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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Saoirse Ronan's effortless charm buoys a fine Saturday Night Live

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Saoirse Ronan, Aidy Bryant (Screenshot: NBC)
Saoirse Ronan, Aidy Bryant (Screenshot: NBC)

And “Welcome To Hell.”

I’m not an actor, I’m a [preemptively Oscar-nominated movie] star!

When Saoirse Ronan was announced as upcoming Saturday Night Live host back in November, A.V. Club colleague Myles McNutt tweeted out an offer (of $17) if her monologue didn’t revolve around the pronunciation of her name. Well, that’s cash you just left on the table, Lorne Michaels. But I kid SNL’s almost uniformly predictable monologue template. Not that Ronan (star of probable Oscar contender Lady Bird) didn’t make the “Irish names are sure weird” conceit sort of adorable—even singing a catchy instructional ditty—but, c’mon. Still, the episode proper, once it got past the mandatory (when Alec Baldwin feels like it) Donald Trump cold open, was refreshingly weird and performance-based, and Ronan was low-key excellent.

Ronan’s gift for inhabiting characters placed her unobtrusively but arrestingly at the center of a healthy number of ensemble sketches, where her performing authority elevated the material. And the material itself being relatively solid all night, Ronan’s presence brought a comic richness it mightn’t otherwise have had.

Weekend Update Update

In a week where—even more than usual—the country wobbles unsteadily in the aftershocks of genuinely unsettling news, Update lived up to its comic mandate. Colin Jost and Michael Che took on the newest sexual harassment scandals, the administration-rocking Michael Flynn news, and the fact that the Republican Party passed a shockingly venal (even for them) tax bill in the wee hours of Saturday morning head-on, with some cathartically blunt jokes. Jost referring to the dispiriting weekly rundown of powerful men revealed to be sex creeps as a duty akin to announcing the Powerball numbers underlined how much of a numbing part of daily life that’s become. Che seemed a little off in his delivery tonight, but introducing the story that just today Trump tweeted out something that will be employed in all future law school lectures about obstruction of justice by thanking Trump for being “kind enough to do half our job for us” pulled back the comedy process curtain in a similarly evocative manner.

That whole midnight robbery and mockery of American democracy GOP tax bill situation was addressed at length, as it bloody well should be. Che—speaking of the Republicans’ rush to loot the country’s future (and despoil Alaska, public education, abortion rights, and more) on the same day Michael Flynn’s cooperation with the Trump-Russia investigation dropped—joking that it looks like relatives hurrying to get a dying relative to sign a new will skillfully encapsulated both issues. Speaking of Republican shitshows, Jost’s joke about Roy Moore segued from YouTube’s purge of creepy kids’ content to the fact that a GOP candidate for senator is a thoroughly accused statutory rapist (at least), bringing satisfying groans from the audience. (Jost greeted them like a trophy.) Doing political comedy at this perilous point in America’s history is both rife with material and essential to get right. Jost and Che are doing fine.

Kate McKinnon always does better than fine, and tonight, breaking out her deliciously prim British Prime Minister Theresa May to respond to Donald Trump’s latest Twitter bullshit, Kate murdered. The idea that the too-proper May nonetheless delights in clapping back at Trump’s boorish, barely grammatical nonsense (including, this week, amplifying incendiary racist videos posted by British white supremacists) is the sort of stuffy Brit gag that’s just sitting there, but McKinnon’s performance is stellar. Hearing McKinnon’s May pronounce “dunk on a thirsty bitch” isn’t, in itself, original, but McKinnon is, her May’s delight at the (actual) fact Donald Trump tagged the wrong bloody Theresa May in one of his lame, needy putdowns a joy to watch.

In the other correspondent piece, Mikey Day and Leslie Jones returned as their randy but reckless straitlaced married couple, here showing off their additions to (and Day’s injuries from) their foray into the Kama Sutra. The joke, as ever, is that Jones is bigger and more formidable that Day, but both of them sell the couple’s bashful ordinariness (Leslie is adorable) even as Day lets the merest hints of passive-aggressive reproach creep into his report on their bedroom experiment. Plus, the new positions (initiated by Leslie) include the aptly named “Stop whining, Sandwich Boy,” so that’s a winner.

