"After 20 years in show business, white people know who I am," Taraji P. Henson says at the top of her monologue. Well, if they didn't know Henson after her Oscar nomination for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, they sure do now: Empire is a bona fide phenomenon, and Henson's Cookie Lyon is the breakout character.
That's something to celebrate, and Henson does so on the show by launching into a song called "I Made It," backed by a revival choir. She has a terrific voice and a lot of gusto, and her performance inspires some cast members to come out and testify about the life they almost lived, had they not also made it. Leslie Jones is the funniest ("I straight-up could've been in jail"), but the whole thing crackles with energy and it's always nice to have a host who is legit psyched to be hosting. Unfortunately, Taraji's excitement was the gum holding this whole MacGruber-rigged device together — well, that and her surprising facility with impressions (Nicki Minaj and Wanda Sykes). When the writing wasn't there, which was the case for a handful of sketches after a promising beginning, not even someone as willful as Cookie Lyon could save this operation. But damn if she didn't try.
Hillary Clinton Election Video Cold Open
By the time you read this, Hillary Clinton may have already announced she's officially running for president. It would be weird if the big announcement scheduled for Sunday was about anything else. (Her excitement for the return of Veep?) In this week's cold open, Vanessa Bayer plays image consultant to Kate McKinnon's Hillary, coaching her through the announcement. How else would Hillary know not to lead with this line: "Citizens, you will elect me! I will be your leader!" With only one wink toward Deleted-Email-Gate, SNL is back to focusing on Hillary Clinton's approachability. When she's told to look "natural," she bares her teeth like a cornered puma; when she wants to give Bayer a high five, she orders her to "meet my hand in the air." As promising as McKinnon's continues to be, though, it's almost trumped here by Darrell Hammond's reprisal of Bill Clinton, whom he played on the show in the late '90s. If you have Darrell Hammond at your show already — he's the announcer now — you let him do Bill Clinton. It just makes sense. Expect to see more of him soon, especially if he becomes the first First Gentleman of the United States in 2016.
Taraji P. Henson's "I Made It" Monologue
Also notable during the monologue: a reminder that Pete Davidson is only 20 years old and would be a well-adjusted college sophomore if he wasn't doing this.
Thanks to Oops! I Crapped My Pants, SNL has a rich legacy of adult-diaper-themed commercial parodies. It would be a shame if someone were to, you know, crap all over it. Luckily, this fake ad for nappies embedded with images of seniors' favorite figures from history and television is a worthy addition to the canon. The initial concept seems lackluster at first, but the more examples we see, the richer it gets. Also, whoever cast the actor who plays the diaper-wearing granddad deserves some sort of bonus. He's a gem.
As Adam Sandler and Andy Samberg proved in That's My Boy, a teacher sleeping with a high-school student is not inherently hilarious. It's a marvel, then, that this sketch about Cecily Strong's teacher on trial for sleeping with Pete Davidson works as well as it does. In what ultimately became my favorite sketch, Davidson takes the stand to answer questions about how the experience affected him. Sounds like it went pretty okay! Just the list of nicknames Davidson accrued — which goes on for 40 seconds and includes both "Fred Pimpstone" and "The Boy Who Lived" — made this sketch worthwhile, and indicates the exaggerated level of exaltation altogether. Statutory rape is absolutely not funny, but nobody mentioned that to this sketch.
This digital short comes and goes without leaving much of an impression, which is strange considering that it's entirely composed of impressions. It's a preview for the inevitable sequel to Dreamworks' recent animated hit, Home, which featured the voices of Jim Parsons and Rihanna. This sketch suggests — get this — other pairings that might be similarly awkward. Admittedly, it's very satisfying to see Taraji manhandle the hell out of a Nicki Minaj impersonation, and Jay Pharoah pull off a more than passable Kendrick Lamar, but there was probably a better vehicle for them.
Oof, this sketch was just a mess. Taraji is a host on a QVC show, welcoming Kate McKinnon's character to flog a so-called "three-way poncho" that's really just a poncho. McKinnon's character has all the elements of Liza Minnelli, but is named Claudette Fontaine for some reason. Taraji doesn't have much to do, so she plays her character broad as hell, and it detracts from whatever was supposed to be going on — a joke about an unfortunate poncho? Let's pretend this one never happened.
