“I am positively starved for context!”
Claire Foy is an actress on the well-deserved rise, with her turn as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown currently vying with her version of Lisabeth Salander, and that woman married to Ryan Gosling in the American public’s consciousness. So, inviting her to host makes sense, even if none of those roles, or, really anything she’s ever done that I know of, mark her as a comedy powerhouse. And that’s okay, too—sometimes a great dramatic actor brings an unexpected energy to Saturday Night Live, livening the place up with the spark of character work that a more overtly comedic sensibility might not. (As uneven as the episode was, see Liev Schreiber’s outing from a few weeks ago.)
But SNL either didn’t cater this episode to Foy’s talents, or those comic talents simply weren’t there to begin with. I’m inclined to go with the former explanation for this deeply disappointing episode, since Foy was decent late in the show, when she actually got a character to play in the Good Morning Goomah sketch, putting on a Long Island Sopranos accent alongside Kate McKinnon. Her best showcase of a poor lot, the sketch saw Foy, McKinnon, and Aidy Bryant creating a trio of vivid characterizations as their long-suffering mafioso mistresses let slip the various self-delusions and catchphrases (“face-to-face is for the wife”) they employ to get through their days of being “pulverized from behind” by the likes of Pete Davidson’s gruffly abusive visiting a-hole.
For the most part, though, Foy played it straight in a deadening series of indifferent-to-exhausting sketches where she was simply part of the scenery. I like when SNL brings in an unlikely host (professional athletes excepted, please, forever), but sometimes—again, either through bad writing or a simple mismatch of sensibilities and talents—it just doesn’t work out. In the early-episode WWI epistolary sketch, Foy’s clueless responses to trench-bound husband Mikey Day’s increasingly confused and frantic missives don’t really take off, mainly thanks to her delivery. It’s not a great sketch or anything—it really only comes alive when Kenan Thompson’s unexplained visitor pops in for a guest author spot—but the escalating absurdity of both the wife’s incomprehension and the baffling details she drops between the lines (she appears to be on trial for murder) could work with a more energetic and focused performance on her end. It put me in mind of Miranda Richardson (an acclaimed British thespian and unexpected host pick who did work out), and her similar-minded sketch consoling war-wounded WWII hubby Mike Myers with the gradual reveal of the increasingly silly things she’s been up to while he was convalescing. (Including the fact that she did, in fact, marry Hitler at one point.) Of course, Richardson—an intense, little known British actress then promoting The Crying Game—is also certifiably funny, too.
Jost and Che mumbled, stumbled, and underwhelmed. My one real laugh came with Jost’s impression of a Russian pimp’s Craigslist ad and its similarity to Donald Trump’s description of his latest Russian misadventure/light treason as “very legal and very cool.” (“We never kill you, only sometimes.”) Jost shanked some jokes pretty hard last week, though, and continued to come at material in the wishy-washiest way, coming to the defense of First Lady Melania Trump’s widely-mocked nightmare-red tree display by calling out the fact that Americans are buying inflatable Minion and crapping Santa yard displays for their homes. Sure, he called Trump’s tableau akin to “jagged teeth in the blazing hot mouth of Satan himself,” but there’s a deadening whiff of privilege to Jost’s mockery that’s becoming more and more evident of late.
Che has his own blind spots, but at least he’s generally consistent in his targeting, here comparing Trump’s continual dismissal of every hanger-on’s betrayal (Michael Cohen this week) with that of his cousin’s consistent choice of weak-willed baby fathers. “Oh, honey, it’s you,” is about as good a summation of the Trump mindset when it comes to surrounding oneself with the worst of the worst as it gets. Still, while he joked sharply about Trump’s assurances that “safe tear gas” was used on migrants by government forces at the Mexican border (saying wait ’til black American protesters hear that exists), he also never drew from the well of satirical outrage other comics have when it came to the images of tear-gassed toddlers hitting the public consciousness. Call it “safe satire.”
And, look, I get that George H.W. Bush was all pally with the show back in the day, and that the guy just died. But trotting out a clip package of the Carvey-Bush comedy act only reinforced how watery SNL’s presidential parody is when you get right down to it. As Americans, we are constitutionally mandated to rehabilitate the images of the recently deceased, but a quick glance past the hagiographic news reports of Bush’s legacy reveals a whole lot of people unwilling to forget some of the very real and historically inconvenient bullshit. Willie Horton, Clarence Thomas, self-servingly pardoning his Iran-Contra cronies, playing the “un-American” card against opponent Michael Dukakis’ immigrant heritage, proto-Palin Dan Quayle, and (considering that Bush died on World AIDS Day) his complete, conservative-pandering ignoring of the AIDS crisis—if you’re going to proclaim your political relevance, then this cuddly, somber sendoff only reinforces that, for Saturday Night Live, celebrity and access trump comic truth every time.
