You never know what you’re going to get when an artist primarily known for their musical talents hosts Saturday Night Live. For every Bruno Mars and Ariana Grande (incredible surprises) you get a Blake Shelton or Justin Bieber (expected train wrecks). Halsey ended up somewhere squarely in the middle: You could see glimpses of what could have been throughout the episode, but she rarely got a chance to either impress or fall flat on her face.
She started off the show with what had to have been one of the shortest monologues in the show’s history. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially if the show had possessed a deep arsenal of sketches that simply couldn’t be cut for time. But by curtailing that segment, barely featuring her in the post-monologue sketch and then leaving her out of certain segments altogether, one was left feeling that the musical guest got to be in a few sketches rather than a double-threat artist who got to own a Saturday night in New York City.
Luckily, a few segments from this so-so episode still stood out. Only one of the three segments below feature Halsey in a large role, but all will have people talking until Don Cheadle hosts next week.
After a tepid political cold open, the show dug deeper with its focus on recent political scandals in Virginia involving high-ranking officials wearing blackface. Kenan Thompson’s ethics officer tries to get at the root of any other potential skeletons in the closets of Virginia Democrats, and finds enough bones to populate the army of a Sam Raimi film.
What makes the sketch work is its pacing: After slowly drawing out the first confession, the floodgates open, with people offering up incriminating evidence with a guilelessness that would be funny were it not crude and racist. It’s not that these people are overtly hiding something they are ashamed of, but rather never considered what they did was anything about which they should be ashamed. Cecily Strong’s character even solicits advice about the next time she wears blackface, which is one hell of a statement about how what’s happening in Virginia isn’t part of a distant past but still one applicable present in the here and now.
One of the clichés about writing is that by making things specific, you have a greater chance of actually making them universal. I pray that none of you have ever had your parents experience the series of tragedies depicted in this sketch, but I imagine that most of you can relate to the type of passive-aggressive conversation that unfolded.
Mikey Day’s architect gets a call at work from his parents that transforms his client meeting into an increasingly horrific vortex of neediness. A simple question about the status of a grill turns into a labyrinthian dissection of decades of simmering tension. The way each call ends with an “oh by the way, here’s something incredibly terrible that will guilt you into calling back” struck home with many in the audience, which makes it the kind of sketch that should resonate with many at home. It has great structural similarity to December’s sketch “The War in Words,” this time with phone calls instead of handwritten missives supplying the endless stream of shocking cliffhangers. It was a highlight then, and it’s a highlight now.
Weekend Update: Melissa Villaseñor as Lady Gaga
Melissa Villaseñor impersonates Lady Gaga and sings "Shallow" on tonight's episode of SNL! pic.twitter.com/UuIJ5jSUFh
— Lady Gaga Updates (@LGTourNews) February 10, 2019
The history of Saturday Night Live is littered with performers that for one reason or another never “made it,” for lack of a better term. Whether for just a single season or over multiple ones, these comedians could never break through the clutter and make themselves indelible. Melissa Villaseñor has been on the show for two and a half seasons, and has been looking for that signature moment to go from solid (if underutilized) performer to “look at me, I’m a damn star.” And this week, she might have finally gotten it.
Yes, there will be some that will penalize her for achieving that with a solid if completely overt Lady Gaga homage. But it’s the rare homage that goes in so deeply that it actually wins over the audience with its own skill. “Shallow” is one of those songs that will be associated with late 2018/2019, and we’ve all done our own version of that vocal bridge when we think no one’s looking. But Villaseñor did it live in front of America, and straight up slew it. The laughter that came from seeing her mimic some of Gaga’s vocal mannerisms turned into genuine cheers as she nailed part after part of the song. Michael Che’s concern over having to follow it tells you all you need to know: It wasn’t necessarily a funny moment, but it was a thrilling live moment. In a season of SNL with few of those, this was something special.