Kate McKinnon, Jessica Chastain, Cecily Strong (Screenshot: NBC)

“I love how woke it is in here right now.”

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [movie and, perhaps even more usefully, Broadway] star!”

Part of the enduring fun of Saturday Night Live is its unpredictability. A 90-minute live show is one thing, but throwing the whole enterprise to a guest host is an added level of difficulty that—even when it runs smoothly—lends a certain urgency to the proceedings. Sometimes it works like a shot of electricity, with an unexpectedly adept performer showing off talents they’d never had a chance to exhibit. Other times, it’s a nail-biter that saps some of the enjoyment as you wonder just how many times the host can pull themselves back from disaster. On rare occasions, you can only think of the old cliché that people only watch NASCAR for the crashes.

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Then there’s someone like Jessica Chastain, whose commitment and poise—honed in a distinguished Broadway career, one suspects—makes every sketch she appears in flow with a reassuring confidence. Sketch work benefits immeasurably from such apparent effortlessness, and the ability of performers to make their characters pop with specificity. Chastain was super in her first ever hosting stint, is what I’m saying, taking to every sketch and character with a pro’s dedication and a veteran performer’s chops. Sure, it helped that there were no outright clunkers for Chastain to contend with this week—there were a handful of sketches that seemed poised to take off but never quite achieved liftoff—but even if there were, one suspects she’s stand out from the mess with the teflon dignity of the true professional. As it was in this more than solid episode, Chastain shone.

Weekend Update update

So did Jost and Che. With their now-signature aplomb, the co-anchors teed off surely on the week’s worth of bullshit from the Trump administration. There have been enough thinkpieces already about the difficulty of satire in a country apparently stripped of irony or the ability to surprise, so I’ll just say that the smirking Jost and laconic Che have developed a nice one-two punch, their contrasting styles complimenting each other as they—to mix sports metaphors—pass off the Update baton confidently. Jost snapped off a line about Donald Trump trying to blame Democratic leader Chuck Schumer for the present government shutdown, saying it’s just like Trump “to blame a minority.” Che took the shutdown pass and, with his looser style, found another way to the net (goal, hoop—look, sports metaphors are hard, all right?), asking if this means we’ll have our taxes prorated “with an eagle, or an apple pie, or something.” Jost shifted to the newest Trump sex scandal (about paying hush money to adult film star Stormy Daniels for an affair the two allegedly had while wife Melania was recovering from the birth of their son, in case anyone’s fallen behind), referring to the rumor that Trump compared Daniels to daughter Ivanka as “somehow the grossest thing a man has ever said to Stormy Daniels.” Che took it forward from another angle, feigning surprise that an old rich guy would sleep with a porn star while his wife was out of commission with tight, “Clutch my pearls!” As seen in another sketch tonight, attacking this mounting pile of ludicrous horseshit every week requires more imagination than simply pointing out that Donald Trump’s administration is nothing but ludicrous horseshit. Che and Jost’s doubles act is just one method, but they continue to make it look easy.

A packed Update saw Mikey Day and Alex Moffat break out their English Princes William and Harry, respectively in one guest piece. It was a goof more than anything, with the two pretty adorably teasing each other like only two brothers can, before finally getting around to delivering the message that, as royals, they can’t comment on why England apparently wants no part of a Trump state visit. If they’re not the equal of the Day-Moffat Trump brothers, the (ably prosthetic-heavy) princes played off of each other with the ease that the pair have developed in their identical tenures as featured players.

Kate McKinnon broke out yet another of her Trump-adjacent impressions to fine effect, as she (sporting even more prosthetics than Moffat’s beaked William) came out as a dying-to-spill Robert Mueller. In an episode that engaged with the Trump situation (I have no idea what else to call this racist, incompetent, dangerous shitshow) more toothily than any in recent memory, McKinnon’s Mueller—teasing out hints of what’s to come in the Trump-Russia investigation with barely restrained glee—was more an exercise in cathartic wishful thinking than anything else. (“Yeah, we good,” her Mueller assures Che coyly, before breaking off another revelation right after confiding, “I have actual footage of him...”) McKinnon makes as nimble a meal of her turn here as her Mueller does of the toothpick he flicks excitedly around in his teeth, and the whole preemptive gloating schtick worked like a tonic on a clearly delighted audience looking for some much-needed relief.

