There are two reasons why episodes of Saturday Night Live have a short monologue: The powers that be either have no faith in their host or have the utmost faith in the quality of that week's sketches. Luckily, the latter proved to be the reason this week, as even the lesser sketches had several things going for them. As host, Adam Driver brought an expected level of energetic intensity and proved game for just about anything the show threw at him. It would have been surprising had the show, well-rested after its lengthy holiday break, come back with a weak installment. Here are three examples of how it started 2016 strong.
Undercover Boss: Starkiller Base
Not doing a Star Wars sketch would have been silly. Rather than making fun of the franchise's fanbase, as SNL did in the monologue, the target here was Kylo Ren's rabid insecurity. As Matt, a radar tech, Kylo learns firsthand about what it's like to build a massive, planet-shattering weapon. His barely-contained rage is conveyed just as well behind nerdy glasses as a Darth Vader-esque mask, and even his sentimentality is drenched in unknowing animosity.
The real MVP here, however, is Bobby Moynihan, whose Stormtrooper constantly belittles Kylo and pushes the Knight of Ren past his breaking point. "Dude, Matt straight up sucks!" exclaims the Stormtrooper after being Force pushed into a soda machine. Between this episode and last season's Michael Keaton monologue, it's clear Moynihan and Taran Killam are the resident fanboys of the cast. That's not meant as an insult: If anything, understanding what makes these actors tick informs and enforces the roles they play on the show. Anything that provides insight into the Not Ready For Primetime Players as people is a good thing.
America's Funniest Cats
As reliable as recurring sketches are, seeing a brand-new concept knock it out of the park in its first try is one of SNL's uniquely thrilling moments. An initially lame joke about the host's name concealed the devastatingly simple but well-executed premise, in which the typical narration of "cute animal video" shows gets turned on its head by two hosts of a spin-off show set in France. As those hosts, Cecily Strong and Kate McKinnon unleash two characters that seem as if they have always existed, and have always thought of cats as depressed, suicidal balls of fur.
Even though they have been on the show together for a few seasons, Strong and McKinnon don't really interact that much as a comedic duo. That seems like a missed opportunity after seeing this sketch, in which their blasé hosts casually depict the sad inner workings of felines, much to the disconcertment of Adam Driver's host. The repeated use of "boi-oi-oing" got funnier with each iteration, and had me struggling for air by the end. I have absolutely no doubt we will see these two characters again. As long as cats climb into an urn to be with their husbands' ashes, we will have the chance to see Strong and McKinnon try to recapture the magic they displayed tonight.
It's only the first show of the year, but this is already a strong candidate for any year-end "Best of SNL" sketch list. There's an almost impossible amount of things going on here, and yet it does when the best SNL segments do: tell a complete story from start to finish, with a proper beginning, middle, and end. We don't just watch a sketch here so much as go on a journey. It's a short film that manages to be funny, heartbreaking, and heartwarming all at once. Plus, nearly naked Liev Schreiber!
After pairing up with Strong for most of the night, Driver plays Vanessa Bayer's husband here, a comedy-writing pair that has just won their first Golden Globe. The pre-taped sketch pings back and forth between the after party and the long night's journey into day that their abandoned children experience back home. As those children, McKinnon and Kyle Mooney do absolutely incredible work as two siblings who are scared for themselves but try to be strong for the other. ("Mom looked really pretty when she left. Do you think she'll ever come back?") It's incredibly sweet, especially as we realize just how self-centeredly destructive their parents are. I can't say it any other way than I wanted these kids to be OK. Even though the sketch ends with them realizing they can't rely on the adults in their life, they can rely on each other. Not since "Monster Pals" has a sketch hit so many levels, and hit the bullseye on each one. Simply phenomenal work here by all involved.