Saturday Night Live Season 42 kicked off with a super-charged, finely-tuned episode that felt more like mid-season than a premiere. SNL season openers have traditionally been a little shapeless and more than a little rusty. Credit newly-appointed co-head writers Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider with curating a sharply-written show that benefitted from clear comic focus and consistently high performance energy. There is a noticeable lack of frat house antics and a renewed interest in character-driven comedy and political bits that bite. Instead of a show in transition, SNL42 looks to be a show that’s finally found itself.
Margot Robbie is a solid first-time guest host—not too overpowering—and eager to have fun and make fun of herself. Robbie is lovely, of course, but she’s also a strong actor…which always serves SNL guest hosts well. Here, she’s cast mostly as the hot girl (re: her Keira Knightley joke in “Actress Roundtable”), though the comic twists on the trope are interesting, and give Robbie plenty to work with.
In pre-tape “The Librarian,” hot girl casting is pushed to absurd extremes. Introduced as the stereotypical hot librarian, Robbie suddenly transforms into a nightmarish cartoon of Satanic proportions. The effect, while amusing, also offers an unapologetically feminist response to those (teenage boys) whose first instinct is to objectify via Yello’s “Oh Yeah” slow-mo montage.
Similarly, in “Live Report” we see the entire world’s bafflement and dismay, not that a sinkhole has opened up in a Florida parking lot, but that an otherwise useless man is married to a perfect beauty. The sketch offers a sly dig at Trumpian values while also pointing the finger at ourselves. Indeed, we all objectify, qualify, and elevate/worship physical beauty. Not just the narcissistic and vain among us.
This past week saw NBC announce that Alec Baldwin would portray Donald Trump all season long, and in “Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton: Debate Cold Open” neither Baldwin nor Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton disappoint.
On the face of it, Baldwin lacks Trump’s intrinsic (and physical) puffery. Where Trump seems to float like an untethered Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon, Baldwin’s physicality is like a circling shark. But here, Baldwin directs the full measure of his sharkiness at deflating Trump’s over-wrought, hot air persona. And it works.
At the same time, SNL doesn’t hold back on Clinton. Her liabilities are openly mocked, too—both in the debate sketch and in one of the episode’s strongest sketches, “Celebrity Family Feud: Political Edition.”
“Celebrity Family Feud” epitomizes the sense that in its first episode of the season, Saturday Night Live is firing on all cylinders. This sketch is not a first idea or even a second idea. Its comic premise has been pushed, honed, shaped, and perfected. It is that level of sketch development that has always hampered the show’s ability to transcend format and deliver lasting, powerful sketch comedy. Whereas this sketch never rises to the level of the first Matt Foley sketch or Walken’s “More cowbell!” it suggests that there is a capacity, a patience…perhaps even an internal push…for stronger sketch writing than we’ve seen in recent years.
Veteran Vanessa Bayer only appeared for bows at the end of the show, while Sasheer Zamata and Kyle Mooney appeared only briefly. Otherwise, most of the established cast and newbies Mikey Day, Alex Moffat and Melissa Villaseñor each got their shots in brief but memorable appearances. The evening’s most pleasant surprise was the way Leslie Jones was worked into the new mix. Jones has been hard to figure out when it comes to fitting in to SNL’s repertory company, but it’s starting to work. (10-to-1 “Mr. Robot” smartly uses Jones’ well-documented social media woes as a jumping off point.) It should be interesting to see where the show lets her go this season.
Best performance of the night came from Cecily Strong as drug addled, chain-smoking Cathy Anne during Weekend Update. Strong’s wacky character has appeared before in sketches, but it’s a tribute the actress’ tenacity that Cathy Anne lives on…if only as a Weekend Update commentator. Man-oh-man, is it fun to watch this incredibly acted, perfectly written character come to life.
Musical guest The Weeknd has been better on SNL in seasons past, though this episode’s stumble is more the fault of banal songcraft than a weak performance. First performance “Starboy” fails because it is a listless dud of a song. Follow up “False Alarm” is better, but suffers from the same lack of ambition that damns so much contemporary pop/R&B. This is music designed to be played through earbuds, scoring the consumer’s daily commute or gym visit. These are not songs that are made to be listened to.
Like Michael Che and Colin Jost’s hard-hitting, well-delivered Weekend Update segment, this Saturday Night Live season opener is the best we’ve seen in at least five years. With the surrealistic presidential campaign coming down to its bitter end, its good to know that SNL42 will be there, a little chippy and unafraid, to usher us in to that brave new world.
NEXT WEEK: Lin-Manuel Miranda and Twenty One Pilots
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.