Best/Worst sketch of the night

There’s really no competition for the top spot, as SNL wheeled out yet another outstandingly conceived and performed, female-dominated music video. “Welcome To Hell” is the sexual harassment anthem America needs right now, especially those men who are so focused on the fact that House Of Cards is ruined by the fact that Kevin Spacey was outed as a predatory prick, rather than the fact that predatory pricks are something women (and, in Spacey’s case, gay men) have to deal with every goddamned day. The bubblegum tune is bristling with spiky lines about the “maze here all full of boners” that the seemingly unending wave of rightfully disgraced sex creeps is finally forcing men to confront that are so heartfelt hilarious they stick. The line, “This ain’t a girl group, we just travel in a group for safety,” Melissa Villaseñor exhaustedly embodying every beleaguered historical female archetype, and the all-white singers gratefully acknowledging the cameoing Leslie Jones’ correction that “it’s a million times worse for women of color” are all folded into this deceptively sweet musical medicine for a nation of suddenly shocked men to choke down. Outstanding.

Pairing up the retail-based K-Mart and American Doll Store sketches makes sense. For one thing, the whole integrated product placement thing is strong with these ones. (Even though, like that suspiciously erased from existence “creepy Safelite guy” sketch from earlier in the season, one wonders how much either company is thrilled about being portrayed as haven for possibly predatory weirdos and lunatic customers, respectively.) But both sketches are fine showcases for Mikey Day, who’s become such a solid go-to performer that I keep being surprised that his name (and that of Alex Moffat) remain in the featured performer rolls in the credits each week.

In the doll sketch, he underplays his traumatized (by gas explosion) doll enthusiast with a humorously creepy desperation. (Finally unable to hold up the fiction that his purchase was a gift, he pops into the news reporter’s camera, saying of his disheveled dolly, “If she’s gonna be on TV, she might as well have a hat.”) And in the K-Mart sketch, his seen-it-all customer service guy, too, deadpans through the rest of the cast’s parade of angry, loopy complainers with aplomb. Plus, both sketches are nicely rooted in performance, both broad and subtle. (Kenan—as he did three times tonight—stole the K-Mart sketch with his forcefully delivered complaint that the store has sold him “a woman’s hand muff.”)

The Beck Bennett-Kyle Mooney sensibility snuck out of its traditional ten-to-one slot in the form of their endearingly absurdist 1980s-set office contest. Complete earnestness in the service of a loony premise is the pair’s métier—I’ve been saying that SNL would be well-served to just give these guys five minutes to do whatever they want each week, and this is exactly what I had in mind, as Mooney’s office drone stands up to Bennett’s office fast guy with the help of Ronan’s winsomely inspirational coworker. There’s a gentle touch to the absurdity here that makes the duo’s work often oddly endearing, and that the almost-romance between Mooney and Ronan is ultimately derailed by the revelation that she’s actually a ghost on a very eccentric mission is great. As is the matter-of-fact announcement “As you all know, Lindsay turned out to be a ghost,” from guest star (and Ronan’s Lady Bird director), Greta Gerwig, who also exclaims, blithely, “I don’t know exactly what we do here, but let’s get to work.” Oh, and the climactic footrace between Bennett and Moody appeared to be cheered on by Mac from the 80s anti-classic Mac And Me, who also helpfully explains that Lindsay was, in fact, a ghost. I approve this encroachment of the ten-to-one sensibility into the show proper.

The Floribama Shore promo was a little on-the-nose, I suppose, although if they keep making these booze-drenched human zoo reality spectacles, SNL’s going to make fun of them. Still, there were weirdly original touches, like Aidy and Heidi Gardner’s feuding dummies burying the hatchet once they realize they’re both Hulk Hogan’s illegitimate daughters, and the proudly succinct introduction “My name’s Kyler, and I’m a piece of shit!” And the ending, when Luke Null’s drunken goon is impaled by a hurricane-driven stop sign and screams out “What if hell is real?!,” is pretty great.

A sketch that looked headed for disaster pulled itself back from the brink, as the classroom sketch managed to win the audience back from what was an excruciating few minutes of dead silence. The fact that school bully Luke Null’s asshole antics are defused by his teacher and classmates’ completely unimpressed, deadpan dressings-down finds a groove. (Kenan Thompson, again, finds a level where brashness and underplaying equal comic authority.) But, man, that was a tough few minutes. I have to say that part of that is on the perennially underused Null, who lacked the presence to imbue his blustering buffoonery with the bad boy magnetism to keep his racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic boorishness from just being uncomfortable to watch. The sketch had the ambition of audaciousness, but not the motor, sadly. Which is a bummer for Null, whose biggest showcase so far didn’t pay off as he no doubt hoped it would.

