Great Saturday Night Live episodes can sneak up on you. As host Liev Schreiber noted in his monologue, he wasn’t the most obvious choice for the role. “There’s nothing wrong with being funny,” he said at one point. “If you are, good for you.”
It was a disarming way to account for his apparent discomfort in the role. To overcome this, the show featured an abundance of pre-taped segments to avoid his reticence in performing live. But honestly, the show didn’t need it: Aside from a few spots, SNL utilized Schreiber’s less-is-more approach to great affect in both live and filmed segments, producing one of the best episodes of this young season.
While it featured a lot of silly sketches (including a House Hunters-inspired one that had more great jokes per minute than just about anything this year), what really stood out this week was its dedication to inspecting life at this particular moment in time.
The show’s approach to the first episode after the midterm elections was one of unity. That’s a hokey hook for an episode, but also one that gives the show a much-needed point of view that it could deploy throughout the rest of this season. Hosing down Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney for a five-minute stretch is amusing. Attempting to bring people together during an incredibly fractured time is vital.
Here are three sketches people will be discussing before Steve Carell hosts next Saturday’s pre-Thanksgiving episode.
“We don’t agree on the big things, and that’s how it’s going to be.” This seemingly “Fight Song”-inspired ditty is “We Are The World,” if the world hated the word “moist” (because who doesn’t) and children who come back from semesters abroad with fake accents. You could argue that focusing on negativity isn’t really unifying, but I’d counter that literally no one likes a pilot that interrupts the in-flight movie with wind speed updates. “Unity Song” acknowledges we are not all the same, but have far more in common than we currently choose to remember.
Satire is relentless in highlighting what is flawed. When it comes to political discourse, there’s almost no way to satirize one side without increasing that division. (More on this below when we get to Pete Davidson’s “Weekend Update” appearance.)
In some ways, this sketch is the spiritual successor to Tom Hanks’ “Black Jeopardy” sketch from the fall of 2016: That’s still the best sketch of the past half-decade, one that wrung laughs from breaking down the differences between people without flinching when it came to the biggest difference of all. SNL isn’t trying to change anyone’s minds with sketches like this. But it’s helpful to remind people that no matter who they voted for this past week, each person hates the aggressive noise that a chip reader makes. And that’s not nothing when it comes to finding common ground.
I look back at past recaps and see a whole host of misses when it comes to sketch inclusion. I somehow overlooked David S. Pumpkins the first time around, which I’ll blame on lack of coffee. But I also missed last season’s “Friendos,” which I came thiiiiis close to selecting. Ultimately, I omitted it because my Migos knowledge is so limited that I basically walked away. That was dumb. Oh well.
This sketch takes the lyrical precision and incredible production values of “Friendos” and brings it into the #MeToo world by taking an ostensibly exploitative rap video and turning it into a lesson about consent. The Booty Kings (played by Chris Redd and Kenan Thompson) aren’t exactly woke, but they are trying hard to adapt to the realization that the women they had been objectifying actually have real names. (“We allies in this bitch!” is a loaded mission statement, to say the least.) Cameos by Future and musical guest Lil Wayne don’t just make this a parody of rap music but rather an inclusive critique. “Permission” smartly notes that it’s not the responsibility of women to dress down at a club, but rather men’s responsibility to be on the “hunt for consent.” It’s a sneaky sketch that gets its message across with a great beat and big cameos.
Weekend Update: Pete Davidson Apologizes to Lt. Com. Dan Crenshaw
This season’s cycle of “Saturday Night Live causes controversy, Saturday Night Live milks the controversy by address it in the following episode” hasn’t been its strongest feature. The Kanye West dust-up earlier this fall seemed like one designed to create its own feedback loop, which made the show’s distancing from West’s outburst seem disingenuous. But this? This is something different altogether.
I’m not here to tell you if this was “good” or “bad.” As the “Unity Song” taught us, we’re probably not going to agree when the third-rail of politics is in play. However, “hating on Pete Davidson” probably is something that could have been included in that song, at least at this point in time. And this is coming from a huge Pete Davidson fan! The guy is the best “Update” performer since Adam Sandler, and brings such a unique vibe/energy/perspective/flow to that desk that it’s a joy almost every time he appears. I don’t know if his joke about Dan Crenshaw last week was delivered as scripted or if he just went rogue on live television, but it doesn’t matter: Even if some of the outrage may have been overplayed by certain outlets and factions, he shouldn’t have said it in the way that he did. There are dozens of things Davidson could have said about Crenshaw. But mocking the result of a combat-based injury is the third rail of third rails. Should he have been allowed to say it? Sure! But that doesn’t mean he had to say it.
Again, I don’t know anything about the lead-up to the joke last week. But putting Davidson out there this week as the sacrificial lamb to take his lumps next to Crenshaw himself if it weren’t his own screw-up would be harsh to say the least. Unlike many politicians that appear on SNL, Crenshaw had really good comedic timing, and the show did everything in its power to make Davidson look like the heel here. I’m not sure if we needed another reminder that Davidson and Ariana Grande just had a hugely publicized break-up, but the ringtone gag was amazingly delivered all the same. (To his credit, Davidson took his lumps like a champ, selling for Crenshaw like a professional wrestler ensuring his partner looked good.)
Will this segment cause controversy all over again? Sure! Probably! It’s that kinda time right now. I’m not interested in who “won” this particular round, but I’m interested that SNL seemed genuinely interested in using this moment as one for de-escalation rather than a moment to re-inject itself into the zeitgeist. The latter might happen anyway, but the segment itself suggests this will be a byproduct rather than the primary reason for its existence.