Game of Thrones
Welcome to South Centros, the eighth kingdom of Westeros and the pathway to a mash-up of Game of Thrones and Boyz n the Hood. Unfortunately, the concept is better on paper than it is on-screen. Kenan's impression of Ice Cube is fun, but just as in the Home 2 sketch ten minutes ago, that's not enough to build a sketch around.
The chemistry between Michael Che and Colin Jost is getting better with each episode lately. Perhaps Lorne Michaels gave them a mid-season pep talk/threat, but something must have happened because now their interplay has a casual looseness and there have been zero of those Che-flubs that seemed to have rankled some viewers earlier in the season. Last night the pair even managed to eclipse their guests, which probably has something to do with the fact that Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy has begun to wear out his welcome. Even with an assist from Billy Crystal as Jacob's father and a new reliance on catchphrase — "But don't quote me on that" — Jacob's beats are a bit too familiar at this point. The variables that change in each iteration don't have the same potential for ridiculousness as, say, the ex-porn stars that Vanessa Bayer and Cecily Strong play — characters with similarly familiar beats, that somehow always surprise and delight. I'd be happy if it was time for Jacob to ride off to his destiny as a student of Solomon Schechter Day School. Kate McKinnon fares better as Cecilia Giminez, the woman who "fixed" the Ecce Homo fresco in 2012 and in the process made it look like a mini-Sasquatch. She's on the show to talk about the Scary Lucy statue that residents of Lucille Ball's hometown (Celeron, New York) would like to be rid of. Some might say a minor regional outrage of this sort has no business inspiring a guest appearance on Update, but this was an inspired way to deal with the topic nonetheless.
Hollywood Game Night
After seeing a revived version of Celebrity Jeopardy on SNL's 40th-anniversary show, this recurring sketch now feels like an unflattering echo of it. Kate McKinnon, who has pretty much been holding court this entire show, busts out her Jane Lynch, which fits like a glove, and introduces her guests. Taran Killam's Vin Diesel is back, probably by popular demand, after a successful inaugural appearance in the Dwayne Johnson episode. Taraji is spot-on as Wanda Sykes, and who knew that Beck Bennett had a great Nick Offerman in him? There's so many impressions that the game-show parody aspect kind of feels beside the point, but this sketch is fully justified when Jay Pharoah's Common impression — what rapper can't he do? — repurposes the clip of Chris Pine's single tear at the Oscars.
Vlog With Taraji P. Henson
In an essay in The Hollywood Reporter last fall, Chris Rock had this to say about a sketch he did with Sasheer Zamata during his recent SNL hosting gig: "Twenty years ago when I was on Saturday Night Live, anything with black people on the show had to deal with race, and that sketch we did didn't have anything to do with race." In the follow-up to that sketch, race is ignored once again in favor of Zamata's precocious dancing vlogger being taken to twerk school by Taraji as her mom. Most of the humor comes from Kyle Mooney's platonic-not-by-choice friend suffering the mother of all pants-tents during this dance-off, but this sketch gets by on how much fun everyone is having.
Sesame Street Promo
In what will likely be the viral hit of the episode, Cookie Lyon meets Cookie Monster in a mash-up of Empire and Sesame Street. Celebrities have been appearing on Sesame Street since forever, but it's novel to see Taraji interact with Snuffy and Big Bird in character. That Cookie is wearing a coat made from Elmo's pelt is as racy as this sketch dares to go, but considering how conservative Sesame Street is about its image, it's kind of amazing that they even allowed this to happen at all.
Their Own League
What starts as a rather straightforward parody of A League of Their Own turns into something way gutsier. Taraji P. Henson and Leslie Jones show up wanting to play on the all-ladies team that sprang up during World War II, and quickly learn that women's rights are ahead of civil rights on the priorities list. "We already have the woman thing, so we don't want to complicate it," McKinnon's character says. Thanks to SNL for complicating it here for our uncomfortable amusement.
The version of this sketch currently online is the four-and-a-half-minute-long dress-rehearsal version, which ends with a dancing Voltron robot. What aired last night was a two-minute incarnation awkwardly cut down for time. With Sharkasaur attacking, the discrete Connectaron robots have to form together, but "left leg" Taraji refuses to attach. In just two minutes — including a premise-establishing opening sequence — this sketch couldn't quite convey why her character was being difficult and what was funny about her refusal before ending seemingly at random. It was a messy end to an episode that succeeded in spots, but was an overall dip in quality from its two immediate predecessors. The next two weeks will be reruns, but hopefully when the show returns in May, it will be with a strong run of episodes to close out this transitional season.