Saturday Night Live got hip to the Empire phenomenon early, building an entire sketch around the Fox smash hit back in March and then asking breakout star Taraji P. Henson to host her own show mere weeks later. That's some turnaround time. Still, despite the series' apparent interest in capitalizing on a genuine media dynamo, the Henson-hosted show didn't pack the punch of even the most flaccid of Empire offerings.
Henson's energy remained high throughout – here is a host that, when they say how excited they are to be there, you wholeheartedly believe them – but that wasn't enough to rescue an otherwise floundering entry into the fortieth season. SNL's schedule has been a strange one this year, and after three weeks in a row of new shows, the rest of the cast appeared to be just plain out of steam. In an episode punctuated by celebrity drop-ins, recurring bits that never really worked the first time, and a terrified puppet or two, Henson shined the brightest, even if that wasn't enough to make the outing really sing (or, perhaps more appropriately, rap).
Here are three highlights from an otherwise unremarkable show:
"Hillary Clinton Election Video Cold Open"
It's the moment Darrell Hammond – and fans of the erstwhile Saturday Night Live announcer – has been waiting for. Although Hammond hasn't been a full-time cast member since the end of the thirty-fourth season, his recent appointment as SNL announcer (taking over for long-time SNL voice Don Pardo, who passed away last year) seemed to signal that an opportunity for him to occasionally pop up on stage would arise. Hammond didn't just pop up during this already funny and finely tuned sketch about Hillary Clinton fumbling with technology and tone, he resurrected one of his most famous characters: Bill Clinton.
Yes, while there might have been some debate about who would play Hillary – a debate that was cleared up back in March with the talented impressionist taking over a role occasionally played by other SNL stars, like Amy Poehler and Vanessa Bayer – it appears as if the show has gone whole hog in returning Hammond to the Bill fold. Hammond and McKinnon are well matched as America's most enduring political couple, and as both their impressions are just that, more impressions of the pair (versus more straight-laced and straight-forward impersonations), this sketch made it plain that they have the same philosophy when it comes time to skewer the Clintons. McKinnon's first attempt at making Hillary her own back in March seemed to be lacking something, who could have possibly guessed it would be Hammond?
"Game of Thrones"
With the beloved and bloody HBO series returning to the small screen this weekend a Game of Thrones-centric sketch was an easy crowd-pleaser. Poking fun at the show's interest in constantly expanding out its map and mythology, SNL took us to a new section of the known world: South Centros. Styled as a John Singleton film, the sketch found its footing in amusingly recreating the look and feel of Game of Thrones – including a new addition to the series' fanatically crafted opening credits – to give us a new vision of life in one of the tougher sections of an already dangerous world.
A surprise appearance from a bonafide Game of Thrones star – what up, Jaime Lannister – added a level of believability to the whole outing that was bolstered by, quite frankly, just some really awesome costumes and enough horses to raise SNL's insurance rates to frightening levels. The real MVP? Leslie Jones working a Brienne of Tarth impersonation that didn't get nearly enough attention from everyone else on stage.
"Sesame Street Promo"
"The P is for puppet." It's the Empire and Sesame Street crossover you had no idea you needed! SNL has already done their own Empire sketch (a straightforward enough affair that placed then-host Chris Hemsworth in the crosshairs of the go-getting Lyon family), but with Henson hosting this week's show, there was little question she'd get room to trot out her beloved Cookie character in a bigger, sillier way.
Combining Cookie's electrifying star power with the cuddly charms of Sesame Street's furriest residents may mostly hinge on wardrobe choices and the shared name of a pair of Cookies (the Lyon and the Monster, respectively), but Henson's high energy and commitment to the gag elevated the material to something befitting the smash hit that is Empire. The actress took a giant bite out of the sketch – and, incidentally, also a cookie that got in her way – and made the whole thing her own, poor Elmo be damned. (Although we must admit to being slightly disappointed that the sketch didn't play up the "Henson" Muppet connection, but you can't win them all.)