6.5

Saturday Night Live's Second "At Home" Episode Is More Professional but Less Exciting

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<i>Saturday Night Live</i>'s Second "At Home" Episode Is More Professional but Less Exciting

Saturday Night Live returned this past weekend with its second episode produced under quarantine. As predicted, this second go ‘round wasn’t quite as big a break from the show’s formula as the first one, which made it less memorable. It was also a more professional outing, with a greater emphasis on editing and special effects to make up for the fact that all the cast members were shot separately at their own homes. That might have smoothed over some of the homemade charm of the last episode, but it also worked really well for a few sketches. It lead to some good sight gags—especially during the revival of “What Up With That”—and was one of two changes that made Weekend Update improved from an aesthetic standpoint. (It was still the pits as comedy, unsurprisingly.)

The best sketch of the night came, again, from Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon. They did another variation on their duo of well-meaning but incompetent women in a grocery store ad marketing all the stuff that isn’t selling during the quarantine. “Grocery Store Ad” marries the genial oddness they bring to their Smokery Farms characters to a timely premise that pretty much everybody will feel acutely during these weird times. McKinnon can be a little too confident a performer at times—her Ruth Bader Ginsberg character is an ostentatious bust at this point—but working with Bryant brings out the best in both of them.

Kenan Thompson got much more screen time this week than during the last quarantine episode, which is almost always a good thing. His David Ortiz made a rare appearance outside Weekend Update, hosting his own Dominican cooking show for everybody stuck at home. The actual material was flat—the running gag of Big Papi’s sponsors sounding like famous brands but actually being something else is the kind of ritualistic formalism that SNL adheres to past the point of parody—but Thompson’s wide-eyed glee as the boyish ex-baseball player remains charming. And the gag about the overhead camera can’t be argued with.

Thompson’s main showcase, though, came with the return of “What Up With That.” In many ways the poster child for how repetition can kill a joke, the initially transcendent “What Up With That” never grew quite as played out as it should have, thanks to the sheer manic joy that many of the performers brought to it. The joke with this version, of course, is that Diondre Cole and his band are all broadcasting online from different locations. So when Jason Sudeikis’s tracksuited dancer jumps into screen behind Cole, it’s through a window inset or a green screen overlay. Fred Armisen also returns as his Kenny G lookalike sax player, which underlines the “damned if you do” nature of bringing a sketch like this back out. On one hand the idea of seeing what “What Up With That” would look like during a quarantine is a good idea for a sketch, but whenever a classic sketch is revived fans understandably want to see the familiar beats and jokes repeated. And so the structure, pacing and beats of this one were all exactly the same as an in-studio version would’ve been. The only thing that was really different was the copious amount of absurd clip art and cheesy video transitions, which fortunately infused the whole thing with chintzy, self-aware fun.

Rehashing the SoulCycle sketch was a smart choice. That sketch is already just a cycle of individual character performances, which makes it easy to replicate from different locations. The jokes weren’t the best, but Bowen Yang was once again amazing in it. A murder investigation inexplicably conducted over Zoom fell flat, as did a lazy Pornhub ad parody and a sketch where Paul Rudd had an awkward FaceTime chat with his weird cousin (played by Heidi Gardner). And although Weekend Update smartly canned the terrible laugh track from the last episode, and placed the segment’s traditional backdrop behind Colin Jost and Michael Che as they hosted from their own homes, it was still just as smug and listless as it usually is. (And why does a segment hosted by two of the show’s three head writers need its own separate head writer?)

One of the better things about these “at home” episodes is that they continue to give a platform for cast members who don’t get to shine that often on stage. Melissa Villaseñor had a sweetly weird little oddity that saw her recreate a first date by herself; its combination of a modest concept with increasingly silly execution felt a bit like Steve Martin. Chloe Fineman didn’t fare quite as well with an AirBnB ad about a renter being quarantined with the property’s owner; it’s a good idea but Fineman went too big and too loud with her portrayal of the Scandinavian guest, which is such an exaggerated cartoon that it doesn’t have any resemblance to a real person. And Kyle Mooney gets a rare one-man performance, playing every role in a party scene built on the kind of social awkwardness that has fueled Larry David’s career for decades.

This was McKinnon and Bryant’s show, though. Not only was “Grocery Store Ad” the funniest sketch, but both also starred in solo segments that were almost as good. McKinnon’s cat adoption sketch, “Whiskers R We,” had to make do with the same cat for every character, which only made this reliably hilarious bit even funnier. And Bryant guided us through her childhood journals, in what was either a funny and sweet look at her real youthful quirks, or else a pitch perfect recreation of how weirdly kids can look at the world. You should check them both out on YouTube.

It’s not intrinsically a bad thing that this temporary version of SNL has already started to fall into patterns as recognizable as the traditional show. Now if the quarantine lasts until 2044, and those episodes are as similar in format to this one as a 2019 episode is to a 1995 one, then that’d be a major problem. These “at home” episodes have a ways to go before they become that ossified, and as long as they continue to include more intimate and personal sketches, they’ll probably be more exciting and surprising than this show generally gets.

Oh, and yes, Brad Pitt played Dr. Fauci. I dunno, it was alright.


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.

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