New calendar year. Same Saturday Night Live season.
The inconsistencies of Season 43 continue, with each solid sketch paired with one that either makes you shake your head, stare in silence, or reach for the remote. On paper, having Sam Rockwell host seemed like a slam-dunk. His quirky energy, off-kilter presence, and comedic timing seemed tailor-made for the show. In actuality, the overall vibe was off, with Rockwell often trying to drag sketches into being rather than simply serving them. Such dragging sometimes led to flop sweat, other times to FCC violations. When sketches worked, it was a relief. But things rarely worked.
But rarely is enough for our purposes here. The political cold open did not feature Alec Baldwin, but had another famous face delight the crowd. On top of that, two segments reinforced the show’s most powerful theme this season. Here are three segments people will be talking about until Jessica Chastain hosts next week.
Addressing something as serious as the Time’s Up movement at something as normally frivolous as the Golden Globes gave many entertainment outlets a challenge they rarely met this past weekend. Tonally bizarre, clueless and often unintentionally underscoring the very issues they should have been condemning, the coverage outraged many. Those more comfortable with a Mani-Cam versus horrible men were left scrambling to save face.
This sketch plays into the show’s central strength this year: The ability to address the post-Harvey Weinstein world while acknowledging its status as a continuum of the status quo before those revelations were made public. Cecily Strong in particular has served as the show’s primary voice of outrage, spitting out venomous lines with such skill that the audience often misses the import of the message. (“Before women were brave, this next segment was called ‘Puke Or Barf,’ but now it’s called ‘I Respect Her Choice’!”) The anger fueling Strong’s journalist is masked by a cheery demeanor, the façade of which peels off before our very eyes. Add this to the growing list of sketches in which SNL serves as a central voice at this stage of cultural history.
Morning Joe Michael Wolff Cold Open
Casting alumni is a tricky proposition. SNL constantly honors its past by including it in its present, and it inevitably sparks conversation. (Like this one!) With something like Tina Fey playing Sarah Palin, you ended up with an alumna playing a three-dimensional character. Here? You get Bill Murray playing Bill Murray while everyone else calls him Steve Bannon.
Is that a bad thing? Hardly! Murray’s shtick is what it is at this point, and if he’s not in a Sofia Coppola movie, he’s pretty much playing “Bill Murray,” or at least the public version that shows up in films, the stands of Wrigley Stadium or the stages of Studio 8H. People love “Bill,” he gets to read cue cards without having to figure out what makes Bannon actually tick, and everyone moves on. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s nothing memorable beyond the Murray reveal here.
What makes this sketch work, when it does work, is another alumnus. Fred Armisen’s Michael Wolff is a smarmy slow burn, a man who keeps feeding people greasy food in the form of tabloid journalism. He understands that simply saying words about Donald Trump will keep him in the eye of the media maelstrom, because even if what he says isn’t true, many people WANT it to be true. Whereas Murray simply returned to SNL, Armisen performed at it. The discussion will center around the former, but the success of this sketch is due to the latter.
Weekend Update: Aidy Bryant
SNL is many things: A historically significant television show, a breeding ground for American comedic talent, a satirical check on power. It’s also a machine, churning out episodes at a pace that can stifle individual voices for the sake of the show’s brand. While that brand can (and has) evolved depending on the cast and the era, most SNL
sketches sound like SNL more than they sound like the Not Ready For Primetime Players. That formula has propelled the
show into its fifth decade, but also keeps the actors onscreen slightly
distanced from the viewing audience at home.
That’s why it’s amazing when segments like this air. Bryant started on the show in Season 38, and has been a stalwart member of the cast ever since. But this might be one of the only times in which we’ve seen Bryant talk directly to the camera in her own voice. This isn’t Bill Murray as “Bill Murray”; rather, it’s Bryant herself being vulnerable and open on live television. Bryant, along with writers Anna Drezen and Sudi Green, do an amazing job here of depicting the universal as deeply personal. She’s talking about the “tornado” of self-lacerating thoughts that populate her brain, her daily private shaming rituals, and her need to make her message palatable to those that rarely pay it any heed. Yes, it’s a hyper-real depiction, but it’s still real all the same.
And yet, it’s ultimately uplifting: When she suggests that a week-long shaming shouldn’t have been necessary for Mark Wahlberg to donate his $1.5 million earnings for his All The Money In The World reshoots, half the audience broke out in instantaneous applause. Bryant connected with the audience, and that connection is a powerful tool that SNL rarely attempts to use. There’s a reason most people think the first cast that they watched is the “best” cast the show ever had. We form bonds with these people, even if they are ephemeral and one-way. Having that connect extend in a bidirectional manner doesn’t happen often. But when it does, it’s magic.