Does Saturday Night Live have something to prove heading into its final three-weak stretch of the year? In terms of recent weeks, yes, but this has still been a solid season overall. Ebbs and flows are part of the natural order of this show, even if that's hard to see in the moment.
The real attention on the show will start this fall, when the Presidential election will be in full swing. For now, we get Oscar-winner Brie Larson kicking things off for the May run. It took some time for her to really be featured tonight, with the majority of her screen time coming after "Weekend Update." But this episode really didn't need a great host to make tonight a successful episode.
I don't mean that to disparage Larson, who was great in whatever role was asked of her tonight. However, she rarely had to carry anything on her own. Instead, she functioned as one piece of the larger ensemble, to great effect. That's because this was a rather strong episode of the show as a whole, with plenty of viable options for inclusion this week. But here are the three that people will be discussing.
Back when Ryan Gosling hosted, the first version of this sketch absolutely slayed, in part because no one onstage could remotely keep it together. When the cast breaks as part of what feels like an inside joke at the expense of the audience, this can be really annoying. But when the audience can see the sheer pleasure the cast takes in each other being really funny, then the joy becomes infectious. Kate McKinnon's performance is so unique, lived-in, and fully realized that the actual dialogue is meaningless: That character is objectively funny. Everyone watching knows it, and everyone onstage knows it as well.
Luckily, the dialogue is still funny this time around, even if the sketch is almost beat for beat the exact same thing as last time. (It's like the "Nickelback single" of sketches that way.) The specificity of McKinnon's near-death tale, coupled with her bemused indifference to its awfulness, builds and builds throughout the sketch. From her travails with Keith, the non-Employee Of The Month angel, to "full Donald Duck'ing" through a dark tunnel, to having the soul of a dog inserted into her breast, everything about her near-death experience is compelling. You simply can't wait to hear the next part of the tale, and I can't wait to see her pop up on the show again.
Church Lady Cold Open
Even with Dana Carvey's new show First Impressions on the nearby horizon, it's still something of a surprise to see him reprise one of his all-time classic characters in the cold open. In fact, it's such a surprise that I got a sneaking suspicion that half of the those there had absolutely no idea 1) who this character was, or 2) who Dana Carvey was. In related news, getting old is super fun.
Less fun was the sketch itself, which mined nostalgia over hard-hitting political humor. And since the audience seemed either indifferent or unaware of the sketch's history, a lot of this landed with more of a thud than anyone involved with SNL should reasonably expect. But it's still noteworthy as a new iteration of what was one the show's signature sketch, a fresh take on Ted Cruz (in the form of a literal demon), and an almost visceral reaction to the mere portrayal of Donald Trump from a decent portion of the crowd. For what's turned into a fairly sanitized show, having the audience actually turn in that matter made things vital in an otherwise harmless cold open.
You could argue that most sketches this week were funnier than this. In fact, I'd make that argument as well! But the simple fact that Carvey returned defines this as a water cooler moment. Maybe the audience didn't entirely recognize its significance, but that probably won't be true when you go to work this week.
Quiz Whiz 2018
SNL has primarily kept current events within the cold open and "Weekend Update," and that's more or less fine. Come this fall, the show will be rife top-to-bottom with election-based content, and the program has always featured a mix of timely and timeless humor.
What makes this particularly noteworthy is how it starts off as the latter (in the form of the ubiquitous gameshow format) and slowly turns into a nightmarish version of the former. Just as the baby shower sketch morphed into an episode of The Twilight Zone, this turned into a dystopian future in which Donald Trump's fascist reign is the backdrop for a rather benign joke about people forgetting all about Ted Cruz.
Few of us know the true story about how Trump ended up hosting this past fall, but it certainly seems over the past two months that at least some factions within this show have not grown any fonder over that decision. I honestly don't know if that will ever truly shake off the show's part in aiding/abetting his rise to the nomination, but watching the show wrestle with its place in that narrative is absolutely fascinating all the same.
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