Listen, I will be the first to admit that, whenever Saturday Night Live announces its next host, the category that makes me tense up the most—though, admittedly, behind star athlete, politician and pop star—is of-the-moment actor. It’s not just because many wonderful dramatic actors freak out and flounder immediately inside SNL’s sketch-comedic pressure cooker, it’s because whether you like them or not, very few of them can gracefully make the transition from one medium to another right in the middle of their spotlight moment for the first medium.
Sterling K. Brown, I am happy to report, is one of the few. Fresh off a Golden Globe win for his tear-jerking performance on This Is Us, Brown’s monologue showcases his uncanny ability to both lean into and ground the emotionality of his characters just the right amount. Not to harp on this, but so-o-o many movie stars, when hosting SNL, get so giddy at the idea of dropping the pretense and doing some fun, silly, “fake” acting that they come across as way too performative. It looks very “theatre-kid.”
Brown has some of that same flourish, but he carries the entire episode just by treating his roles like real humans, be it a spot-on impression of Kenan Thompson or Common (god, that was a great Common impression), a fragile Ben Carson, a boyfriend chastising his new girlfriend’s parents for not liking Shrek, or simply a Sterling K. Brown overwhelmed with emotion at hosting SNL. I’m not impressed by an actor moving themselves to real tears on a comedy show; I’m impressed that Brown pulls it off without showing off. The monologue also doesn’t overstay its welcome, despite a perfunctory appearance from Leslie Jones, performing the thankless role of “walk-on cast member.”
The rest of the episode lags a bit when he’s not there to lift it up. We at least start off with a change of pace in the cold open, which sees Kate McKinnon and Cecily Strong recreate the finale of The Bachelor with Robert Mueller apologizing to a contestant for possibly obstructing justice. We are spared another office set and more walk-ons in favor of a weirdly quiet, intimate and accurate pastiche of The Bachelor’s vibe, with some winning lines to boot. “Do you have any good news for me?” Strong asks. “Do you own American Steel?” McKinnon replies.
The rest of the episode plays it a lot safer, despite a fun turn from the Trump boys on Weekend Update and another excellent turn from Brown as a nature channel-bingeing asshole who tries to coach his friends through an encounter with Bigfoot. It dips into cringe territory a few times, starting early on with the appearance of another Family Feud sketch. I get the idea behind doing so many of these—the show wants us to have some kind of built-in investment in a sketch. And I know it’s completely futile to think about whether or not SNL might re-examine one of its signature features. But I cannot help but think of that old 30 Rock chestnut: “in 100 episodes, we’ve done ‘Pam…’ 107 times.” Sure you have a spot-on Frances McDormand courtesy of McKinnon—sort of a foregone conclusion. But you also have Guillermo del Toro (………..Beck Bennett) being referred to by Thompson as, I believe, “Gucci del Taco.” Gucci… del Taco.
This all makes Brown’s work harder, but goddamn if he doesn’t rise to the occasion. I am suddenly very excited that this guy is about to be in a Shane Black movie.
Oh, also James Bay played two songs I couldn’t tell apart.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and actor. Follow him at @grahamtechler.