Miley Cyrus has hosted Saturday Night Live twice before, and each time was a frustrating excursion. The highs of those episodes (such as "Morning Miami") were so high that they actually made the lows (anything involving her twerking) that much worse by comparison. When Cyrus blends into the SNL ensemble, the results have been generally good. When the public persona of "Miley Cyrus" appears in a sketch, things have gone downhill quickly. If nothing else, she was a smart choice for the 41st season premiere from a publicity standpoint if not a comedic standpoint.
And the show will certainly need to rely on the publicity angle over the next few days, as this was a fairly weak premiere over all. It's difficult to assign rhyme or reason to why SNL fails, especially after only one episode under the newly overhauled writers' room. The live nature of the show invites misfires on a macro and micro level. Still, there were a few bright spots in an overall dull opening offering.
Hillary Clinton Bar Talk
Having politicians on the show is a double-edged sword: As a satirical entity, it's the show's duty to mock those in power. But SNL also tends to apply kid gloves to anyone that actually appears on the show. With Hillary Clinton's appearance, the show managed to avoid most of its usual potholes. The result wasn't perfect, but it was certainly entertaining.
After overhearing denizens in a bar discuss which Republican presidential candidate they like most, Hillary Clinton (Kate McKinnon) drowns her sorrows. The real-life Clinton plays Val, the bartender. The two discuss Clinton's current political policies, but also does not shy away from the fact that many of these stances have evolved over the years. It's here that the sketch gets its most teeth, particularly when McKinnon not-so-subtly chides Clinton's delayed stance on supporting gay marriage. McKinnon gives "Could've been sooner!" a devastating line reading, one that almost felt slipped in during the live show rather than part of the agreed-upon script. That's almost certainly not the case, but that type of edge is rarely present in modern-day SNL political sketches, and was welcome here. Yes, Clinton got some good face time here, but the show didn't completely let her off the hook, either. It will be interesting to see how it handles any other candidates that wish to appear throughout the season.
Some sketches work because of clever writing. Some work because of interesting chemistry that transcends the material. And other times, a single performer takes the entire sketch, puts it upon their back like Atlas, and carries a limp sketch entirely through force of will. Leslie Jones did a yeoman's work to make this even passable.
What feels like a dated reference (When Harry Met Sally debuted in 1989) turns fresh the moment that Jones' character attempts to play along with her friends in reenacting the infamous "diner orgasm" scene from that film. The sketch smartly stages her directly facing the audience, so her increasingly specific "impression" of Meg Ryan plays for full effect. Those impressions quickly turn to recreations of past events in life of Jones' character, leading to some amusing non-sequiturs ("I CAN'T HAVE A FREAKING BABY, I'M A DANCER!"). The repeated joke about condoms breaking felt like the show's attempt to create a new recurring character, complete with built-in catchphrase. I wouldn't mind if that happened, if for no other reason than Jones is a comic presence unlike no other and deserves more opportunities to anchor sketches in the future.
If you want to have your sketch go viral, referencing both Taylor Swift and The Walking Dead is a pretty good way to go about it. Last year, SNL aired the "Swiftamine" sketch, which was a happier way of noting Swift's cultural domination. Here, the take is much more apocalyptic.
Two friends (Vanessa Bayer, Aidy Bryant) get into a car accident, and wake up in a world in which squad goals have turned into world domination goals. Everyone is in Taylor's squad. "Police…fire department…Matt LeBlanc!" notes a hold out played by Kenan Thompson, moments before he's co-opted into the cause. While not as outlandishly produced as some recent digital shorts, "The Squad" still delivers some impressive (albeit familiar) visuals, with "1989" on the sides of buildings and Mad Max-esque cars driving through the desolation. The sketch probably could have done more with the manic side of Taylor Swift devotion, but in an episode in which little landed, this still worked effectively in context of the entire week.