It's easy to have a bit of fun with the selection of Edward Norton as SNL host. He doesn't have anything in particular to promote, which gives the sense (true or not) that the producers went outside of the usual publicity channels to cast him. Which would make sense if he were a naturally comedic actor or an old favorite of the show, neither of which are true. In fact, Norton has a reputation for being overly serious. But there's a significant upside to casting an actor as accomplished as Norton, whether he's a known comedian or not. As he proved in Moonrise Kingdom, he's capable of rising to the comedic occasion (though so did Bruce Willis, and he sure was a dud of a host two weeks ago). And it must be nice sometimes to have a host who you neither have to write towards (i.e. the necessity of addressing Miley's sixteen different controversies) nor write around. Norton was just able to be a cog in the system this week, and while the result was the usual SNL grab bag of variant quality, the hits were pretty big hits.
Deep Cut of the Week
Interesting choice to have the current-events cold open handled by Kate McKinnon (as Kathleen Sebelius) rather than Jay Pharoah's Obama. But I enjoyed McKinnon's cheerful explanation of the backwards methods and solutions which the government has for the Obamacare website crashes. Any sketch that can incorporate McKinnon doing an Icelandic accent, fake health-care-related porn titles, and shots out to both Encarta '95 and 1000 free hours of AOL can't go entirely wrong.
Guest Star Bingo of the Week
Norton's monologue traded on his reputation as a Method actor and very quickly leaned on the appearance of a cameo-ing Alec Baldwin, who gave pointers on how a dramatic actor might best adapt to the comedy confines of the show. ("This isn't Neil LaBute down at the Lucille Lortel!"). Some solid bits followed, including Norton airing out a few of his impressions, though while Ian McKellen and Woody Allen and Harrelson were solid, I really wish we could have seen more of that William Hurt. Finally, we got a Miley walk-on, because I guess Miley's now reached the "walk-on at SNL" stage of her fame arc already. I'm good with that. So Baldwin, Norton, and Miley. Just like the Bible foretold.
Completely Predictable Triumph of the Week
I feel like the commercial parody for Autumn's Eve: Pumpkin Spice Douche might have been written not in the SNL writers' room but by the collective unconscious. We've long since reached Peak Pumpkin in American society, and now we're all looking to tear that world down. The idea of those warm fall flavors emanating from the crotches of the ladies of SNL really puts our pumpkin-crazed culture into perspective, doesn't it? Or if it didn't, the sight of Kate McKinnon scooping out a pumpkin between her legs might have done the trick.
Unlikely (But Not Unwelcome) MVP of the Week
The vagaries of prominence on this show from week to week can sometimes feel arbitrary. Vanessa Bayer and Taran Killam have been absolutely owning this season, but both were almost entirely backgrounded — if not absent — all night. Instead, we got more Nasim Pedrad than we have pretty much all season, most delightfully in this sketch about Norton as a cop making a Stranger Danger presentation in an elementary school classroom. Pedrad has always done a bang-up job playing weird kids, and so she did here as Shalon, whose enthusiasm for candy, vans, and strange men who might well be friends with her absentee dad all really threw a wrench into Officer Edward Norton's presentation. This was an uncommonly well-structured sketch, with the lunacy building as each kid in the classroom piled on more and more until Norton couldn't take it. But Pedrad was the clear MVP. I guess you could say she's the vans of acting.
Wordplay of the Week
First "Steve Harvey Show" of the season, which I could either take or leave, though this week was a good example of how Harvey's disconnect from a guest can really yield some funny results. I was especially taken with Norton's innocent incredulity that Harvey couldn't figure out the rather rudimentary wordplay costumes he was presenting to him, and Kenan Thompson did a great job barreling through with Harvey's wrong guesses ("Book-Face? Okay, Book-Ass?" "John Wayne Gacy Grahams?").
Critic-Proof Triumph of the Week
Who knew Saturday Night Live was so invested in getting a good review out of Vulture that they would tailor a fake movie trailer exactly to me and my interests. A cynical ploy, to be sure, but it completely worked, as we got an ad for "The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders," the new horror movie from Wes Anderson. "You had me at Wes Anderson," said Vulture's Joe Reid. So much to love here I can barely stand it, from Norton's Owen Wilson impersonation, to Baldwin reprising his Tenenbaums-style narration (I wonder which idea came first, the monologue walk-on or this?), to the inventory of weapons on hand for the children to defend themselves with. If the goal was to put a big dumb grin on my face for five minutes, well, mission accomplished.
Unrealistic Infrastructure of the Week
The pest-control bit with Norton and Brooks Wheelan battling a possum problem during a conference-room meeting of some sort managed to be sporadically funny, deeply strange, and relatively brief. Three ingredients for a classic good-not-great sketch. But can we talk about the size of the air ducts in this company for a moment? That place must be more air conditioning than atmosphere. People just wearing winter coats and scarves in the middle of July. Frozen possum with Wiffle-ball bats clutched in their icy claws.
Deeper Cut of the Week
I confess I have no earthly idea what that whole Rain Man/mobster sketch was on about, other than the fact that Norton has had a Raymond Babbitt in his back pocket for quite a while and he was very sweet about asking to do it, so the show took pity on him.
Pop-Star Cameo of the Week (Sorry, Miley)
Verrrry brief Weekend Update, to the point where they could have just axed the Rain Man sketch and made room for a more regulation-length Update. The big highlight of the segment was a return appearance by Secondhand News guy Anthony Crispino, who is not a particular favorite of mine, though I always appreciate Bobby Moynihan's commitment to the bit. They really went all-out with Anthony's high-pitched protestations of Seth's corrections, the payoff of which was rather brilliant, particularly for fans of nineties Mariah Carey.
Forward-Thinking Cultural Commentary of the Week
Look, we're going to be talking about 12 Years a Slave for several more months now, so I like that SNL is getting ahead of things by presenting their "take" early. Jay Pharoah gets to play newly emancipated slave Cecil in 12 Days Not a Slave, and while the cultural satire isn't exactly bleeding-edge, there's a kind of barbed intelligence to Cecil's enthusiasm and naïve belief that people would be totally over slavery after two whole weeks. Two particular highlights were Norton (as the Canadian abolitionist/Brad Pitt stand-in) cautioning Cecil not to dance, lest white people "never stop trying to dance like you" (cue requisite Miley twerk), and Aidy Bryant proclaiming the last twelve days to be the best of her life, romantic-wise.
Aidy Bryant Wheel-Spinning of the Week
I really think this could be a breakout season for Bryant, so I don't object to throwing her as much material as possible, but this bit about the waitstaff at a restaurant being full of virgins who can't stop talking about all the unrealistically-positioned sex they will one day have was a head-scratcher from the beginning. Sporadically amusing, particularly Mike O'Brien, but it doesn't really go anywhere.
Inspired Lunacy of the Week
I don't know where the idea came from to have Edward Norton play a fey weirdo going through his stash of Halloween candy, and I'm certain I don't want to know. But the weirder that sketch got, the funnier it got, and by the time we got to Bryant as Adult-Sized Ruth, I was sold. This is one of those sketches that I bet was super fun to assemble in the writers' room, as it's just a collection of weird candy-based non sequiturs that may or may not be able to amuse viewers in whatever state they happen to be in at 12:50 AM.