Saturday Night Live Review: “Martin Freeman/Charli XCX”

(Episode 40.09)

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<i>Saturday Night Live</i> Review: &#8220;Martin Freeman/Charli XCX&#8221;

Best episode yet of SNL’s 40th season.

Lackluster Charli XCX and Weekend Update co-anchors notwithstanding, Saturday Night Live was in top form with host Martin Freeman (The Hobbit, Sherlock, Fargo). Even without a super-famous A-list American actor charming our socks off, the return of Taran Killam’s Jebediah Atkinson (soon, please, soon), or Beck and Kyle offering a show-saving pre-tape Hail Mary, this episode was sharp, funny, and energetic in a way we’ve not seen since the Bill Hader-hosted episode in September.

Could it be that in Freeman, SNL finds its happy place: an ego-less, TV comedy-reared host, up for anything? Perhaps when the show’s writers and producers are less cowed by the week’s host, they are more comfortable in their own skin. Saturday Night Live is just better with actors like Freeman handling hosting duties—when helmed by people who are better actors than they are celebrities.

Martin Freeman’s opening monologue is workmanlike, almost elegant in its presentation. Freeman handles the material like an old pro, deftly and without the traditional “ohmygodIcantbelieveImhostingSaturdayNightLive!” gush we are accustomed to from first-time hosts. Freeman respects the venue, respects the task before him. In short, he respects the work of being on a live television comedy show. And in this, both he and we are rewarded with a strong episode.

When SNL40 wraps next spring, it’d be a surprise if “Hobbit Office” is not considered the season’s best sketch. Martin Freeman, who played “Tim” on Ricky Gervais’ original BBC-produced The Office, is now The Hobbit’s Bilbo Baggins, and with this inspiration, SNL’s writers have given us a mashup for the ages. The premise, that hero Bilbo earns his keep as a middling, corporate paper sales rep in the Shire, is hilarious. And SNL’s execution is flawless. Granted, one may need to be familiar with Gervais’ “David Brent” to fully appreciate Bobby Moynihan’s brilliant sales manager Gandalf (“Lord of the Reams!”), but the parody is served by its obscurity. It’s funnier for it.

Similarly, the reality show commercial parody “Church” works because its target is so specific. Christmas is the time of year many unchurched people wind up attending a holiday service at their parents’ house of worship. And it can all seem pretty weird: the listless kid reading the liturgy followed by the over-eager woman reading, a sweaty handshake from a kindly old man, the “softest pastor joke followed by the softest parishioner laugh”—the devil is in these tiny details. Even if you can’t directly relate, you get the joke.

Vanessa Bayer’s crowd-pleasing Bar Mitzvah boy Jacob is back in time for Hanukkah, and though Weekend Update co-anchor Michael Che seems completely lost playing off Bayer’s richly crafted preteen boy, it is a welcome relief from the ripped-from-the-headlines joke-telling that neither Che nor co-anchor Colin Jost seem capable of making funny.

This is the second week in a row that has featured three Weekend Update character visits as opposed to the traditional two, which would imply that SNL realizes the once popular segment is experiencing a kind of free-fall this year. Shasheer Zamata’s rant about racist emojis and Cecily Strong’s “One-Dimensional Female Character from a Male Driven Comedy” are among the season’s best bits—not new recurring characters necessarily, but such a relief from the Update boys’ gloomy desperation. (Zamata should be on everyone’s Christmas wish list for Update host for next year.)

“Right Side of the Bed” is a send-up of local morning chat shows that succeeds with the hilarious performances of Taran Killam and Cecily Strong as married and sassy “Gracelyn and Cory.” Imagine a Southern Kelly Ripa married to a male Kelly Ripa… you get the idea.

One cannot be sure if Charli XCX was lip-syncing or just suffering through a very bad sound mix, but we can still hope that there will eventually be another great musical guest performance this season. “Boom Clap” is a good song, and a hit. That’s why Charli XCX is here. But her performance was self-consciously drab. Plus… where was the keyboardist?

Really, every sketch of this episode was above average, good, or great. Killam’s Charlie Rose ,and his daffy assembly line guy, Aidy Bryant’s South Dakotan waterbed queen Janeane McWebber, Kate McKinnon’s mild-mannered wedding crasher Evelyn, even Keenan Thompson’s predictable “Sump’n Claus”... the entire SNL cast felt fresher and funnier playing opposite host Martin Freeman.

Could the key to a successful Saturday Night Live episode lie in the casting of its guest host? Could it really be that simple?

SNL NEXT WEEK: Amy Adams with One Direction

Chris White writes and directs independent feature films. His latest, a showbiz comedy about looking for Bill Murray, is called Cinema Purgatorio . Follow Chris on Twitter.

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