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

The Duncans, Leslie Jones and Mikey Day’s lovingly mismatched lovers, and Trump made appearances. As did Pete Davidson’s Chad, although the monosyllabic, inexplicably lusted-after stoner nonentity was transported from his usual home in filmed pieces to a live sketch, which still worked, even if the main attraction was less Chad than the wealthy women (and Kenan) hungrily bidding on the little goof at a tennis club bachelor auction. The joke has always been that Chad—while the subject of soul-searching desire by individuals above his station—is fine with whatever they decide to do with him. Davidson’s asides of “Okay,” and “My bad” are better served in the tightly edited films, but he’s fine here, too, placidly unimpressed as society matrons Ronan, Aidy Bryant, Cecily Strong, Kate McKinnon, and suddenly appeared winning bidder Kenan (“Have the boy cleaned and taken to my lodge!”) quickly bid each other up into the millions in order to worship at the blank scroll that is Chad. Everyone’s really funny here, with the baffling exception of human punch line John McEnroe, who caps off the sketch by paling in comparison to Chad and yelling a lot. He’s a friend of Lorne’s.

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

Alec Baldwin’s Trump. An A Christmas Carol cold open. That fish mouth thing that Baldwin continues to think is really hilarious. I dunno—If I’m the only one who thinks that these Trump sketches are dull, I’ll stop. (I mean, I won’t. It’s sort of my job.) But there’s someone on TV doing a far more insightful Donald Trump that’s so fully inhabited and off-the-wall biting that these cold opens look awfully gassy in comparison. Still, there were some teeth to this one, and some decent supporting turns. The sketches’ greatest power still comes from the fact that they demonstrably drive the “pouty baby” Trump up a fucking wall, but they do also serve the purpose of letting Saturday Night Live let Baldwin’s Trump hang actual Trump with his own words.

Here, guessing why the spirit of Michael Flynn has come to haunt him, Baldwin’s Trump runs through a litany of Trump’s mingled idiocy, and racist hatefulness (“Pocahontas,” “Mexicans are rapists,” draft-dodging, birtherism, Roy Moore-defending, mocking a handicapped reporter, retweeting Nazis) like a deeply necessary public service. Mikey Day’s Flynn referring to himself as “a twice-fired military man” who helped promulgate Pizzagate served the same function. Plus, Cecily Strong as Melania, Alex Moffat as Billy Bush, Beck Bennett’s Putin, and Kate McKinnon pulling double duty as Kellyanne Conway and specter of presidential doom Hillary Clinton all put in solid turns.


I am hip to the musics of today

If the phrase “Bono with a bullhorn” doesn’t clue you into the vibe of U2's new album and the venerably effortful Irish band’s performance tonight, the fact that every one of Bono’s self-serious lyrics to “American Soul” (including what reviewer Kevin Pang called the “David Brent-ian” portmanteau preciousness of “Refu-Jesus”) was projected helpfully behind the band may. Well-intentioned bombastic power pop clichés.


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

Tough one, as this was a real ensemble episode. Still, while my “just give it to Kate” policy remains tempting, I’ll throw the top spot to Cecily Strong, who filled out all her roles tonight with presence and skill. K-Mart, the doll sketch, Melania, Aer Lingus, “Welcome To Hell,” Chad—Cecily Strong has become so good on SNL, it’s easy to overlook her sometimes. Not tonight.


Oh, Luke. C’mon buddy. Hang in there.

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

Since Bennett and Moody moved up in the lineup tonight, the Aer Lingus sketch—while it bookended Saoirse Ronan’s fine hosting gig with a pair of very obvious “she’s Irish” jokes—was filled with enough loopy touches and funny performances to slot ably into the final position. Strong and Ronan made their air hostesses’ deadpan silliness adorably giggle-inducing, as they gradually revealed the supposedly workaday Aer Lingus complication of “countless roaming stray dogs all over the cabin” in easygoing accents. Kate McKinnon’s ground crew member apologizing for the flight delay by explaining that the dog on the runway has “sad eyes, the soul of Oscar Wilde” is silly enough to work, and Aidy’s stewardess announcing that the in-flight meal is all potato-based shouldn’t work, but does, too.

Stray observations

  • Moffat’s Billy Bush to Trump: “Can you believe I got fired just for listening to you?”
  • Kate, after Ronan praises her for keeping up with Ronan’s tongue-tripping song: “I’m fluent in nonsense. It’s my sixth season, do you know how many racoons I’ve played?”
  • Jost says that the GOP tax cuts’ trickle-down principles will work, in the sense that billionaires’ kids’ molly dealers will eventually benefit.
  • Other sex positions invented by the Duncans: “You’re a chair now,” “You my basketball,” and “Where are you hiding? I’m not done.”
  • Alex Moffat, too, should get the bump up to regular cast along with Day. His haunted “And that leaves me” as the janitor in the classroom sketch alone...

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.