It's always interesting to see what the host of Saturday Night Live wants to emphasize in his or her appearance. In the case of Benedict Cumberbatch, he clearly wanted to show that he was more than willing to go silly to counterbalance his resumé of overly intellectual characters. That's his right, and it's certainly preferable to see someone willing to be silly at the expense of looking dumb versus someone afraid to look silly. This is Studio 8H, not The Globe Theatre, after all.
But the commitment to contrast Cumberbatch's highbrow persona with lowbrow sketch comedy provided a dull sameness that rarely matched the heights of the first four installments of this season. Contrasting hyper-intellectualism with Weekend At Bernie's-esque humor isn't an inherent recipe for disaster. But it did remove a lot of surprise from the episode, and surprise usually lends itself to laughter.
Here are the three sketches people will be discussing up to and through Tuesday's election.
Hillary Clinton/Donald Trump Cold Open
This cold open was important as much for what it was as what it wasn't. If you're using SNL as a measuring stick against the collective consciousness, then this made all the sense in the world. The show knew it has to lead with a Trump/Clinton sketch, just as much as the nation knew it has to continue to pay attention to the election through Tuesday, but neither the show nor the country seemed to have the appetite anymore.
Maybe that's why this sketch directed most of its ire at the media, rather than the candidates. And while the show curiously refused to overtly endorse a candidate by the end, the cold open did spend the majority of its energy lamenting the press' refusal to discuss Donald Trump due to its renewed obsession with the latest twist in Hillary Clinton's private email server scandal. Kate McKinnon-as-Clinton's frustrations could easily be read as those held by the show, so why bother couching it at all in the final, fourth-wall breaking moments?
Regardless, this was the show revealing its own psyche as wounded as the majority of the country at this point. Much like Clinton herself, SNL thought they knew she would win two weeks ago, and can't explain what has changed since last it was on the air. If the show doesn't have an answer, can we blame it at this point? Answers won't make a difference. Only Tuesday's vote will. Unless, of course, that result is contested, which will lead to a very drunk Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon staring slack-jawed into the cameras next Saturday.
Why Is Benedict Cumberbatch Hot?
After the cold open, tonight's pickings were slim. But another fourth-wall breaking sketch did manage to break through with some solid comedy in the form of this reality-within-a-reality. Rather than playing characters, Beck Bennett, Vanessa Bayer, Aidy Bryant, and Cumberbatch all played fictional versions of themselves. The point of this game show? For Bennett to find out why everyone finds the host hot.
Anything that gives any insight into the personalities of the cast is welcome, even in something as overblown and caricatured as this. The idea that Bennett has spent the past week fuming at how his fellow cast mates have swooned over Cumberbatch at the expense of his own Instagram photos fuels enough comic momentum to carry the thin premise through completion. For his part, Cumberbatch does enough to both deflect overt praise while also demonstrating enough innate charm to woo Bennett by the end.
Did this sketch rewrite the rules of comedy? Of course not. But enough people will either agree with the female contestants or share Bennett's initial confusion to make this a sketch people will be discussing over the next week.
Weekend Update: Church Lady On The Election
Let's be clear: This wasn't a particularly great segment. But it's notable simply due to the historic nature of the appearance, and unlike Bill Murray's later segment with the Chicago Cubs, it actually had something nominally to do with the election. (In any other year, having members of the Cubs appear as part of their post-World Series celebration run would have been welcome. Here? It felt like wasted time for a show in its last episode before the election.)
Whereas Colin Jost has improved his one-on-one chemistry with many current cast members in "Update" segments, the timing between Jost and Dana Carvey never clicked here. It's a delicate art, to be sure, and interactions like this highlight how miraculous it is that such awkwardness doesn't happen more frequently. Still, Carvey's Church Lady is one of these iconic characters in SNL history, and on a night in which little worked, the sheer presence of this character makes it notable.
Overall, it's too bad that the show didn't take a firmer political stand in this last episode before the election. Maybe it's waiting to see how things will play out Tuesday. Maybe it doesn't want to show its hand. But this is a show that helped Trump even have a chance to be this close to winning by having him host last year. That move was one of many that publicized and legitimized that candidacy. To simply panic at this point and essentially punt at this juncture feels like even more critical failure. SNL has been at the epicenter of politics for each election since it started. Ceding that position at this point is baffling.