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But the best and most surprising piece was Cecily Strong’s stellar turn as said adult film actress and director Daniels. When Jost threw to the character, I was prepared for some more cheap jokes, perhaps with a dispiriting edge of slut-shaming “dumb porn star” humor. But Strong went another way entirely, presenting Daniels as a smart, calculating, and no-bullshit adult, as opposed to just an “adult film star.” I have no idea how accurate an approximation of the real-life Daniels Strong’s performance is, but Strong’s depiction of the longtime porn star as a battle-hardened, take-no-prisoners opportunist had a perverse dignity to it. Mocking Jost for being surprised at her directing career (“In our industry, we actually have female directors.”), Daniels, confessing that she’d slept with Trump in the first place to try to get on Celebrity Apprentice, went hard after an American public whose hunger for short-attention-span reality show drama is part of what has brought the country to this incessantly humiliating pass in the first place. Calling herself a “Republican porn star who loves Sarah Palin,” Strong’s Daniels told America that “she’s the hero you deserve right now.” Elect the host of Celebrity Apprentice, pay more attention to Trump’s rumored Russian pee tape than the guy murdered in connection with the Steele dossier that outlined it, argue about which women do or do not deserve to claim the #MeToo hashtag rather than uniting against the culture of sexual predation that spawned it—you wind up pinning your hopes on Stormy and Donald’s unseemly night in an Orlando hotel. “Should I run for president?,” Daniels asks Jost in closing, a gleam in her eye glimpsing the unthinkable door the election of Donald Trump has left ajar.

Best/Worst sketch of the night

The other most thoughtfully pointed sketch of the night started out with the least promising SNL cliché of all. (I mean, it’s a horse race, but still.) How many game show sketches has Saturday Night Live done in its history? Someone out there, get on that, but it’s a lot. And the title and premise What Even Matters Anymore? doubled down on the predictable vibe, as host Chastain came out with the customary game show host ebullience and set up the joke that she’d be asking her contestants (played by Kate, Kenan, and Cecily) if a succession of Trump scandals that would have ended any other political career in history (porn star hush money, calling nonwhite countries “shitholes,” the seeming inevitable and unthinkable firing of special counsel Mueller) has or will matter to his fanatical base, or the apparently inexorable descent of American democracy further into the, well, shithole. But there came an edge of specific madness to the proceedings, which, coupled with Chastain’s remarkably contained performance, drove right past the expected comic beats.

Kenan’s contestant, responding to the host’s question about Trump’s evangelical voters caring about the whole porn star thing, responded earnestly, “It’s against everything they stand for,” before the incrementally unhinged Chastain snapped that, in the past that might have been true, but now? No points. The turn that McKinnon eventually breaks character to call Chastain by her real name to ask if she’s okay sends the sketch into another realm, as Chastain, ignoring the concern, tells the contestants to write down anything they think might actually fucking matter. “And while you’re writing, I’m just gonna drink,” she says, uncorking a wine bottle with her teeth. When the guesses come, they’re suitably absurd—Trump punches Pope, Trump cancels the Olympics for being “gay,” and Kenan’s grudging reveal of a Trump-Don Jr. sex tape—except, as the now wild-eyed Chastain proclaims, nothing matters anymore. With the three contestants all breaking character now, they assure Chastain that’s it’s all going to be okay, somehow. Doing political comedy these days is more challenging than I can ever remember, as the erosion of reason and intellectual honesty in the public discourse engendered and amplified by the rise of Donald Trump removes humor’s customary bedrock. This sketch came at the problem with its own individual approach, and it worked.

