Quality on Saturday Night Live can be a volatile thing: With each segment unconnected, there's no guarantee that a strong sketch will inevitably lead to another one. Conversely, a true dud can be washed away with a subsequently solid section.
Last night's Natalie Portman-hosted episode, the last before a long Winter Olympics-inspired break, had three utterly distinct "acts," if you will: an almost episode-crippling cold open, a remarkable stretch that lasted from the beginning of the monologue through the end of "Weekend Update," and then a final half-hour during which laughs were in short supply.
But that middle section was truly something great, and featured what might have been the strongest Colin Jost/Michael Che interactions to date during their tenure as "Update" co-hosts.
So let's dive into that meaty section and look at what people will be talking about during the show's hiatus.
Natalie Portman Announcer Monologue
Monologues can be hit or miss, but they easily fall into one of a mere handful of categories: The stand-up, the "questions from the audience," the "tour of Studio 8H," the "musical number": These encapsulate about 90% of every monologue ever. So it's refreshing for SNL to find a new angle that simultaneously promotes and subverts its current advertising blitz for the upcoming Winter Olympics.
Usually when a monologue features extensive appearances by the cast, it means a general lack of faith in the host's ability to handle a few minutes of live television as a solo act. Here, the monologue is treated more as a sketch, with the cutaways to Kenan Thompson/Kate McKinnon and "reporting" by Leslie Jones a way to augment rather than hide Portman's performance here. Portman's slow-motion/freeze frame moment was fantastic, and demonstrated a willingness to throw herself into whatever the writers came up with for her. After the fairly abysmal Fox And Friends cold open, this monologue sent the tone for the next thirty minutes.
(Also, if there's an app that alerts me every time Leslie Jones will appear during the Winter Olympics, I'll download it ASAP.)
Spoiler alert: I was born and raised in New England, and I still live in the greater Boston area. So putting this sketch here isn't so much about comedic value so much as geographical loyalty. Oh wait, it's actually incredibly funny and features two cameos from classic SNL stars. This is flat out great no matter where you live.
Seeing Rachel Dratch on the show is always a delight, here essentially re-imagining her Boston-based Denise character (sans Jimmy Fallon) as a 1775 freedom fighter. Portman's Massachusetts accent wavers throughout the sketch, but her enthusiasm compensates for the occasional pronouncing of r's at the end of her words. Heidi Gardner's line "We got the most rocks in our soil, so how you like us NOW?" is the most South Shore thing I've ever heard, and it is also worth noting that Luke Null's two Connecticut jokes were brilliantly delivered.
Had this only been the Founding Fathers annoyed with the constant bragging of New Englanders, this would have been a solid sketch. Bringing in Tina Fey to throw down the comedic hammer took it over the top, even if her line about Boston just being a "college town with a fishing pier" hurt more than I'd like to admit. SNL often struggles in the realm of sports comedy, but placing this in a historical context was a truly inspired move. Look for this sketch to appear everywhere in the run up to and aftermath of tonight's Super Bowl.
Natalie's 2nd Rap
I'm not a betting man, but it's always fun to try and predict what sketches will appear. This is especially true when it's a returning host: I'm sure many SNL fans wanted the sequel to "More Cowbell" when Will Ferrell hosted last week, for instance. I had wondered heading into this episode if doing another hardcore Portman rap video was in the cards. Seeing this one not only reminds us of how long it's been since she last hosted, but how far digital shorts have come during that time.
"Natalie's Rap" was the second viral video that the Lonely Island produced, following "Lazy Sunday." Looking at those videos in terms of production values versus what SNL regularly produces is nothing short of shocking. That has nothing to do with the comedic value of those first two gargantuan smashes, and everything to do with reconfiguration of what a pretaped sketch can now do in the world of SNL. The show had relied on non-live material since its inception, but "Lazy Sunday" and "Natalie's Rap" started a new epoch in the show's history, full stop.
This second iteration doesn't have the pure shock value of the first, but does feature one heckuva disturbing Jar Jar Binks cameo in the third verse and a welcome return of Andy Samberg, here connecting the two raps via continuity involving the pair's apparent love child. If nothing else, this sketch is a useful reminder of the Lonely Island's vital contribution to the show's legacy at a time in which clips like the ones embedded in this review were frowned upon by NBC, not embraced as the lifeblood for keeping conversation about this show alive.