There are times in which it's fairly easy to predict ahead of time whether or not an episode of Saturday Night Live has the capacity to be either really good or really bad. But with Ronda Rousey, the predictive needle was all over the place. The potential equally existed for a surprising, breakout performance from the MMA star or a 90-minute trainwreck. There really was no way to know which one would unfold until the episode started.
Well, unfortunately, things primarily went the way of Door Number Two, with some lackluster material and an incredibly quiet live crowd yielding an installment in which the cast was visibly sweating to get anything approximating a laugh from the audience. Rather than lean into Rousey's natural presence and charisma, almost every sketch had her acting meek (when she actually appeared at all, which wasn’t much). Taken in total, this was an unsure episode that betrayed its own concerns with the material assembled throughout the week. Chalk this up to the blizzard, or simply chalk it up to the nature of live sketch comedy. But either way, few will be talking about this episode a few days from now, never mind a few weeks from now. But here’s what people should be discussing, for at least today.
Palin Endorsement Cold Open
At this point, the role of Donald Trump had been officially handed back to Darrell Hammond, after Taran Killam performed it at the start of the year. Part of that switch has been practical, as Killam now portrays Ted Cruz in debate sketches. But Hammond has the history with the character here, and history matters for fans of the show. People love seeing familiar actors playing iconic characters, no matter the skill level of subsequent actors who inherit the part. This history paid off when another actor/character combination came back last night in the form of Tina Fey's Sarah Palin.
Now, was this sketch actually worthy of such an epic cameo? Not especially, as the stilted structure (in which the two characters alternating talking to the camera instead of each other) never allowed the cold open to achieve any type of momentum. And as with most things involving Trump at this point, the reality is so ridiculous that there's little SNL can do to trump it from a comedic point of view. What makes this noteworthy is simply Fey's presence: Although it was all but guaranteed once Palin endorsed Trump this week, seeing her onstage in Studio 8H was still thrilling for those in-studio and those at home.
It wasn't a particularly great week for original material on the show, but some recurring segments, such as this one, hit the mark more successfully. Not really a sketch so much
as a string of punchlines, this nevertheless worked because it's a showcase for the strong female cast of the show. In a season in which the majority of sketches have often centered around interactions between small groups of people, it’s important to also see the show’s excellent ensemble onstage together.
The premise is threadbare: An annoyingly non-descript guy named Dan goes through a gauntlet of conversations with a group of increasingly odd women. Vanessa Bayer’s Daddy Issues girl and Kate McKinnon’s ex-cult member are standouts, but everyone gets a chance to shine a little here. (Rousey’s line about taking a hot air balloon ride with the cast of Chicago Fire was one of the few funny lines the show gave her all night.)
What makes this more than just a series of jokes is the underlying sense of menace concerning the nature of the reality show itself. Whether it was Dan forbidding one of the contestants to wear jeans, or immediately dismissing the viability of an African-American contestant, there were hints that this sketch wanted to dive into the types of tropes so expertly deconstructed on Lifetime's excellent drama UnReal. It's too bad this interesting aspect never truly melded with its sillier aspects. In proper combination, this really could have been something truly special.
Weekend Update: Leslie Jones On The Revenant
I like to imagine that somewhere in the offices of SNL there's a sign that says, "In Case Of Emergency, Break Glass For Leslie Jones." There have been several times during her relatively brief tenure in which she has hoisted a limp show on her back and absolutely slayed a sleepy audience during one of her Update routines. There's just no one like her on the show right now, and when she locks into the right material, the results are magnificent.
As per usual, what she's ostensibly on to discuss (in this case, The Revenant) has little to do with what she actually has on her mind. In this case, it's all about her revelation that she has a chance to seduce Leonardo DiCaprio. She moves from great Inception-based puns ("Leo inside Leslie inside a dream") to overly specific post-coital activity (you'll probably never look at your own sink the same way again) with the grace and precision of a true comedy veteran.
But what REALLY makes this great? Jones wrapped all of this up in the continuity of her onscreen flirtation/intimidation of Colin Jost. If the last era of Weekend Update was defined by the evolving relationship between Seth Meyers and Bill Hader’s Stefon, this era is defined the Jones/Jost saga. Having Jost be curious and jealous of Jones potentially giving DiCaprio a "laughgasm" was both silly but also brilliant, as it wrapped this fictional will they/won't they into an all-too real situation in which people often only want what they can't have. It was a small, but vital, piece that helps illuminate just why this pairing works so well for the show.