Since the departure of so many mainstays last year, the current SNL cast has struggled to find its identity. There are enough talented performers in the current cast, but the show has yet to foreground a real core group to build the show around. Part of that may be the sheer number of bodies—I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a rather brutal culling of the herd before next year. Apart from overpopulation though, it increasingly appears that no one cast member has the drive to take over the show. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily—as much as SNL misses Kristen Wiig’s insatiable drive, that sort of recurring character machine reaches a point of diminishing returns after awhile. (The list of Wiig characters I never need to see again is a long, varied, and shrill one.) But, as attractive a concept as a recurring-character-free SNL might be, it’s not the case that this season has been based around original, ensemble-based sketches, either. As seen in tonight’s episode, there are plenty of cast members throwing their favorites out there again and again—it’s just that they’re not strong enough to provide the sort of cheap seats yuks SNL thrives on.
That all being said, tonight’s Charlize Theron-hosted SNL revealed one of this year’s undeniable strengths—there are a lot of funny women in this cast. Out of the ten sketches tonight, seven of them were centered on female characters. Not that keeping score has anything to do with the quality of the show, but it’s refreshing to see so many talented women get a chance to strut their stuff. Even if the writing isn’t the sharpest.
Take the cold open. There’s the standard disappointment that comes from SNL not taking on a political issue in a meaningful way. And then there’s the bewilderment and genuine annoyance when the show goes out of its way to get something wrong for the sake of a lame bit. Michele Obama and Hillary Clinton do not have any sort of personal or professional rivalry. They are not in the same profession, neither they nor their loved ones are running against each other, and their political beliefs more or less align from what I can tell. And yet, under the umbrella of a joint Mother’s Day TV appearance, they immediately start sniping. Vanessa Bayer and Sasheer Zamata both throw themselves into their respective impressions, but there’s no motor to this sketch—when Amy Poehler’s Clinton and Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin went at each other, it made sense. Here, unless the premise is that any two accomplished, professional women will devolve into catty one-upmanship if left alone together long enough, the cold open had no point at all.
Theron’s monologue was—hold on to your hats—a musical number. I suppose it’s dull to harp on the overuse of this device, but the show keeps doing the damn thing. The song itself was an uneasy mix of shameless fawning over the host’s purported graces (the line “She’s a nearly perfect human” is in there), and chiding about her inability to sing. It’s cute, I guess, and the old clip brought back some nice memories of Ana Gasteyer and Maya Rudolph from Theron’s last gig 14 years ago (more on that later), but there are a near-infinite number of ways to approach a monologue, instead of the “unexpected musical piece,” and “unexpected interruption from the cast and audience” which make up three-quarters of all monologues ever these days (unless the host is a standup.) Theron herself used to be on my list of pretty people who were overpraised for one “brave” role (see: Halle Berry, new inductee Jared Leto), but she played herself off with her stint on Arrested Development. Tonight, while never particularly funny on her own, she was a gamer, donning various unflattering costumes and allowing herself to be slathered in whale blood while the women of SNL took over the show, to greater and lesser effect.
Kate McKinnon is one of those performers with the ability to take the show on her back. She can go big (and her crazy-eyed energy definitely hasn’t worn out its welcome there), but tonight she again showed her equal facility with more low-key character pieces. The game show template is as worn out as the musical monologue (what would the show look like if there were a game show sketch moratorium?), but McKinnon took the mom-hosted quiz show “Come Do A Game Show With Your Mom. It’ll Be Fun. Yes It Will” and turned it into a showcase for herself while still keeping the premise grounded. The second Mother’s Day sketch of the night was dead on in the way it played on the loving but bemused relationship grown children have with their moms. Theron, allowed to name her prize, chooses that mom McKinnon will have to delete her Facebook, only for McKinnon to exclaim, “That’s my window into your world!” McKinnon’s delivery throughout finds the sweet spot where her mom tries to maintain the façade of connection to her adult kids while at the same time hinting at the manic desperation within. The lightning round where the kids view pictures of their mom’s friends while guessing what she thinks about them concludes with the correct guess (about a smiling acquaintance) “She knows what she did,” and her final pronouncement “We’re all winners because we’re all together!” rides on McKinnon’s ability to inhabit a character so completely.
That gift for creating specific little weirdoes comes into play again in the later cat lady sketch where McKinnon, alongside a gamely creepy Theron, cuddles a series of adorable kitties while allowing gradually more unsettling details to emerge. Apart from some admirably odd touches (one cat speaks three cat languages: calico, tabby, and German, and one spotted fellow is actually a baby jaguar who only eats bald eagles), it’s all McKinnon’s show, taking a clichéd type and making it her own. Plus, the cuteness of the kittens was fraught with the sort of tension that comes from having terrified animals on TV. (Google “Michael Palin” + “cats in pants” for an example of why.)
