December tends to bring out the best in Saturday Night Live: The cast has started to gel, the writers have a sense of what makes this iteration of the show work, and the show always mines good comedy from the holiday season. And yet, this Ryan Gosling-hosted episode never truly got going. It didn’t help that the show largely avoided most topical elements outside of “Weekend Update,” which feels like another missed opportunity for the show to have something to say about the current cultural and political climate.
But it also didn’t help that the show didn’t really know how to use Gosling himself. When asked to play the straight man, Gosling largely underplayed things, pushing himself into the background. But when he went weird, the show took off. As a rule of thumb? The further that Gosling played away from “grounded” characters, the better the ensuing result. In short: This was a safe episode at a time in which both the host and the world called for more risks. Luckily, there were a few instances in which the show connected this week.
After this pretaped sketch finished, I had one thought: “I would totally watch Ryan Gosling and Vanessa Bayer star in a remake of Natural Born Killers.” Did this break any comedy ground? Heck no. But it’s a fun sketch that builds off its own internal logic, going from an innocuous party to one in which one couple psychologically dominates everyone, ultimately retreating into a holiday-inspired dreamworld.
As awkward as Gosling sometimes was this week in live sketches, he came alive here as a one-half of a couple who believed in Santa with an intensity mixed of one part violence and one part sexual fervor. For her part, Bayer continued her run this season of edgy, original characters. She’s been a steady talent during her tenure, but has really emerged this fall. It’s hard to tell a complete story inside a sketch, but here’s a great example of what SNL can do when all the pieces come together.
On paper, this isn’t a particularly good idea: Three people get abducted by aliens, and one of them has a particularly bad experience compared to the other two. But in execution? It’s something special, and that fact probably emerged at this week’s read-through. Everything Kate McKinnon does here is pure comedic gold. She has a knack for creating three-dimensional characters from the first moment they are onscreen, and the specificity of her character’s words and gestures are fantastic.
In fact, they were so fantastic that the other four performers onstage simply couldn’t keep a straight face. Sometimes, the cast breaking can lead to a muddled, off-putting mess. But here, the four represented our experience on the couch. McKinnon was simply so great that even the other performers had to stand back and watch her knock it out of the park. It was like watching Stephen Curry hit a series of 30-foot three-pointers with his eyes closed. Back when Jimmy Fallon and Horatio Sanz tried to make each other break, it often felt like an inside joke. This? This felt like a collective celebration, and a fantastic synergy between performer and audience.
Giving the critical and ratings’ success of The Wiz, it makes sense that SNL would try to do a sketch about it. A few seasons ago, this would have been impossible, given the cast’s demographic at this time. But now? It could easily fill the stage with its own roster of actors, plus throw in Gosling’s Scarecrow from The Wizard Of Oz to boot to produce a fun sketch.
Gosling’s mimicry/homage of original Oz Scarecrow Ray Bolger was good, especially his vocal and physical commitment to the mimicry. It helped that the sketch portrayed his confusion in a positive rather than negative light: Rather than look down at the world of “East Oz,” as this sketch called it, Gosling’s Scarecrow delighted in the differences. It’s a pretty harmless sketch, but one that allowed Gosling to really cut lose and demonstrated just how far SNL has come in a few short years in terms of diversifying its cast. It’s not simply a good move because it buys them good press, but rather because it positions the show to take on that much more in the world around it.