best of the night. (Not to mention Kate McKinnon’s Eleven. Is there anything she can’t do?) The piece should have been scheduled earlier in the evening…possibly even as the episode’s very first sketch. Placed after Weekend Update, it did little to right the evening.

Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon as undecided voters Denise McDonough and Doreen Troilo was a bit of a head-scratcher. The reason for this big star cameo is unclear…neither has a project to push and Weekend Update really feels like it’s cooking now. Why bring in the distinguished alumni? But most disappointing was Fey and Fallon’s clear lack of preparation. Neither seemed particularly committed to the bit, while Fallon was particularly unfocused (“phoning it in” is a kind critique).

“A Day Off” was a serviceably funny pre-tape about Donald Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway who, due to her candidate’s erratic behavior, never really gets a day off. But it is the sublime “Diego Calls His Mom” that steals the show. The two-minute film is strange, wistful…all in Spanish with no subtitles. This is an ambitious attempt at comedy as the sister to tragedy, and as such, is the kind of thing we’ve rarely if ever seen on SNL… certainly not in the past decade. Maybe not even since the unabashedly cinematic work of Tom Schiller. Find this clip. And hope for more.

Twenty One Pilots is strong in their Saturday Night Live debut performing “Heathens” (a hit single from the Suicide Squad soundtrack) and “Ride.” Alternative pop is the genre here, though bandmates Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun eschew alt-pop’s requisite ironic distance. These are songs about things that matter, and on this larger-than-life stage, the artists rise to the occasion, performing their songs as though they might not ever be back. In other words, they were not throwing away their shot.

And neither did host Lin-Manuel Miranda. He really did leave it all on the stage…as he had for hundreds of Hamilton performances. No, the episode’s shortcomings had more to do with a weak collection of sketches that felt a bit like cold leftovers from the previous week. And a creeping sense that maybe Miranda’s joy is something we’ll all be craving after Tuesday, November 8…but not now. Not yet.

NEXT WEEK: Emily Blunt and Bruno Mars

Chris White writes and directs independent feature films. His latest is Unbecoming, a southern gothic comedy starring Patti D’Arbanville and Michael Forest. Follow Chris on Twitter.