Aidy Bryant and Cecily Strong are staking out their territory as well, and while the unchanging nature of the Girlfriends Talk Show sketch doesn’t offer much variety, the tragically unequal relationship at its heart still provides enough central tension for them to bounce their performances around. Strong’s obliviously chipper “Awesome!” remains laser-guided to deflate her less worldly pal’s enthusiasm, but it’s Bryant’s sketch. Here, too, the ability to create a memorable character in a short space of time makes Bryant’s Morgan, desperately clinging to the childhood represented by her friendship with Strong’s Kyra in the face of each week’s cooler guest and her own unpredictably burgeoning sexuality, painfully memorable. The reveal that Theron’s former drama teacher was justifiably fired after only two days is funny, but it’s Bryant’s delivery of lines like “Can I just ask you for no more feedback please?” that makes me not roll my eyes when this admittedly middling sketch pops back up.
Nasim Pedrad brought back Heshy Al-Fahi for the first time since the Kerry Washington episode, this time as a motivational speaker attempting to impart her largely unsuccessful dating advice to a conference room full of similarly downtrodden single ladies. Pedrad, too, can bring the funny, and her perky energy lends prototypical “loser” characters like Heshy an endearing resilience. Alongside another dressed-down Theron sidekick, Pedrad’s Heshy bounds though her array of dance moves and sound effects with the determination of a trouper, even when she relates how eHarmony once sent her an email just asking, “Are you okay?” That being said, I think we’ve had enough Heshy for a while.
While Taran Killam was the male lead, playing his ukulele and being sprayed by whale offal, the Bikini Beach Party sketch was basically a convocation of funny SNL women, with every distaff cast member (authentically not wearing bikinis) doing the whitest dance anywhere and knocking out a few funny lines (and revealing that Killam’s Frankie Avalon simulacrum is 22 and they’re all 13). It’s all prelude to the elaborate whale guts shower (Theron really was a good sport all episode), but the way everyone kept talking about the rotting, gas-bloated whale carcass meeting place set it up with a welcome touch of absurdity.
Strong’s spot on Update should be the vehicle for her to vault to the top of the cast, but her tenure with Colin Jost behind the desk remains a lackluster affair, the reliably innocuous jokes serving more like filler for whatever correspondents are on that week. All you crazy kids can have your anti-Jost hashtag fun, but it’s undeniable that this is the weakest Weekend Update in more than a decade. Tonight we got some more photoshop jokes, a punny cutaway (“breaking nudes”) that would have to have been sold much more emphatically for it to work, and a few topical references (Putin, Rob Ford) which limply constituted what passes for topical humor these days. Strong and Jost are awfully bland back there, but they’re also not being given anything with any bite to it. For the first time in a long time, Update is a snooze.
(I suppose mention must be made of Barbara Walters’ appearance on the show, but as lovely as it was to see Gilda among the roster of Walters impersonators over the years, there’s a reason why the 84 year old Walters has never been known as a comedienne.)
The guys didn’t have much room tonight, but Mike O’Brien’s bit as the Chicago cop turned kids movie voice actor had a few laughs, especially when he and equally accented wife Strong were playing off each other in the booth. And Kyle Mooney’s filmed piece about tourists acting weird on the streets of New York was typically and engagingly odd. It could have played as cruel, making fun of those funny foreigners and their funny accents, but Mooney, Moynihan, Beck Bennett, McKinnon, Jay Pharoah, and Theron all imbued their characters with detailed characterizations which give them their own individual agency. Mooney, as usual, was the standout, delivering his repeated phrases with signature weird energy. But the concept of Theron’s fatsuited lady urging her camera on puzzled New Yorkers and then simply walking away was enduringly strange.
This season of SNL has seemed like an exercise in finding the right balance. And while, with only one episode left, it could be said that an episode like this one indicates that exercise has been a failure, I’d call it a worthwhile one. After some housecleaning, tonight’s episode shows that there are plenty of promising pieces in place going forward. Saturday Night Live is an ever-evolving machine—to put it in baseball parlance, I’d call this a rebuilding year.
- Despite the fact that Theron was presumably booked to promote her upcoming role in Seth Macfarlane’s “A Million Ways To Die In The West,” she didn’t mention it in her monologue. Neither did noted self-styled crooner Macfarlane make a drop in for the song and dance. Hmmm.
- Bobby Moynihan got another Drunk Uncle this week. I still like the bit, but his best moment was in the game show sketch where his dad, introduced for a guest question, storms in and asks a brusque, “How you doin’? You doin’ good? All right kids, here’s your mother” before ducking out again. That’s good relationship shorthand.
- “Yeah, I’ll buy the Clippers!”
- “What was the worst thing that happened to me this year?” “When we went to the movies and popcorn was 11 dollars.”
- I may have gotten the email “Fw: Fw: Fw: Fw: celery salad.” Happy Mother’s Day, mom!
- “I once took a shower with a man who called my body a complex network of flaws!”
- “I love surf music!” “Yeah, it’s just kind of nothing!”
- “If you adopt one cat we make you take the rest of them for free.”
- I am hip to the musics of today!: The Black Keys are pretty good. That is all.
- Including the Seth Rogen episode, Theron’s is the second undisguised boob-grab for Aidy Bryant this season.