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Lin-Manuel Miranda brings energy (and Hamilton) to SNL

And the show finally calls Trump a piece of shit

B+
Lin-Manuel Miranda (Screenshot: NBC)
Lin-Manuel Miranda (Screenshot: NBC)
B+

Saturday Night Live

"Lin-Manuel Miranda/Twenty One Pilots"

Season 42 , Episode 2

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“I’m not an actor, I’m a [huge, all-time Broadway musical] star!”

First up, a confession—I’d never heard all of Hamilton before today when, as dutiful reviewer, I shotgunned the entire cast album in an afternoon. The fact that my respect for the talents of tonight’s host, Lin-Manuel Miranda, shot skyward afterward, and that that improbably thrilling musical was ringing in my head while watching Miranda on SNL had me trying to tamp down my expectations. When a host whose contributions to entertainment perhaps overshadows Saturday Night Live’s itself, it’s generally a recipe for a bit of a letdown, and this was no exception, although still a fine episode on its own. That Miranda was so clearly excited to be hosting a show he says he’s watched since he was a kid (even dropping a Laraine Newman reference as proof during his “My Shot”-inspired monologue musical number) was endearing as hell, and, as host, he threw himself into every sketch with similar enthusiasm. When the absurdly accomplished Miranda exclaimed, “This has been the best week of my life!” during the goodnights, it’s clear he means it.

Again, tamping down those expectations of, perhaps, SNL turning into a Miranda-infused musical theater extravaganza (I don’t even like musicals—that’s how good Hamilton is), Miranda did great in some above-average sketches. None stood out particularly, although none were duds, either. His mandated Hamilton opener was the highlight, as the host (I’m assuming) rewrote his song with characteristic wit and smarts, dropping SNL references both well-trod and obscure while rapping his way through the audience, backstage (where Lorne begs for tickets), and then back onto home base. Virtuosity on display, it was joyous and fun and reverent, all at the same time. I thought it a little odd that the cast didn’t appear alongside him, considering the show’s propensity for throwing the players onstage for every other host musical number, but that’s the only complaint. (Miranda had some anonymously energetic backup dancers instead.)

In the other sketches, only “Crucible Cast Party” made full use of Miranda-as-musical-performer, although a number of other sketches teased it. The first sketch saw him noodling through “Blowin’ In The Wind” with Cecily Strong on a camping trip before creepy sibling weirdos Vanessa Bayer and Kyle Mooney stole the spotlight with horribly booming (and inexplicably accented) Kenny Loggins covers. Miranda joins in, gamely, in the end. A sketch about him as a “cool” substitute teacher defeated by the fact that his seen-it-all class is wise to his every “Shakespeare was the original rapper” tricks, sees him slamming his laptop closed on his promised Hamlet rap before it gets started. And there’s even a Music Man sketch, where the long “Wells Fargo Wagon” opening from the cast introduces Miranda’s huckster—only to see him not sing, but, instead, try to sign the townspeople up for fraudulent “exploding mortgages” and unwanted credit cards.

Conscious or not, the swerve in audience expectations (and my hopes, dammit) would have worked out better if those sketches were a bit better. Still, they were all above-average, and Miranda—clearly unintimidated by live performance, no matter his reverence for SNL—threw himself into them with obvious delight at being part of the show.

Weekend Update update

Well, after nearly a year, Saturday Night Live finally took off the gloves when it came to Republican presidential candidate and former host Donald Trump. Colin Jost and Michael Che devoted more than half their jokes tonight to pummeling Trump for his (most) recent reprehensible behavior, this time the appalling 2005 comments about women leaked yesterday. In one of those jokes, Jost calls out the Republicans just now jumping off the Trump train, stating with practiced incredulity, “Like this one is the deal-breaker.” Good slam on politicians uninterested in doing so when Trump said similarly offensive and horrible things about Mexicans, the disabled, Muslims, women, Muslim families of deceased American veterans, veterans with PTSD, more women, and honestly who the fuck can keep track any more. Fine, and long overdue—except that SNL is doing exactly the same thing.

As Che and Jost went after Trump with obvious glee (and did it well, as we’ll get to), it still raises the question of why it took this most recent deplorable-bomb to unleash the show’s full satirical fury on a person they turned the show over to just last season. Granted, that’s 11 months less ammunition (in the form of every other thing that’s come out of Trump’s mouth) they had to go on, but even then Trump was still facing protests outside 30 Rock about that whole “Mexicans are rapists” and “ban all Muslims from entering the country” bullshit. In the shows since—and, tellingly, tonight—there was no addressing of what I, for one and ad nauseam, have called the single most damaging hosting call the show has ever made.