Leslie Jones came back as herself, always a fun time. Here, wearing a no-sex, Ghostbusters-style T-shirt (with a too-visible removable strikethrough), Leslie bemoaned her age, exhaustion, and bad knees as she proclaimed herself retired officially from sex. Brushing aside longtime lust-object Jost’s entreaty that she is still “beautiful, talented, and funny” (“Lies!!,” she screamed), Jones finally came around—but not before pretty hilariously going after Che (physically) for comparing her unfavorably to other 50-ish celebs like Halle Berry, J-Lo, and, perhaps most woundingly, Judge Judy Sheindlin. Jones attempting to scratch past Jost while screaming, “Fire him, Lorne!” was easily the most energetic laugh of the night.
Beck Bennett was brought on as an expert whose laid-back, “freethinking economist” was only supposed to be insufferable as a joke. (Jost eventually just wheeled him off camera, but not soon enough.)
There is no reason you can’t do a successful Willy Wonka movie sketch, I suppose. I mean, who knows where great comedy ideas come from, right? And if you think up a fresh, funny angle on an element of a 47-year-old movie, then I salute you. I do not salute whatever the hell this was. “Charlie’s grandparents all sleep in the same bed, so what if two of them start having sex” is the sort of non-premise that could only, conceivably, be pulled off if everyone involved found some deep, dark well of comic performance that the sheer, lazy stupidity of the gag became part of the gag. Here, it was all unfunny chaos, as Kyle Mooney and Aidy (mostly offscreen) thrashed and moaned and thumped the bed while everyone else yelled incoherently over the loud banging. (I think Pete Davidson’s Grandpa Joe said something about what’s going on smelling like cabbage, but I’m not going back to confirm.) McKinnon, as Charlie’s beleaguered mom, had a few funny lines about their meal of bread and, for dessert, “memories of bread,” and the whole thing was supposed to be a big, broad, cast-corpsing riot. But it was just embarrassing.
The Netflix ad would like to remind you that Netflix makes a lot of original programming, which it does, so that’s . . . accurate? The joke that there are shockingly few actual movies on this streaming platform at least felt satisfying to a writer whose beloved video store job disappeared a few years back thanks to the seriously mistaken public perception that they could get everything we had on Netflix. (Choke on your new reality, suckers.) And the idea that the new business model is “infinite scrolling,” wherein shows are greenlit so fast that users’ recommendations will never, ever end is not a bad one. Plus, I laughed at Kate McKinnon’s old lady being the one, single Netflix fan of something called Kennymeade Depot. Peak TV is for everyone!
In another filmed piece, Foy and Davidson played two teen kids of divorce whose “second Christmas” wishes with dad turn out to be a predictably depressing nightmare of broken futons, Jimmy Buffett, and a new girlfriend who demands to be called by her first name. The star here is Aidy, selling the premise by belting out a broken home carol about how, sometimes, rules aren’t really a bad thing.
It was in the last half-hour of a dog of an episode that, at least, some of the cast got a chance to shine. The Staten Island talk show sketch was some fine caracter work from Aidy, Foy, and McKinnon. I especially liked the touch that McKinnon and Foy’s tough-talking mistresses have designated hugging pillows for when their married lovers’ wives inevitably start banging on their doors and calling them whores. And the Home Shopping Network sketch worked because Cecily and Aidy just took hold of the premise and shook it in their jaws, comedically speaking. Maybe it was just cathartic (see: dog of an episode), but hearing Strong’s would-be pitchwoman (who forgot her teeny-eyesight-ruining creations in her Uber) moan out curses like “Oh, my dog-balls life!” and “Eat my ass to hell!” just got funnier and funnier. Especially when Aidy rolled in on her mobility scooter as Strong’s smug, unsupportive mother—who’s also there to pitch her own, more conveniently sized ornaments.
Morning Joe, Trump is back.