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Chris Redd got his biggest showcase of the season with his rapidly escalating take on The Fresh Prince’s opening story-song theme. Sure, it ain’t exactly timely, and Redd’s energy can’t hide that he doesn’t really have a Will Smith impression, but the filmed piece keeps on spiraling out of control, adding loopy details to the fictional Smith’s flight to supposedly safe Bel-Air until Method Man is gunning down Kenan’s Uncle Phil in a warehouse Yakuza war while Will is having his teeth yanked out so that phony FBI operative Chastain can fake his death. I appreciated it.

Chastain and Heidi Gardner both created inhabited little characters in the restaurant sketch, their chirpy friends desperately unable to figure out waiter Day’s offer of a daily special end-around. Gardner’s impressive ability to pop even in small roles bodes well for her future, and Chastain worked well with her, although the joke that they’re both sort of dumb never finds a second gear. (Although I could stand to hear more about the reason why Gardner ate a lot of raw hamburger.) Aidy Bryant got the biggest laugh, as her fellow patron tells them evenly, “Hi. I couldn’t help but overhear everything you’ve been saying, and I need for it to stop.”

The Amazon sketch, too, was a pleasant but unremarkable near-miss, as the premise that cities are desperately competing to host the online giant’s new headquarters lacked an edge. One suspects that the product placement of it all necessitated keeping CEO Jeff Bezos (Kyle Mooney) a relatively neutral figure (he is in love with Alexa, however), which defanged any criticism of the “fight for my love and give me tax breaks” element. But Redd did a funny Cory Booker, knowing full well that Newark is never going to be in the running. And Strong and Beck Bennett’s broad Bostonians brought out Moffat’s comically noncommittal Casey Affleck to good effect. (“You think you’re better than us?,” blurts Bennett’s Boston booster, after Affleck blows it.) But again, Aidy made the most of her one line as Atlanta’s representative, Paula Deen, who says of her
“triple-butter pudding,” The American Heart Association rated it ‘DON’T!’”

Another possible product placement internet behemoth sighting saw Chastain’s awkward host (another fine little characterization) presenting a Google forum on teen bullying, only for things to go off track with the revelation that one of the kids (Day, in spiky yellow hair) is bullied because of his resemblance to Bart Simpson. Day underplays nicely, and the simple sight of him sitting there in the background is giggly fun, but the sketch feels truncated, with the absurdity of the situation not building to a high enough pitch.

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

Pete Davidson’s Chad is back, this time being cluelessly lusted over by Chastain’s smitten doctor. (Turns out Chad ate a dog turd on a dare this time.) The joke is always the vapid Chad’s monosyllabic willingness to accept any of his vastly overqualified suitors’ wrenching decisions, and, as with all but the rarest recurring one-note bits, the joke was funnier about four iterations ago. Still, Chastain acts the hell out of her part, and Davidson continues to make Chad’s placidity in the face of unthinkable good fortune funny enough. For the record, Chad’s dialogue goes: “Okay,” “Okay,” “Okay,” “Noice,” “Oh, okay,” “I peed,” “Heh, heh—titty,” “Oh, okay,” “Is that a zit or a herpe?,” and, “Okay.”

“Car Hunk” worked on the same principle as “Farm Hunk” and how ever many other versions of this Bachelor parody there have been. It’s—fine. As a showcase for most of the female cast members to say weird stuff, it’s welcome, even if the rapid-fire brevity of their appearances never allows anyone to shine too much. Here, Moffat’s prized bachelor evinces a Chad-like willingness to go with the flow, even as McKinnon brings out her favorite dead squirrel (“He’s just regular dead,” and not stuffed), and Gardner’s uptalking bachelorette states, “I bet you can tell by my voice that I don’t have a dad.” But the funniest bits are the most absurd, with Moffat inexplicably being replaced for one round by an identically styled Luke Null, and the announcer asking “which one of the 12 Laurens” Moffat will pick. (Some cursory research suggests that the current Bachelor only boasts four Laurens at present, however.)

Head down to Ten-To-Oneland for the other repeater.