That all being said, the gleeful Trump-bashing all night (see the political comedy report below) was, indeed, gleeful. And refreshingly topical. It’s energizing when SNL incorporates just-happened news into a live show (and a bummer when it doesn’t), so all the material about yesterday’s revelations braced the jokes even further. Which were impressively hard. The cold open mined most of its humor out of Trump being a potty-mouth, essentially, but Jost and Che here called things what they are. It’s not that Trump said “Grab ’em by the pussy” (again, this is the Republican candidate for president, ugh), it’s that he, as Che came out and said, bragged about how he used his power to sexually intimidate women into allowing his scumbag advances. “They’ll let you do anything because you’re a celebrity,” quotes Che, adding, “So you’re literally explaining your entitlement.”

Too often, SNL skims shallowly. Here, Jost and Che say the words. Jost’s “You’re caught saying one of the most upsetting things we’ve ever heard,” could be a wishy-washy attack on Trump’s crudity if he didn’t follow up by trashing Trump’s excuse that, basically, all guys talk that way when there are no women around. Jost goes dark with, “Which locker room, Penn State?,” before, again, doubling down with, “This isn’t ‘just how guys talk.’ It’s not how humans talk.” I don’t know how Jost and Che truly feel as people about Donald Trump. They’re comedians, and performers. But at least, freed up by that tipping point that has people openly wondering if the GOP is going to do something drastic (they seem to have already announced the RNC is withdrawing funds from Trump’s campaign), they go for blood tonight, and they do it exceptionally well.

However, in what should be another satirical triumph, Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon’s surprise appearance as two uninformed but pivotal female Philadelphia voters was almost entirely a disappointment. Having four Update anchors behind the desk should, itself, be a thing, but Che doesn’t get any screen time at all. (He sort of shoulders himself into frame at the end.) And the too-long bit is slackly written and performed. And while the main blame for both “slack” and “too long” goes to Fallon (whose self-impressed, giggly presence was especially infuriating), Fey did’t rise to the occasion either. The whole point of the bit (apart from Fey mocking Fallon’s character for liking Trump and for wanting to muss his hair, get it?) was that suburban moms aren’t especially well-informed or smart, seemingly, something that, with Fey involved, had me shaking my head. Despite how the two pronounced “hoagies,” the performances (and accents) were all over the place, with Fey not bothering to do hers once she launched a Fey-esque attack on Mike Pence’s anti-gay, anti-woman agenda.

Pete Davidson has started taking hair loss drugs, apparently. Pete’s cute, and innocuous.

Best/worst sketch of the night

After the cold open and Miranda’s rousing monologue, the first proper sketch (about the campers) was my least favorite of the night, although not an embarrassment or anything.

Miranda’s rap skills came back into play in “Crucible Cast Party,” the first musical short of the season. The joke, about virginal high school theater kids playing at being decadent (complete with Sprite, pretzels, a massage train, and one stolen cigarette) isn’t anything original, but Manuel’s appearance brings the bit to life, his perpetual leading man wowing the crowd (including their teacher, creepily) by promising to tell them what the next play will be (it’s Rent) if the girls have sex with him. It’s not Hamilton-worthy, or really up to the standards the show has set for these pieces over the last few years, but it’s fine.

The Stranger Things season-two sneak peak built on the Duffer Brothers’ humorously sheepish admission that they’d forgotten to give lone black protagonist Lucas parents, and then takes a surprisingly biting turn when the boy’s no-nonsense folks (Kenan Thompson and Leslie Jones) tell him, “Baby, people who look like us already live in the Upside Down. You don’t have to go looking for scary stuff. It finds you.” They also immediately put their hands up when the sheriff shows up. (Miranda does an a good Dustin, for the record.)

And Miranda’s sweet filmed piece “Diego Calls His Mom” manages to toss in a little social satire in there, too, as his immigrant dishwasher in North Dakota calls his mom with jokes about American excess (and need to carpet everything) ending with a kindly old man railing against immigrants stealing jobs—before assuring the benignly smiling Diego he doesn’t mean him. Low key, but well done.

“What do you call that act?” “The Californians!”—Recurring sketch report

I don’t think there was one. Did I miss a recurring sketch? Did SNL not do one? What show am I watching?