Alec Baldwin is back everyone. Try to contain yourself. Fresh from his latest real-world bout of hotheaded assholery (referenced in a throwaway line in his second Trump cold open of the season), Baldwin trotted out his Trump for some more uninspired buffoonery. I don’t know what else to say at this point about these guaranteed forced-laugh and recognition-applause cold opens—Baldwin’s Trump is a mediocre conception and the sketches unwaveringly just list off the week’s Trump-ian outrages without much insight or originality. Here at the now-happening G20 Argentina summit, Cecily’s Melania dreams of taking hold of an incarcerated Donald’s money in a hot bath, Beck Bennett’s ever-shirtless Putin and alum Fred Armisen’s Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman share elaborate “reporter-murdering dictator” handshakes, and Ben Stiller pops by once more as the totally headed-for-prison Michael Cohen, unable to quit his former client and benefactor, even as he prepares to spill even more dirty secrets to Robert Mueller’s investigation.
And Kate McKinnon continues her quest to portray every other male member of the Trump administration, as her bat-winged Rudy Giuliani plays on the loose-lipped Trump attorney’s whole incompetent, doddering Nosferatu vibe. Oh, and then everyone comes back out for a song, because Saturday Night Live apparently thought Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip was actually a pretty great show. I don’t know how many times I have to make that joke, but, Jesus, SNL—there are other, better ways to end a political sketch than with a half-clever parody song. Move on.
And, casting their eye over the political and media land/hellscape, the SNL writers once more dipped back into a lukewarm take on Morning Joe, the inexplicably popular morning talk show from now-married pundits Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. (And perpetual third wheel Willie Geist, as ever played here by Mikey Day, looking green around the gills at the hosts’ on-air canoodling.)
McKinnon and Alex Moffat are fine as the hosts, their approximation of Brzezinski and Scarborough’s banter and cutesy flirting a pair of decent comic creations. But there are about three jokes in these sketches. Joe plugs his terrible dad-rock band, Mika rolls her eyes and repeats what Joe says, and guests’ analysis is inevitably interrupted by Joe’s self-important blather. Kenan had a funny bit as Elijah Cummings, noting that he presided over the hosts recent wedding because, as a black man named Elijah, he’s automatically an ordained officiant. And Foy’s serious BBC correspondent, realizing that she’s not going to get a word in, starts blurting out “facts” about Donald Trump being a gay werewolf, just to see if anyone’s listening. It’s cute and irrelevant, which is a conscious choice for Saturday Night Live to make.
Anderson Paak (or Anderson .Paak depending on your relationship with your copy editor) was pretty great. There aren’t enough percussionist-vocalists in my life, and his first number was a straight-up smooth-funky groove, complete with a guest verse by kendrick Lamar. And, alone in front of a smoke-swirlin scrim in the second, Paak showed his performance chops in a few other dimensions. Cool.
Aidy gets the MVP spot tonight, cemented by her rip-roaring first line in the Christmas song that ended the show.
The new kid hazing of Ego Nwodim continues, but shunting full cast member Melissa Villaseñor into also-ran status in that same song alongside featured players Nwodim and Heidi Gardner was just some cold, cold shit. (She did have a decent turn as newly elected Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, though, brushing off Fox News-fueled MAGA trolls’ death threats as nothing compared to riding the 6 train.)
And, hey, speaking of SNL’s penchant for musical satire, the “Christmas wish from the women of SNL” saw Aidy, Cecily, Leslie, and Kate joining in a heartfelt, verging on desperate carol beseeching Special Counsel Robert Muller to, for the love of god, bring them something good for the holidays. Before we get to the meat of the matter, it was plain weird that a sketch from “the women of SNL” started out by excluding Heidi Gardner, Ego Nwodim, and Melissa Villaseñor, right? Sure, Cecily and Kate are good singers, and Aidy can tear into a song in character like nobody’s business, but the move sidelined three cast members for no real reason, having them shuffle in halfway through the song. As for the joke itself, the concept that so many people are pinning their hopes for an end to the entire Trump nightmare on this one, long-gestating report is solid ground for satire. Cecily’s mid-song breakdowns about not being able to take any more anxiety medication (“They won’t let me!”), and the lines about just needing something—anything—to sustain some hope comes across in the actresses’ performances. If there’s a real criticism, it’s that the song just never finds a higher gear as it goes on—musically, this should have been a show-ending showstopper, and it wasn’t.
- Bennett’s Putin, blowing off Trump for new BFF MbS: “I prefer presidents who don’t get indicted.”
- Joe and Mika’s safeword is “partisan politics.”
- Day’s soldier husband, baffled by his wife’s latest letter: “And why would you call it Word War I?”
- “You’re watching AMC, where X-Men is a Christmas movie.”
- Next week: Host Jason Momoa (who has heard all your Aquaman jokes), and musical guest Mumford & Sons.