Tom Hanks returned for his ninth time hosting Saturday Night Live this week. This marked the end of an epic run of four consecutive episodes for the show to kick off the season. While not unprecedented, four in a row is definitely unusual. Last week showed signs of fatigue for the show, so could it rally for this installment?
In short, yes: While not completely strong top-to-bottom, this was more in line with the first two solid episodes of the season rather than last week's slightly off aberration. (Tonight's David Pumpkins might have been a shadow of Larry David's Kevin Roberts, but that's still a pretty funny shadow!) Calling an SNL episode "solid" isn't an insult but rather a statement of reality: What works for some won't work for all, which is a feature rather than a bug.
When the show is good, like this week, it's tough to come up with only three segments to discuss. Still, these are the ones that people will be talking about during the show's brief hiatus.
Donald Trump vs Hillary Clinton Third Debate Cold Open
No matter on which side of the political fence you might sit, you probably agree that the country is in need of some serious healing after November's election. So who better than Tom Hanks to start the healing? Casting him as moderator Chris Wallace wasn't just a good way for SNL to get as much use out of Hanks as possible, but it also served as a way help forge a path out of the past year's progressively toxic political environment.
The subsequent monologue directly leaned into Hanks' calming demeanor. But it was also on display here as well, where his function was less about moderating and more about crisis management. If the first three cold opens of the season were about reflecting the extremes of the election, this was about trying to return the national temperature to something a little more palatable. There were great jokes along the way (especially the visual of Hillary Clinton's Trump Bingo Card), but there was a noticeable difference in the tenor of this week's debate sketch.
That doesn't mean the election is over, nor that there aren't important topics for the show to explore in its upcoming final episode before the election. But as always, SNL is a reflection of the country at this time, and while it's not completely different than it was seven days ago, it's now safe to make Scott Baio jokes. And that's a world which most of us would agree is preferable to where we were at the start of this show's 42nd season.
Some recurring sketches take a few times to truly find their feet. "Black Jeopardy," on the other hand, arrived more or less fully formed, and has been a solid-to-spectacular sketch each time that it has aired. But this might have been the best one to date, inverting the expected formula in a way it can probably never do again. However, SNL picked the absolute perfect time to do it.
Seeing Hanks's contestant Doug wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat puts both the game show host Darnell Hayes on edge, as well as the SNL audience. But time and again, Doug correctly answers questions to the delighted surprise of everyone onscreen. The combination of Doug's guileless responses and Kenan Thompson's increasingly overjoyed confirmations worked like gangbusters, and both sides reached unexpected common ground.
What put this sketch over the top is the way the sketch refused to paint Doug as a villain without overlooking his obvious prejudices. The segment was smart enough to realize that the three contestants can all agree about not wanting to give Apple their thumbprints and yet recognize that similarity doesn't make them the actual same. From Doug's horror at Darnell approaching him, to the realization that the Final Jeopardy category "Lives That Matter" will end the shortly lived bonding session, this was a political sketch that didn't need the presence of the two major Presidential candidates. It was everything SNL can and should be at this point in history, and it was absolutely glorious.
Weekend Update: Leslie Jones on Being Hacked
It's unclear why it took four weeks for Leslie Jones to talk about her computer being hacked over the summer. Were I a betting man, and if "betting on SNL sketches" were a thing that you could in Las Vegas, I would have put a sizeable amount on her doing exactly what she did this week during the season premiere. Instead, we got a fairly lame Mr. Robot parody that week, and that seemed like the end of any discussion on this topic.
Not that Jones ever had any obligation to discuss the hack on television, but nothing about tonight's ferocious "Weekend Update" segment betrayed any queasiness about broaching the topic. In classic anti-bullying fashion, Jones went after her would-be mockers by beating them to the punch on a host of potentially embarrassing things, none of which actually involved her nude body. Not only did we get a humorous anecdote about Prince once mistaking her for Chris Rock, we got zero apologies about her being sexual and loving her body as is.
It's the type of triumphant, intensely personal comedy that bonds performer and audience, and Jones has made a major impact in her short time by ensuring viewers understand there is no filter between what she says and who she is. There aren't a lot of opportunities to do this on SNL, but "Update" is one of them, and Jones is an absolute master at making those brief, direct-to-camera moments matter.