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

Alec Baldwin took another week off—possibly to insult the women of the #MeToo movement and.or stick up for Woody Allen—which is fine. His Trump sketches are ploddingly predictable affairs whose value now is almost entirely in their ability to drive Donald Trump into a toilet-tweeting rage. In his place, however, the press conference cold open going after White House physician Ronny Jackson’s recent, suspiciously North Korean-esque appraisal of Trump’s health took similarly unimaginative swipes at the widely ridiculed affair. Aidy Bryant, introducing Beck Bennett’s doc in the guise of her formidably mendacious approximation of White House spokes-liar Sarah Huckabee Sanders was typically solid. If nothing else, these cold opens do serve to remind everyone about a few examples of Trump’s bullshit that might otherwise get swamped by the next load. Here, Bryant’s Sanders recapped how Trump’s fiery rhetoric about his southern bigot-wall has not changed one bit, even as she rushed past all the ways that he has completely backed off on virtually every campaign promise with her signature shamelessness. Bennett’s doctor, too, hit all the expected beats as the sketch attempted to find fresh humor in a reality that seems to outpace satire at every turn. Bennett’s doctor alternates between rapturous praise of Trump’s supposed superhuman stamina (he really aced that sex exam), and sweaty hints that he’s operating under coercion. (Referring to Trump passing a basic mental competency test, the doc signals that Trump grabbed him “with the strength of someone who would fail that test.”) But, apart from the weird detail that Pete Davidson (as himself) was somehow in the press room asking about the whole porn star thing, there just weren’t any surprises here.

It was certainly no What Even Matters Anymore?

I am hip to the musics of today

I was tempted to say that the young Troye Sivan’s two songs were better than anyone whose bio includes “former YouTube vlogger” had any right to be. But, well, they were. Sure, his sultry posturing seemed like playacting coming from someone so young-looking (and the fact that his carefully damp hair got hit with a strategically placed wind machine in each song didn’t help), but Sivan can sing, and there was some genuine emotion there. Throw in the fact that the openly gay young man was singing unabashed, passionate love songs on national TV, and Sivan had himself a good night.

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

Tough one, as McKinnon, Aidy, Kenan, Redd, and the Jost-Che team all had strong outings. But Cecily Strong edges them all out largely on the basis of her turn as Stormy Daniels, easily one of her best character performances ever.

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Luke. Luke Null. Hang in there, I guess?

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

As much of a bummer as it is when the last sketch is given over to a recurring bit, it’s hard to hate on Kenan’s director character. It’s all physicality, as Kenan’s former actor (here he reveals he once played a wino taking a dump in a washing machine on The Jeffersons) lectures his actors (Leslie Jones and Chastain, as serious lawyers discovering their firm’s pay gap) on the true nature of character work. Which means the most over-the-top mugging Kenan can summon (which, being Kenan, is a lot), followed by Jones and Chastain reluctantly but gamely attempting to replicate his peerless facial and vocal shenanigans. It’s silly, harmless stuff, although, as with many of the sketches tonight, the unequal pay detail amidst all the buffoonery suggests that, even in a retread final sketch, Saturday Night Live has stuff it wants to say.

Stray observations

  • Chastain’s monologue, too, took the typical musical number conceit and tied it to something a touch more meaningful. Outspoken feminist Chastain (alongside #MeToo and #TimesUp t-shirt-sporting Kate McKinnon and Cecily Strong) sang an energetically anthemic version of “You Don’t Own Me” after the host called out the millions of women around the country taking to the streets on the one-year anniversary of the Women’s March.
  • Also, the Oscar-nominated Chastain pretended to bemoan the fact that she has to keep playing all these strong female characters, as she tried out her “naggy girlfriend” audition. (“David...”)
  • “Some people are saying these results are fabricated because they’ve taken even one look at the president...”
  • Jost says the one bright side of this week’s news is that he can finally Google “Stormy Daniels” on his work computer.
  • Che, after reporting on Trump’s brag that black unemployment is at an all-time low: “I don’t know, man. I’m pretty sure that, before the Civil War, black unemployment was at, like, zero.” Waiting a beat for the audience to catch up, he adds, “You know, the cotton?”
  • Here’s to bringing Method Man back, as host next time. Hell, host and musical guest.

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