A month off did Saturday Night Live good, as the show returned with renewed energy, a slew of topics to discuss, and one of the best top-to-bottom episodes of the season. Charles Barkley stumbled through his monologue, but quickly recovered to add something to every sketch in which he appeared. While some hosts from the sports world play themselves for the majority of the episode, Barkley did solid character work, whether it was a beleaguered public access host or a depressed game show contestant.
This is a case in which picking only three sketches for discussion is tough. Kyle Mooney's insanely awkward "Weekend Update" segment was one for the ages, but probably something that caters to specific tastes. Leslie Jones and U.S. olympian Hilary Knight dunking on Colin Jost was fantastic, but that was more fan service than pure comedy. On a typical Season 43 episode, the "Con Ed Repair Site" sketch would have easily made this list, with its takedown of toxic masculinity another example of this show's incredible work in the post-Harvey Weinstein era of popular culture. So let's assume I talked about all those as well as the three below, which I think will be the ones that linger in the collective consciousness until Sterling K. Brown hosts next week.
As timely as can be, this sketch made everyone in-house uncomfortable for all the right reasons. Rather than depict actual celebrities, this sketch instead went for made-up people to stand in for those that will be walking the red carpet for the Oscars tonight. That felt odd at first, but ultimately, those not explicitly named still loomed large throughout this. The show has not been afraid to discuss actual people in other episodes (even those that have recently hosted the show), so the omission here doesn't feel forced but rather organic to the topic at hand.
The stand-out here is Pete Davidson: He usually shines on "Weekend Update" rather than in sketches, but here he married his stand-up approach with a truly loathsome character that made the audience audibly gasp at times. Davidson's character thanking gun violence for taking attention away from his actions was both insanely black comedy but also an indictment of our capacity to process multiple horrors at this point in history.
However, everyone else steps up here as well, from Cecily Strong's red carpet host, Kenan Thompson's Cecil B. Molestin' lifetime achievement award winner, Barkley's unapologetic actor, and Aidy Bryant's "trailblazing" female harasser. Each week, SNL finds a new way to produce sharp insight on this insidious culture, and you could produce an amazing full-length show with just these sketches collated together.
Comedy is subjective, so when I say that most of the sketches outlined in the intro were "funnier" than this, please take it with a silo of salt. However, let's not pretend that "funny" and "popular" are synonymous when it comes to SNL sketches. It's not that they are antithetical to one another so much as plenty of popular sketches are not ones hard-core fans of the show would consider top-tier.
I don't mean to damn this with faint praise. Having Alex Rodriguez appear will definitely amplify awareness of the sketch, but what makes this truly work is the subtle-then-explicit takedown of the NFL and the effects of CTE. Barkley and Rodriguez are both fine here, but they are the straight men designed to let Thompson's addled ex-football player shine. Learning at the end that Thompson, who looks 55 in the sketch, is actually playing a 27-year old is icing on the bleak cake. Many news outlets will cover this for the Rodriguez angle, but will in fact actually be highlighting an uncomfortable fact about the country's most popular sport at the same time. That makes this a type of viral Trojan horse, which makes this kind of brilliant.
Last Call With Charles Barkley
Full confession: I'm a stan for these sketches. Objectivity in the SNL game is a fool's errand under the best of circumstances, but there are times you just have to own your own biases. Every time Kate McKinnon breaks this character out, it feels like a national holiday. Maybe this is NBC's way of apologizing for the sudden and cruel lack of curling in our lives. I don't care. I'm happy to have Sheila Sauvage back in my life.
The sketch is essentially the same each time, but the evolution over the years has only added to the initially sound premise. In particular, Thompson's bartender has gotten his own set of increasingly elaborate reaction gags, with him seemingly turning into to a Weeping Angel from Doctor Who at the end of this particular iteration of the sketch. But if nothing else, this episode will be remembered for the long, disgusting, dental tool-enhanced makeout session at the end. McKinnon's fearlessness coupled with Barkley's "I'm never going to live this down and also I think I want my Mom?" face is the stuff of which .GIF dreams are made. Topicality should always trump schtick. But hot damn, this was some funny schtick.