Saturday Night Live tried something different this weekend. That alone is big news. I’m not sure how well it worked out, but for once the show looked and felt unique, for at least this one week. That makes it one of the most memorable episodes in the show’s 45-season run.
If you haven’t heard, here’s what happened. With the sheltering-at-home regulations preventing a traditional episode, SNL’s cast members produced an episode entirely with videos shot at their homes. A few used multiple cast members and felt somewhat like normal sketches, but most of them were solo efforts that gave a bit of insight into a performer’s own personal tastes—along with brief glimpses of their kitchens and living rooms.
Even without touching on the actual comedy itself, this change of format made this an immediately refreshing episode. Saturday Night Live is one of the most rigidly formulaic shows on TV. If you’ve watched it for even a year you can pretty much already predict how every episode is going to be structured. The political cold open, the credits, the close-up of the clock as the camera swoops towards the host entering the stage, the “[musical guest] is here!” line that every host has to say verbatim: SNL can feel like a black hole where time is meaningless.
This episode disrupted that. Starting with the barely-there cold open, where every cast member Zooms in to kick it off together, the show was instantly unique. The typical opening credits sequence, with the cast galavanting throughout New York City, was swapped out with shots of them in their homes. The “host”—a bit of a misnomer since he only showed up at the start and end of the episode—was Tom Hanks, and instead of delivering his monologue from that familiar set it was from his surprisingly modest kitchen. It was still Saturday Night Live in tone and viewpoint—and Weekend Update was still as wearily terrible as it’s been for years—but the pandemic restrictions at least gave this episode a stark visual identity, even if it didn’t force the writing to be any sharper than usual.
Other than Weekend Update, which delivered some of the least inspired COVID material of any show so far, and devoted time to Alec Baldwin’s utterly destitute Trump impression, nothing here was awful. Pete Davidson’s two short hip-hop videos were slight and forgettable, and despite featuring a guest appearance from Fred Armisen, the usually reliable Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett produced a video that was explicitly built on their lack of ideas without amounting to anything of note. And Kate McKinnon’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg might be something of a breakout character, but it’s emblematic of the obnoxious celebrity culture that has grown up around politics, turning the Supreme Court Justice into a vapid symbol of middlebrow inspiration porn. But outside of Weekend Update, the worst this episode had to offer was merely bland or poorly thought out, and not as actively bad as SNL often gets.
The best piece was a return sketch that swapped out one piece of office software for a newer one that’s become a daily requirement for so many working from home. One of last season’s best sketches starred Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon as two middle-aged receptionists utterly failing to understand PowerPoint during a corporate meeting. The absurdity of their presentation—and their own increasing shame and panic—was a new highwater point for the already fruitful Bryant/McKinnon tandem. They brought that concept back in this episode, but in the context of a Zoom meeting. Once again Bryant and McKinnon’s characters were completely inept at the most basic concepts behind Zoom, the internet, and computers, resulting in a series of progressively ridiculous reactions from the two. It’s a sketch worth going out of your way for, but to make it easier, you can watch it right here.
Another highlight was the Middle-Aged Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. To the show’s credit, they didn’t make this one too outlandish. The writing is subdued and character focused, lacing in realistic conversations and the type of concerns that start to pop up as you hit your 40s. And a dating show sketch about women willing to accept literally any man after weeks of being shut up alone during quarantine is destined to feel familiar to many people once the lockdown is over.
Some cast members didn’t really factor into the show at all. Bowen Yang, this year’s standout newbie, and Cecily Strong were absent outside of the opening. Kenan Thompson, the yearly MVP, made a brief appearance, with his two young daughters in tow. And as said above, Weekend Update was another mess, with even the pandemic failing to rouse the hosts out of their cocoon of jaded indifference.
Still, this will go down as one of the better episodes of SNL this season. Some of its worst tendencies were rendered almost impossible to do—the only celebrity cameos were Larry David, who’s basically a regular at this point, as Bernie Sanders, and Armisen, who maybe never actually left to begin with. Solo performance pieces made up most of the show, which gave cast members an opportunity that might otherwise have been given to whatever friend of Lorne Michaels was willing to play Joe Exotic, and also guaranteed that there was more of a personal feel to the material. One of SNL’s weird hang ups is its need to be as accurate and professional as possible in terms of costuming and set design—it rarely ever embraces the comedy inherent in low production values—and that was also thrown out the window during this work-from-home episode. Basically the corporate soullessness that defines SNL was momentarily cast aside, which made this episode stand out.
The most touching part of the episode was a farewell video to Hal Willner, the show’s longtime music producer, who died earlier in the week with COVID-19 symptoms. Former cast members’ memories of Willner were a sad, beautiful tribute to a man who had an amazing career in music. Many former cast members sang a version of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” in tribute; I’m not sure if a celebrity singalong on smartphones was the best call so soon after the Gal Gadot “Imagine” dust-up, but nobody has a right to tell others how to mourn their friends or loved ones. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and other SNL vets were clearly in pain over the loss of Willner, and if that’s how they choose to grieve and pay tribute, that’s entirely their right.
SNL has downplayed the likelihood of doing another one of these housebound online episodes. That’s the smart call; instead of trying to keep the show rolling on, despite all the limitations and restrictions facing it, NBC can just lean on the show’s 45 year history to keep that time slot filled. And doing so will preserve the thing that most made this episode special: the sense of spontaneity and uniqueness, as it broke through so many of the formal constraints that SNL has codified over the decades.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.