Hey guys, have you heard about this show called Fleabag? Have you watched it? You totally should! I’ll wait. You don’t have to read this recap right away. Go ahead, watch it. Read Alan Sepinwall’s review if you need more convincing.
OK, just wanted to get that out of the way. Now let’s talk some Saturday Night Live, which built on its successful season premiere and delivered another episode with far more highs than lows. When a show is so packed that not even an excellent Phoebe Waller-Bridge monologue can make the cut, you know you have a good episode.
For her part, Waller-Bridge didn’t overpower the cast so much as simply blend in with the ensemble. As someone who possesses a titanic amount of energy and charisma (again, watch Fleabag!), this was definitely a choice versus an inability to rise to the occasion. Given her theatrical background, it’s no surprise that she seemed comfortable in Studio 8H. Whether playing a befuddled game show contestant, a reluctantly competitive news anchor, or a jealous wartime wife, Waller-Bridge demonstrated why she’s one of the most sought after talents in Hollywood today. This is her world, and we’re just lucky to be living in it.
Let’s look at the three sketches people will be talking about until Stranger Things’ David Harbour hosts next week.
When dealing with Washington politics in sketch form, SNL often falls flat. But in dealing with the politics of the everyday? The show has been delivering some of its most consistently solid comedy over the past few seasons. When processing topics such as race and gender far away from the White House, the show often yields sharp insights about the way these subjects inform our everyday interactions.
This sketch, which answers the question, “What would happen if a news team read the news as if live-tweeting it?”, is an example of how good the show can be when its focus is small. As with the next sketch on this week’s list, this is an exercise in escalation: once Kenan Thompson and the vastly underused Ego Nwodim cheer on the identity of the first criminal discussed, the news team gets increasingly competitive about who is “winning” the day’s news.
Each crime turns into a mini-mystery, with some following the stereotypical path given the initial details and some featuring last-second twists. The peak comes with the tale of a man rock climbing in Utah, with Nwodim’s horror at the victim’s name (Laquan Jenkins), Alex Moffat’s pumped reaction, and Chris Redd’s manic scorekeeping cap off an incredible run that pokes fun of racial stereotypes while simultaneously demonstrating how often people derive incorrect information from a mere headline.
The War In Words: William and Lydia
A surprise return of a standout sketch from last season’s Claire Foy episode, this is another example of a simple premise getting layer upon additional layer until the audience simply submits to the utter insanity on display. There are entire seasons of television that don’t pack in as much plot as these sketches do. While it would have been easy to simply take the Mad Libs approach and simply reskin the initial script, this one takes some minor detours that keeps things both fresh and familiar for those that loved the original. I don’t know if it’s the law that this sketch has to appear whenever a British actress hosts the show, but I can’t say I’d be mad if that were indeed the case.
Whereas Foy’s character was something of a Machiavellian mastermind, Waller-Bridge’s wife is more of a jealous airhead. She’s utterly unaware of the location of their dog, keeps dropping bombshells about the status of William’s parents, and ultimately sends their only son to the front lines. The only time she takes a vested interest in anything William does is when she learns of him speaking to the French girlfriend of his deceased brother in arms, which sends her into a flying rage (and also to a cocktail party attended by Adolph Hitler). This is a simple idea, perfectly executed, and I can’t wait for the third one down the road.
Weekend Update: Chen Biao on US-China Trade War
There are several categories of “Most Enjoyable SNL Moments,” times in which the show goes from “good” to “special.” These include (but are not limited to): Show Defines The Political Moment, Character at Its Peak Power Getting the Audience Rock Star Treatment, Surprising Yet Perfectly Executed Cameo, Everyone Breaks But Somehow It’s Endearing Instead Of Off-Putting, and the one under which this sketch falls: “New Actor Making Their Presence Known for the First Time.”
Bowen Yang made his first onscreen appearance last season, and had a few small roles last week, but he gets his breakout moment here as Chinese trade representative Chen Biao. Yang carries himself like a multi-year veteran, with a fully-formed character that is instantly recognizable yet nothing like anyone else on the show right now. Some of the jokes may soon be dated (such as the one about the Vassar sophomore who drinks out of a metal straw and it’s such a performance), but the dig about China actually having built its wall is one of those home run jokes that will be played on hundreds of news outlets and aggregator sites throughout the week.
Some hate nothing more than a discussion of the composition of SNL’s cast, but the frank truth is you don’t get to do a segment like this unless you have someone like Yang in the troupe. The whole “funny is funny” argument falls apart if there is only one segment of the population in the show’s cast, because there’s an inherent limit to what “funny” can be put onscreen. After the nadir of Season 39’s casting controversies, SNL has made progress on diversifying its roster. The work there is ongoing and will never truly be done, but the fact that two of the three sketches featured here this week wouldn’t have even possible six seasons ago speaks for itself.