As Lin-Manuel Miranda noted in his monologue, his presence on Saturday Night Live made a small number of people VERY happy and a much larger contingency shaking their heads. For all the acclaim that Miranda has incurred over the last twelve months, he's not a household name by any stretch of the imagination. I'd imagine that a majority of people who watch SNL probably had some inkling if not outright obsession with the man, but we're not here to judge the potential size of the show's audience so much as judge the quality of its content.
Overall? Miranda's exuberance carried a lot of sketches that quite frankly weren't all that strong. For every great sketch there was one flub. That's not exactly an unusual batting average for the show, but there were also some curious missteps that brought the overall quality down. (Putting Jimmy Fallon on "Weekend Update" for six excruciating minutes in which he either flubbed lines, broke characters, or did both was the biggest of these.) Still, Miranda has the same quality that the best hosts have: One could imagine him as a regular cast member. Not putting that talent on display as much as possible seems like a missed opportunity.
Still, there were some real highlights. Here are three sketches everyone will be discussing until Emily Blunt hosts next week.
VP Debate Cold Open
Was there any doubt there would be an extra long cold open this morning? Honestly, had there been a 90-minute version that forced the exclusion of the monologue, "Weekend Update," and any musical performances, that wouldn't have been terribly surprising. Even in an election season in which controversies have erupted at a speed with which most news organizations can't keep up, this past week (hell, the past 48 hours) has taken the cake.
What first seemed like an unnecessary restaging of the Vice Presidential debate turned into an alternatingly incisive, farcical, and infuriating takedown of Donald Trump's already-infamous Access Hollywood audio leak. Having Alec Baldwin repeat, "Grab them by the pussy," on live television shocked the in-sketch anchor (Cecily Strong), but it's not as if the show had to invent the word in order to raise the shock factor of Trump's statement. This wasn't satire so much as simple transcription.
The line that will probably get the most air time between now and tonight's second debate, however, is the devastating follow-up line Trump used to "apologize" for the statement. "I promise I can do a whole lot more than just grab it," is the type of phrase that's both repeatable and tweetable in the lead-up to the next phase of this seemingly unending election, positioning SNL once again as the standard bearer for political satire when it matters most. Throw in Kate McKinnon's increasingly jubilant Hillary Clinton and a sharp jab at the top of the sketch about the show's "baby steps" towards racial inclusion in its cast, and you had a strong sketch to kick off the evening.
Lin-Manuel Miranda Monologue
I'm one of those annoying jerks that has seen Hamilton on Broadway, and knew most of the lyrics due to obsessively listening to it in the months (and months) leading up to seeing the show. So am I predisposed to be in the tank for an opening monologue that does the tried-and-true "host walks through the back halls of Studio 8H" while parodying "My Shot"? Absolutely!
But this wasn't just a simple riff on the show so much as introducing Lin-Manuel Miranda to the audience that he even admitted does not know who he is. So it served not only as catnip for those that know the musical but as a simple introduction to the dizzying energy and wordplay that Miranda brings to the table. On top of that, he helped do one of the key things absolutely necessary for SNL as a whole this month: Distance itself from Trump hosting last season. The song was a relentless ride of momentum until literally stopping dead in its tracks when he reached the picture of Trump on the host wall. The "never gonna be president now" capitalized on the same .GIF-based Hamilton sentiment on social media as well as creating its own .GIF worthy moment itself.
Combined with the upcoming PBS documentary about the making of Hamilton, this monologue will go a long way into restoking interest in the play that had dipped ever so slightly since the main cast departed this past summer. In other words, Miranda once again didn't throw away his shot at making a mark at the most opportune time.
A Day Off
The sheer insanity of this election season means that simply looking at the campaign through the perspectives of the candidates isn't enough. A cold open and a few "Weekend Update" jokes shouldn't be the only place for the program to address current issues. Along with the sweet, lyrical "Diego Calls His Mom," this pre-taped sketch did a great job of finding a new angle via Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway.
Much like it did with its portrayal of the Romneys in 2012, SNL manages to find a human angle here through which to posit what a day in the life of someone who constantly has to defend statements she personally abhors might be like. It helps that McKinnon is so inherently likeable, but the sheer escalation of CNN appearances wears her down to the point where we almost want her to get that bubble bath by the end of the night.
Two other factors also make this segment stand out. First, the visual continuity between Conway's activities and her on-air appearances are fantastic. From a dab of paint on her forehead to acupuncture needles from her face, each segment is slightly different and must have been ridiculous to pull off in the short time it ostensibly took to film this. Secondly, the reasons for her interruptions were almost uniformly laugh-out-loud funny, as were her increasingly terse responses to them. ("Of course black people don't have one less toe than white people.") SNL will never be a 90-minute political satire program, but when it produces segments this good, it's tempting to think what that might look like at historical moments such as this one.