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Benedict Cumberbatch has energy and charm to burn in an ingratiating episode of SNL

Looks like we have another early candidate for the Five-Timer's Club

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Benedict Cumberbatch SNL
Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews/SNL

Benedict Cumberbatch showed up on SNL’s stage for his second hosting stint, ostensibly plugging his starring role in this weekend’s blockbuster Doctor Strange 2. Cumberbatch noted that the majority of pitches he’d gotten from writers involved the movie. The show didn’t ultimately go there, as foreshadowed by the monologue, which focused on charming, wide-appeal bits about his mother and wife ahead of Mother’s Day.

The show was clearly enamored of Cumberbatch; as in this season’s earlier Oscar Isaac episode, the writers realized what they had and put their host in as many sketches as possible. The writers also did this for Jake Gyllenhaal, to his detriment. The material was much better this time around, and cast in a wide range of roles from suburban dad to Western cowpoke to Downton-era dandy, Cumberbatch was completely successful. He made the show better in spots where it didn’t strictly need the help, and the actor was so good that I can see SNL calling on him again as soon as is practical; he may be a relatively quick inductee into the Five-Timer’s Club.

What killed

“Mother’s Day Gifts” was a repeat of a strong sketch on last season’s Regina King episode, but it’s actually better the second time around. A family takes turns gifting Mom (Aidy Bryant) with those cutesy wooden wall hangings purchased from suburban strip-mall craft hellholes. Things get more passive-aggressive—or just aggressive-aggressive—with each gift that’s given. For example: “We sucked your teats dry and now you look weird in a bathing suit” and “Were your ears ringing? I was in therapy.” Things escalate with impressive weirdness and pacing: Mom is accused of being an alcoholic, Dad of having a secret family, and the daughter assures mom that if she died, she’d come to accept her inevitable stepmother. Bryant is note-perfect here as one of her patented character types, the increasingly aggrieved matriarch who can’t believe she’s dealing with this bullshit in the politest way possible. Someone on the writing staff is highly adept at these list sketches, where things spiral into the LOL twilight zone (I’m thinking about the maid of honor’s speech on the Zoe Kravitz episode).

“The Fainting Couch” was a solid showcase for the always-capable and not-always-visible-enough Cecily Strong. The premise is just pure silliness: A wealthy Downton-era British couple are constantly confronted with news that sends them into respective swoons—but can’t quite make it to the couch planted in the center of the room for exactly that purpose—as their butler continually appears to serve them the latest in a parade of spillable liquids. You see where this is going, but it goes there in consistently laugh-out-loud ways. It was broad as hell, but it’s kind of thrilling to see the show venture into physical comedy, which Strong and Cumberbatch executed with total precision. Chalk up more points for the host—he couldn’t have seemed more comfortable, and he elevated a sketch that didn’t demand the assist, thanks to Strong.

Kate McKinnon is a wobbly impressionist—I’m not alone in observing that her done-to-death Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton don’t sound anything like the genuine articles—but her “Weekend Update” spot as Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett nailed the essence of the conservative jurist, who came across in her Senate hearings as an oblivious Catholic University sorority sister with blithe vocal fry and serious designs on Aunt Lydia’s role in American life. Here, commenting on the leaked draft of a decision that will apparently overturn Roe v. Wade, she advises women to “just do your nine” and “plop it,” birth an unwanted child and just leave it somewhere for someone to adopt, ideally a lesbian (“until we ban that too”)—absolute absurdity that’s not too far heightened from Barrett’s own views. Sharp writing and a precise portrayal made this a cutting moment; we could use more of them from the show.

Arcade Fire delivered two knockout songs. Maybe because it’s been a rough week or I was feeling the Mother’s Day mood, but “Unconditional I (Lookout Kid)” actually choked me up a little. It’s nice to see an actual band on the stage, especially one that knows how to create a spectacle with pure musicianship and really come through the screen—even before they enlist the inflatable air dancers. It also helps that NBC’s tech staff remembered how to do an audio mix this week, with everything from tinkling bells to backing vocals coming through crisply and in proportion. The 360-degree camera work during the second song was cool (and captured portions of a studio audience in spontaneous applause). The band got an unheard-of third performance slot over the closing credits, and they fluffed it a bit, but it didn’t detract from their charm. SNL rarely captures the thrill of seeing live music these days, but this week both band and show absolutely brought it home.


What bombed

New Toilet. Sigh. Not sure who the 12-year-old is on the writing staff, but they need to have their phone taken away and be escorted out of the studio. If the writers need to air any material involving toilets—which they really, really don’t—look to 1991's “Love Toilet” for inspiration, which actually had a point besides “let’s be dirty and discordantly weird.”


Also worth discussing

The concept for “Chuck E. Cheese” was the whole joke—the prepubescent pizza palace’s animatronic band has broken down, so a vaguely Teutonic/New Romantic musical act from 1983 has been drafted to fill in (tell me, which is more disturbing?). But Cumberbatch was great here, going so above and beyond with his characterization—literally into falsetto vocalise—that he single-handledly makes this worth a watch.

A strong and well-deserved showcase for super-talented impressionist Chloe Fineman, “The Understudy” lets her mimic almost every SNL cast member (OK, not Ego Nwodim) to their faces. The sharpest moment: Cumberbatch comes face to face with Elizabeth Olsen, along with Fineman doing Elizabeth Olsen, and remarks that “the multiverse is real.” Fineman is hugely capable, and this sketch is a reminder that week to week, the show has only allowed her to scratch the surface of what she can do.


Stray observations

• The cold open was fine, a flashback to the 13th century, from which Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito cited legal precedent in his draft that would overturn Roe v. Wade. The positives: The show didn’t shirk the cultural moment. Cumberbatch is comically rock-solid from the get-go. Cecily Strong and Kate McKinnon have strong bits as an oppressed woman and a female soothsayer (who is not an ogre; she’s just in her 30s) who has confusing visions of a place called Florida that holds all the power. But overall, the approach was less than scathing—Alito using such an ancient reference point is so absurd it doesn’t require that much underlining—and the “keep fighting” conclusion was weak sauce. And I’m taking points off for the writers making Cumberbatch open with a poop reference. Seriously, what is up with this writing staff and body fluids? I’m saying this because some SNL writer needs to hear it: Body horror and shit jokes are not the same thing.

• Colin Jost carried Weekend Update this week, as Michael Che seemed unfocused, even giggly. Jost had the better lines on the urgent story of the day: “Today it’s Mother’s Day, whether you want it to be or not” and re: the Supreme Court’s leaked Alito draft, “The Supreme Court slipped up once and has to live with it forever.” Jost and Che trade off standing up and sitting back—Che dominated the Will Smith Oscars scandal discussion—but it seems like this anchor team is well past an inflection point. At the beginning of this season, I found them increasingly tiresome because the anchors themselves seemed tired—just not that into the gig anymore. They rallied midseason, but the disastrous Lizzo episode and this week’s drifting segment make me feel like we’re overdue for a turnover at the desk. It didn’t help that the immediately preceding SNL Vintage episode (10pm on the East Coast) featured Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler, both of whom were electrically sharp from first appearance to last.


• Don’t blink or you’ll miss featured player Aristotle Athari, who is a glorified extra in “Chuck E. Cheese.” I am really curious whose cornflakes he pissed in to be so marginalized on the show, after turning in one of the strongest “Update” debuts in recent memory (“Laughingtosh 3000").