There’s an old adage in sports: “That’s why you play the game.” It means that on paper, certain outcomes seem guaranteed, whereas in reality results can be surprising. I’d apply that adage to last night’s Saturday Night Live. Was it inconceivable that an Ariana Grande-led show would be great? No, but if you were a betting person, you might not have placed a lot of money on that wager. A solid pop star? Sure! Someone well-equipped to execute one of the more difficult tasks in televised entertainment? Well, the jury was out.
And yet, Grande came through with flying colors, as did the show in general. After an amazingly lackluster installment last week, SNL roared out with one of the best installments all season. There really wasn’t a true dud in the entire episode. Even if every sketch didn’t completely succeed, there was value in everything the show did. But here are the three best things SNL did this week.
This Is Not A Feminist Song
Over the show’s 41 seasons, there are certain traits/sensibilities that belong to only a certain era of the show. These translate into repeating bits of comedy that are unique to that era’s cast. While there are a few that define this decade’s cast, one of the most prominent is “music videos in which all of the female cast members unite.” It started with “(Do It On My) Twin Bed” back in 2014, and continues with this anti-anthem tonight.
I’m a sucker for this aspect of the current version of SNL, and it helps that this was a clever send-up of feminist anthems while also honestly describing how difficult it is to encapsulate an entire movement in a single song. This sketch both rejects a reductive answer yet negates the notion that any attempt to do so is futile. Yes, that’s assigning WAY too much meaning to the song’s intent, but hopefully does convey its impact. It’s the kind of sketch that lands just fine in the moment but really grows through multiple viewings. And in the age of embedded clips, having a sketch that grows more with each viewing is the best kind there is.
Look, it’s great when SNL has a sketch that makes poignant, salient points about the world at large. It’s also fantastic when it produces a sketch so dumb yet so funny that its timelessness trumps all intellectual analysis. In some ways, this was just a reskinning of the many iterations of “The Lawrence Welk Show” in which Kristen Wiig’s off-putting sister undid the overall normal proceedings. And yet, put Kate McKinnon in the role of an unattractive mermaid, and it simply doesn’t matter. This sketch could have aired in 1976, 1986, 1996, or 2006. SNL needs these types of sketches to sustain itself through the ages, and it’s awesome to see them still pull them off.
It was great despite the fact that it sidelined Grande, who overall did a wonderfully, surprisingly great job tonight. Hosting this show is an incredibly hard job, and the fact that she never seemed overwhelmed by it has to be commended. That sounds like faint praise, but given how a supposed comedy veteran like Jonah Hill bombed last week, it’s definitely not. She could have been the disaster that was Blake Shelton. Instead, she veered much closer to Justin Timberlake territory.
On a night in which many sketch concepts were regurgitated, this was the most blatant. When Bruno Mars hosted, SNL deployed another similar sketch about technical difficulties with the various Pandora stations. But a great deal of tolerance for sketch repetition lies in execution. And here? Grande earned her stripes.
Sure, it leaned into her strengths as a singer, but who cares? Why penalize someone for excelling in a field in which they knowingly excel? Grande has pipes, and employing them while also doing pretty great impressions of Britney Spears, Shakira, Rihanna, Celine Dion, and Whitney Houston is flat-out impressive. It might not make me go out and buy her records, but earned my respect all the same. After a first half in which SNL made her a supporting character, this is the sketch in which Grande truly owned the show, and she didn’t let go until the end.