Melissa McCarthy’s fifth time hosting joins last fall’s Tom Hanks-hosted episode and the Alec Baldwin and Scarlett Johansson-hosted episodes from earlier this year as the very best of a reinvigorated Saturday Night Live. Now, with just one episode left in Season 42, it is fair to say that we are watching the show’s finest (i.e., most consistently funny) season since the late 1980s.
There are many who will attribute the show’s recent resurgence to the current U.S. political climate. To be sure, it is easier to make satirical hay from the ineptitudes of political leaders we despise than those we admire. Many of the season’s brightest moments have been Trump-inspired (Alec Baldwin and Melissa McCarthy will compete for Emmys for their Trump and Spicer appearances this season), but Trump didn’t give us Hanks’s David S. Pumpkins, Kate McKinnon’s Debette Goldry or Cecily Strong’s Cathy Anne. To bestow SNL MVP honors on the new president gives him way too much credit.
Rather, credit for this best-in-decades season should be given to the show’s re-built writing staff, led by Chris Kelly, Sarah Schneider, Bryan Tucker and Kent Sublette. These head writers, their team and SNL’s repertory company has been relentlessly, ruthlessly funny this season—like people with something to prove: that there is a place for a major network sketch comedy show in the diverse and crowded landscape of broadcast comedy.
Saturday Night Live matters again because it’s good again.
“Melissa McCarthy’s Mother’s Day Monologue” gives us something new: a presumably unsuspecting audience member is taken on a backstage tour of the studio, culminating in her own, host-style entrance and introduction. It’s a cute bit, making an everymom the hero, and fitting for an episode that finds everywoman McCarthy joining John Goodman, Tom Hanks and Justin Timberlake (and fifteen others) in the elite SNL guest host “5-Timers” club. (During McCarthy’s goodnights at the end of the show she seems legitimately surprised to be greeted by 5-Timer Steve Martin—and gifted with her own 5-Timer smoking jacket.)
Expectations were sky high for Melissa McCarthy’s return to SNL as White House press secretary Sean Spicer. And with “Sean Spicer Returns,” she doesn’t disappoint. That she finds a way to push past Spicer’s bluster to his humanity is a tribute to McCarthy’s profound talent (the boorish know-it-all with a heart of gold is her go-to). The sketch gives us a brokenhearted Sean Spicer on a pitiful, podium-riding quest to find Donald Trump and beg for his love and approval. This piece is a little stronger than the very good “Lester Holt Cold Open” which also features Alec Baldwin’s now legendary Donald Trump in full squinty scowl. One wonders what will happen during SNL’s summer hiatus when we don’t have Baldwin to help us cope with weekly Trump dramas. (Hey NBC—any chance for a summer SNL special?)
Excellent live sketches were in abundance, but “Game Show” was the silliest and, moment to moment, the funniest of the night. Melissa McCarthy plays a game show contestant who is relentlessly punished with cream pies (and a cake) to the face. It’s a gag as old as the movies, and it’s always funny. (Though famous slapstick auteur Mack Sennett never pied a mom: “Mothers-in law, yes. But mothers? Never.”)
“Amazon Echo,” a commercial parody about an Amazon Echo device made especially for the elderly, and the absurdist short film “Kyle And Leslie” add to another full season of outstanding pre-tape sketches at SNL. The running gag of Kyle Mooney and Leslie Jones’ storybook romance (and now marriage gone bad) has been fun this year. And the introduction of their toddler son “Li’l Lorne” (who looks exactly like you might image a Kyle-Leslie baby would look) is a masterstroke.
Melissa McCarthy joins Kate McKinnon’s hilarious Old Hollywood “icon” Debette Goldry, adding her own “silver screen siren,” Gaye Fontaine, in “Film Panel.” Though the sketch isn’t as strong as the earlier Debette Goldry film panel sketches this season, McCarthy and McKinnon’s character work is incredible. Together, the two of them give the best performances of the night.
Weekend Update was strong—helped by very funny guest appearances from Pete Davidson (“On Being Sober”) and Cecily Strong’s Cathy Anne (“On James Comey”). Colin Jost and Michael Che’s jokes, inspired by Trump’s wild week following his firing of FBI director James Comey, were as sharp and funny as ever: “[Comey] looks like if the word ‘gosh’ became a person,” “Trump headlines should come with a record scratch and a fun song,” “‘With a few exceptions’ is not a comforting phrase. That’s like hearing ‘don’t worry. All the kids came back from the field trip with a few exceptions.’”
Haim returns to SNL with two songs from their upcoming album, Something to Tell You: new single “Want You Back” and the absolutely infectious “Little of Your Love.” Sisters Este, Danielle and Alana Haim and drummer Dash Hutton take to the 8-H stage like the seasoned guitar pop pros they are: confident and playful. Haim serves up a style of pop rock that used to dominate Top 40 radio in the 1970s and ‘80s—but without any traces of irony or nostalgia. The group’s song craft is astounding: think Hall & Oates meets Fleetwood Mac, but completely fresh and new at the same time.
The four best episodes of Saturday Night Live’s best season in ages have all been guest hosted by 5-timers: McCarthy, Hanks, Baldwin and Johansson. Lucky for us, next week’s guest host is a 5-Timer as well. Yep. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has hosted SNL five times. Feeling old? Take heart. At 42, SNL is handling middle age just fine.
NEXT WEEK: SEASON 42 FINALE with Dwayne Johnson and Katy Perry
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.