“It was my understanding there would be no math”—Political comedy report

SNL pulled a swerve on us with the political cold open. I audibly groaned, thinking they were going to stick with a pre-planned VP debate sketch (seemingly since Mikey Day and Beck Bennett had worked on their Tim Kaine and Mike Pence impressions and all), ignoring yesterday’s bombshell and today’s fallout. But Pence’s “And I dare you to show me a single shred of evidence,” cut to breaking news (the VP debate was announced as a rebroadcast, for chronology’s sake), with Alec Baldwin bringing back his Trump to rebut the un-rebuttable. Baldwin’s take on Trump is still solid, although he kept doing a move where it looks like Trump’s facial contortions are threatening to see his skull force its way through his face. (He also seems to be letting his Robert DeNiro creep into the impression.) It’s here, though, that it looked like the show was going to focus solely of Trump’s “vulgar language” (as headlines everywhere keep incompletely describing it), with the biggest laugh coming when Cecily Strong’s Brooke Baldwin tries to talk around Trump’s quote, only for Baldwin to unashamedly blurt out “Grab ’em by the pussy.” It gets its shock laugh—the word is censored in an Update ad parody later—and Strong does convey the absolute, predatory creepiness of What Trump has revealed about himself with some effectively horrified facial gestures. (Plus, she is revealed to be hugging herself for comfort after a while.)

Still, the main joke is “Trump is a boor who doesn’t know/care when his mic is on” rather than “the Republican candidate for president is now an admitted embodiment of rape culture,” with the rest of the sketch playing similarly glib when it shows how thrilled Hillary Clinton is by the revelations. I’m sure Clinton isn’t unhappy that her path to the White House seemingly just got easier, and, as ever, Kate McKinnon’s a hoot, swigging champagne to “Celebration” and castigating women voters for staying loyal to her opponent. But SNL generally keeps its political characterizations on a single track, and McKinnon’s Hillary stays mostly skin-deep.

There’s plenty more happy Trump-smashing all night long. Miranda’s opening sees his rap cut just short of calling Trump a “piece of shit” when he sees Trump’s autographed host headshot on the wall backstage, and he breaks into the refrain from “The Reynolds Pamphlet” for a moment. (“Never gonna be president...”)

The funny filmed piece “A Day Off With Kellyanne Conway” sees Kate McKinnon’s version of the Trump campaign manager constantly recalled from her idyllic life (scored to “Walking On Sunshine,” as all carefree lives are) to spin her boss’ incessant appalling statements. McKinnon gives it her all as always, and—being filmed before yesterday’s news, the absurd Trump-isms she doggedly denies are humorously absurd. (“Of course black people don’t have one less toe...”) Although they’re just plausible enough, considering.

“Melania Moments” returns, too, the show’s attempt at a Trump-targeted “Deep Thoughts” going dark, as Mrs. Trump speculates that Trump’s next wife is just now being born in rural Latvia. That she resolves to kidnap the child, not for her own sake, but for the little girl’s, makes Melania more of an active player in the bit than her initial appearance last week, making the joke better, and darker.

I am hip to the musics of today

Considering tonight’s host, Twenty One Pilots played an appropriately theatrical mix of mopey ballad, dark half-rap, full string section, laser light show, and changing tempos and styles mid-song. It wasn’t Hamilton, but it wasn’t dull, although I don’t know how many reggae-flavored white guy songs I need to hear at this point.

Most/Least Valuable (Not Ready For Prime Time) Player

Pretty well-balanced distribution tonight, so Jost and Che claim the top spot, jointly. My reservations are stated above, but they went all in.

“What the hell is that thing?”—The Ten-To-Oneland Report

The WWII movie where dying soldier Pete Davidson (as “Brooklyn”) begs commanding officer Miranda to dispose of his embarrassing stuff like a butt plug, bad boogie-woogie songs, and pictures of him looking “sassy” looked poised to turn into a lame gay joke. But there’s no real meanness to the silliness, and there are enough sufficiently eccentric details (“The butt plug is bigger than you’d expect, just be ready for that”) to make it a recognizably solid ten-to-one sketch.

Stray observations

  • Melissa Villaseñor, playing VP debate moderator Elaine Quijano, breaks character to announce that she, SNL’s first Hispanic cast member, is playing the Asian Quijano “because, baby steps.”
  • Kenan’s deadpan disdain in the substitute teacher sketch is consistently great. “Question everything!” “That’s a hard pass.”
  • Jost, admonishing that the Trump tape is undoubtedly just the tip of the iceberg: “This is just the worst thing he said to Billy Bush, while miked, on an Access Hollywood bus.”
  • Che: “You started off your campaign by accusing all Mexicans as being rapists. Now you’re on tape explaining how you sexually assault women. The only way it could be more hypocritical is if you said it in Spanish.”
  • And again, on Trump’s Tic Tacs: “I don’t think the problem women have with sexual assault is bad breath. That’s like Bill Cosby using a coaster for one of his love potions.”
  • “You don’t have to be scared, it’s the police chief.” “We know.”
  • That’s some rough direction in the WWII sketch, with a few missed cuts and Davidson looking like he was not expecting those explosions in his face.
  • The new, reduced-advertisement SNL shows up in the fact that four filmed pieces no doubt allow for the costume and set changes the commercials used to cover. Didn’t notice an uptick in the threatened “integrated advertising” yet. Anyone?
  • Hamilton is a very good musical, you guys.