There’s little better than seeing a first-time host slay one’s first time hosting Saturday Night Live. As befitting someone that seamlessly played multiple characters in both Split and Glass, James McAvoy inhabited every distinct character in tonight’s episode so seamlessly that I’m already looking forward to the next time he hosts. McAvoy doesn’t even need a film to support: He can just show up and delight everyone with the way he throws himself into every single scenario.
Tonight’s episode was the rare one in which the host saved the show. While few sketches were true misses, McAvoy took the reins like a sports superstar that refuses to let his or her team lose. This was the James Harden of SNL hosting jobs, in which even subpar material could not bring him down. The three sketches that will linger showcase the huge range on display tonight, and should entertain fans of the show until it returns in February with host/musical guest Halsey.
Chris Redd has yet to make his full impact felt in the sketch world, but he really has carved out a solid niche for himself in the pre-produced world. Since SNL is essentially 60/40 when it comes to its live/taped ratio at this point, Redd still gets plenty of opportunity even if he’s not in front of a studio audience. SNL purists might frown at that, but the show has been moving slowly in this direction since the Lonely Island revitalized the show’s popularity with its Digital Shorts. In addition, the reduced number of commercials during each episode has demanded an increase in content. Pre-produced shorts are a practical way to achieve this.
Even if you can see the specific beats of this sketch coming a mile away, it’s still great to see Redd’s Marcus slowly lose confidence in front of both his teacher Mr. H (McAvoy) and his friends. Both Redd and McAvoy underplay their respective roles, which keeps things grounded but also makes the subversion that much funnier. Mr. H’s casual dismissal of Marcus’ Ivy League chances works because he throws away the idea without even considering it as a possibility. Mr. H isn’t mocking Marcus so much as stating an unassailable fact, and Redd does amazing work in which his eyes slightly betray his bravado. All of this works best due to its cinematic nature, with the camera picking up these subtleties that would be lost in a medium or wide shot on a brightly-lit set in Studio 8H.
It’s worth noting that Leslie Jones has about a hundred percent more energy and charisma when on the “Weekend Update” desk than in an ADR-assisted video in which she praises the Upper East Side of Manhattan. That being said, Jones’ low energy is still more than other performers cranking it up to Spinal Tap’s 11. This song overcomes its initially tame beginnings and ultimately ends with one of the best last lines of any sketch this season.
After some initial lines praising the clean subways and safe streets of the U.E.S., things start getting downright odd (and delightful) when McAvoy’s German baker Michael appears to spice things up with his thick accent and $12 croissants. It’s unclear if Michael, and the patronage of his bakery, is a celebration or a mockery of the Upper East Side. The fact that Kate McKinnon would rather stay home to Netflix and chill with her cat suggests it’s the latter. But near the end, Jones defends her lifestyle. “They say, ‘Leslie, you forgot where you came from.’ Bitch, I live here because I remember where I came from!”
That line turns the entire sketch on its head, transforming it from a parody of a specific neighborhood few of us know into a celebration of personal success. Jones owns the corniness of her new digs but also isn’t afraid to be proud of what she’s achieved in order to live there. That attitude will no doubt spark a lot of debate and invite a metric ton of analysis and/or straight up complaining. But that’s precisely why it stands out this week.
Every once in a while something makes this list even though I can’t intellectually defend it. And that’s fine! The fact that I dissect the show as much as I do undoubtedly annoys the hell out of many that work on SNL, turning a simple exercise in doing whatever it takes into an overly intellectual approach to find meaning where none exists. So how’s about this for a super brainy explanation for why this sketch is including:
I really, really, really like the way James McAvoy says the word “Charmin.”
I mean, that’s 80% of what makes this work. It’s a silly, stupid thing that was probably an accident during the table read that turned into the best laugh producer of the episode. Each (unsolicited) pitch for the company’s super bowl gets more elaborate, more twisted, and more hysterical, but it’s the punchline of the brand’s name that takes the entire thing over the top. I don’t know why he’s doing it like a minor character from the film Silver Linings Playbook, and I super don’t care, because it just makes the entire thing that much funnier. If there’s one line I’ll remember from this season, it will probably be, “The booty is clean!” That’s a dumb line from a dumb sketch delivered in a perfect way that delivered a perfect comedy moment. No other insight is necessary beyond that.