Rachel Brosnahan hosted the first Saturday Night Live of 2019, but the show didn’t do much to highlight her comedic skills. Some hosts serve as the centerpiece of the proceedings. Others blend into the ensemble cast, making it seem as if they have always been there. But Brosnahan (through no fault of her own) didn’t get a chance to make much of an impression at all. Structurally, the show gave her minimal screen time: A long cold open, an extended “Weekend Update,” and a pre-taped segment all were minus the star of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which reduced her presence and thus her impact.
The episode as a whole had the usual ups and downs that define Season 44, which does its best work when directly engaging with the world around it rather than operating in a vacuum. But there were several direct hits, ones that sparked laughter but will undoubtedly provoke plenty of discussion until James McAvoy hosts next week.
Weekend Update: Pete Davidson & John Mulaney Review Clint Eastwood’s “The Mule”
The Pete Davidson/Ariana Grande opera is one that is better discussed in parts of the internet other than this little nook of Al Gore’s invention. SNL often made it this nook’s business by consistently trotting out Davidson to discuss it, which had its own successes and failures. But his seemingly suicidal thoughts during the week of 2018’s final episode was another thing altogether: The show didn’t directly address it, and pointing it out in this space felt self-serving at best and harmful at worst. It’s easy to pretend that we know the Not Ready For Primetime Players, but we don’t, and that’s OK. Probably for the best, really.
But I can still say that it absolutely delighted me to see him back in Studio 8H, and paired up with John Mulaney in what felt like the formation of a comedic supergroup before a national audience’s eyes. Their extended run about The Mule somehow addressed Davidson’s issues even though they were rarely mentioned. By simply taking Davidson to this movie, Mulaney allowed him to focus on mocking a “superhero movie for old people” rather than his own problems. This doesn’t “solve” Davidson’s trauma, but it’s not supposed to, either. It’s a temporary balm on an otherwise almost impossibly difficult situation. Comedy isn’t meant to solve everything, but it can sometimes be exactly what’s needed.
What we see here is a great bit about an apparently bananas movie, but it’s also an example of pure friendship on display. How successful was it? I normally hate anytime anyone on SNL breaks onscreen, or seems unprepared for a sketch, and yet I cheered each time Mulaney trotted out a new joke that Davidson had apparently never heard before, sending the laughter into convulsive laughter. Maybe Mulaney gave Davidson the “Stefon” treatment, surprising him on live TV with new material. Who knows? All I know is that I would pay hard-earned money to see “The Mule-aney” in theaters, and would pay extra for the DVD commentary in which Mulaney just made Davidson laugh for 90 minutes.
Deal Or No Deal Cold Open
Game show parodies are as old as SNL itself, but there’s still something fairly relevant about portraying the government shutdown via this prism. “We decided to do this in the only format you understand: A TV game show with women holding briefcases,” says Kenan Thompson’s Steve Harvey early on, and he’s not just talking about Trump. At this point, we’re all watching a zero-sum game in which there is no compromise, only winners and losers. (At this point, there only seem to be losers, particularly those affected by the shutdown.)
Kate McKinnon gets the lion’s share of the time amongst the briefcase-holding members of Congress, once again establishing her primacy as the show’s go-to laugh-getter at this point in SNL history. Melissa Villaseñor hit the absolute jackpot when she started portraying Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez last Fall, but unfortunately gets little to do here. At this point, Alec Baldwin’s Trump is the Green Beef of impressions, so far past its expiration date that it’s best not to suggest once again that it’s better for the show to talk about Trump rather than overtly portray him onscreen. Still, the show will keep him around until Trump is no longer president or satire is outlawed in the United States, whichever occurs first.
In keeping with the game show theme, this Press Your Luck-inspired segment has venom to spare. What initially seems like a lazy “millennials are just THE WORST, am I right?” sketch turns into an indictment of the generations before them that paved the way for their current state. The fact that so many will probably disagree with that interpretation is what will make this one of the most discussed parts of the 2019 premiere.
While this sketch is many things, “subtle” is not one of them. It paints both baby boomers and millennials in broad strokes, but Thompson’s Gen X host is also a villain hiding in plain sight. After repeated barbs leveled at his twenty-something contestants and the baby boomers that torture them, the host casually says something like, “I’m Generation X, I just sit on the side and watch the world burn.” Much like in the cold open, this sketch features a lot of people simply talking past each other, which reflects 2019 in its purest form. The fact that this sketch doesn’t take a side will infuriate some. That fact that it doesn’t is actually its greatest strength. It encourages dialogue after viewing, which I imagine will be plentiful.