The introductions to these Saturday Night Live recaps have gotten somewhat stale lately: I talk about the show’s inconsistencies, note that there are some highlights nonetheless, and then get into the meat of things. This time around, let’s look at five things that are really working this season as a whole. Individual episodes have had ebbs and flows, but these aspects have really been clicking since the fall.
1. Mike Day might have been designed in a lab for the specific purpose of being great on SNL. The marriage between talent and comedic sensibilities between the man and the entity are perfect. While it’s too early to truly say this, it’s also easy to see him ending up on a first- or second-string all-time cast list when things are said and done.
2. While she didn’t get a lot to do last year, Melissa Villaseñor has made the most of her opportunities this season. She’s no longer just appearing to do impressions, but has honed her character work as well.
3. It took a few seasons, but Colin Jost and Michael Che have figured out their rhythms on “Weekend Update.” You could look back to earlier seasons (though I wouldn’t recommend it), but the repartee, comedic angles and back-and-forths are really strong on a weekly basis.
4. The show is really starting to consistently convey a jittery, on-edge energy for at least half of each week’s material. SNL should always convey the energy of the country, and its topical sketches have produced discomfort in a way that feels honest.
5. The show has realized that talking about President Trump is more effective than actually portraying him onscreen. Alec Baldwin’s performance drew attention and eyeballs for a while, but had overstayed its welcome by the fall. Focusing on figures around him (Trump’s children, Jeff Sessions, Robert Mueller) has kept the show topical but the perspectives fresh.
Let’s now look at what people will be discussing until Will Ferrell hosts what will probably be the final episode before the Winter Olympics.
In terms of sheer execution, the Chris Redd-led “Fresh Prince” parody wins by a landslide. It’s the “Trapped In The Closet” of theme show parodies. It goes on…and on…and on, adding layer after layer to the song’s simple premise. On the other hand, I appreciated it more than I loved it. That’s not damning it with faint praise, but there was a sameness present after the initial reveal of what was going on. All of this is a way of saying that while admiration goes a long way, straight-up spitting out my drink at the sight of Mikey Day’s Bert Sampson goes further.
Upon rewatch, one has to admire the way the sketch hides its punchline in plain view. Alex Moffat’s professor sits in the foreground, with the camera placement putting Sampson directly behind him. Another camera then pans over the staid crowd as examples of bullying are listed, finally revealing Sampson at the moment his problem is revealed. It’s a dumb sight gag in a sketch with a lot of dumb Simpsons references. But it’s also hugely funny in a way that only works thanks to Day’s underplaying: This is a guy who tries to be as unassuming as possible even while standing out like a sore thumb at all times. Had he gone over-the-top, this just wouldn’t have worked. Even in something this simple, Day adds depth.
What Even Matters Anymore
Or, as I call this sketch: “My Twitter Feed On Super Bad Days”.
Here’s a great example of a sketch executing points #4 and 5 above: It’s a sketch about Trump that delivers the brittle anxiety that comes from constantly reformulating one’s worldview to incorporate the latest knowledge. It’s easy to call that anxiety overkill, but that doesn’t make it any less real for those trying to keep on top of the latest outrage without their mental state devolving into one in which the falcon cannot hear the falconer.
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What’s great is the balanced approach, in which host Jessica Chastain (who is revealed in-sketch to be playing herself enacting her own angst) is being utterly defeatist and the contestants are trying to keep her off the ledge. Were this simply four characters complaining about the world, it would be fine but a missed opportunity. This is a conversation posing as a game show, and it’s a conversation that’s worth having.
Weekend Update: Robert Mueller
Once again, I’m going to hedge here. If you forced me to answer under oath, I’d probably select the Stormy Daniels “Update” segment as the “better” one, whatever “better” means in the subjective world of sketch comedy. It had a subtler theme, a vicious Cecily Strong performance, and a more brutal assessment of the current time. However, this will get more buzz, not only because of Kate McKinnon’s giddy performance, but also it will spark a ton of debate between those that want this investigation to be over, one way or another.
I’m including it here less about its quality so much as its confidence: The last time the show was this confident about the imminent demise of Trump was…before the election. Go back and watch the Season 42 episodes leading up to November: You see an extremely smug show, one that couldn’t even believe there was a chance that Trump could win. That smugness turned to self-introspection with McKinnon-as-Hillary Clinton singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” To be fair to the show, almost no one saw the election results coming. Nevertheless, especially paired with the previous sketch, it’s interesting to see such a bold (albeit comedic) prediction about the president’s fate. That’s what will spark an incredible amount of dialogue over the next week.