Julia Louis-Dreyfus — hereafter JLD, for it is early, and I am lazy — is an SNL pro. She was a (lesser-known) cast member in the ’80s and she’s hosted the show twice before — in 2006 and 2007, during the heyday of The New Adventures of Old Christine. Given how strong a player JLD is in her best projects, e.g. Veep, Seinfeld, and guest turns on shows like Arrested Development, it’s surprising that she never made a splash with the Not Ready for Prime Time Players. Maybe she was too subtle in her cheery viciousness, too introverted in her portrayal of neuroses ...?
In any case, tonight’s episode doesn’t do much to break her out of her standard relationship with SNL. JLD enthusiastically gives the sketches her all, and comes off well, but the material isn’t stellar. Oddly, there’s no real Veep sketch, just a brief mention of it in the opening monologue — perhaps because the HBO show mirrors so much of the ridiculousness in our current election cycle, SNL’s writers felt there wasn’t much to add.
Brooklyn Democratic Debate Cold Open
Naturally, the Hillary-Bernie debate is at the fore of this cold open, which addresses weak spots in each of their campaigns including Hillary’s newly liberal positions and Bernie’s potentially impractical plans. Much like the debate itself, this sketch delivers no knockout blows, but Kate McKinnon and Larry David (as Hillz and Bern) find some fun moments along the way. At one point, they slap fight before Hillary puts her opponent in a headlock, gives him noogies and cries, “Can you feel that Bern?” JLD makes her first appearance as Elaine Benes, and things start to get muddy because it’s too delicious to resist making JLD and David talk Seinfeld. The best crossover moment, when Elaine asks Bernie how he’d break up the banks, he replies, “I’ll have a schvitz at the White House gym, I’ll go to the big banks, sit them down, and yada yada yada, they’ll be broken up.” Block out the presence of Rachel Green and forget they mention Cliff Huxtable; it’s more enjoyable that way.
Tonight is only JLD’s third time hosting SNL. She wonders why “that number feels a little low,” before revisiting career low-lights that just might answer her question. She presents one of her “greatest characters” from her unremarkable tenure at SNL alongside Martin Short (“Mr. Quigley, this is Ed Grimley.”), remarks on her forest imp role in camp classic Troll, and refuses to show any part of Soul Man because “all of my scenes were with a man in blackface.” (Geez, audience: It’s a bad and insensitive movie, she’s playing with that, so RELAX a little.) Tony Hale shows up as a flubbing cue card guy, JLD calls him by the name of his Veep character Gary — the only Veep reference of the evening — and that’s that. It’s unremarkable but JLD comes off smart and charmingly self-deprecating, as always.
Commercial: Heroin AM
In the standard format of an aspirin ad, chipper and clean-cut white people tout a product called Heroin AM: That opiate you take when your kid has to get to soccer practice and you can’t nod off. Turns out, it’s loaded with cocaine and caffeine — so, of course, it ends with one user hallucinating that her family members are monsters? Uh, okay. While SNL’s attempt to address the rising heroin problem in suburban areas is noble, this commercial parody feels a bit broad. (Best line: “Side effects include: It’s heroin. So, all that stuff.”)
In this three-and-a-half minute commercial for a shop in a strip mall off the Jericho Turnpike, JLD and Kate McKinnon hawk gaudy bits of jewelry in leopard print skirts while saying “yooge.” As one of the Long Island matrons says of her accessories, “Yooge is the same as good” — extrapolate, and you can predict the parade of models flaunting increasingly enormous necklaces and earrings. This would have been a great 60-second dig, but after some initial jabs at these garish L.I. ladies, there’s not a lot to propel it. Props to the props department, though.
The Pool Boy
In this filmed sketch, guilty and bored housewife JLD punishes herself for the affair she’s been carrying on with her vapid pool boy, Pete Davidson. While JLD grapples with the drama unfolding in her head, that sweet, boyish Davidson watches, nods and says, “Okay.” (As JLD whirls into paroxysms of guilt and lust, it’s a treat to watch him land perfectly between affable and completely uncomprehending.) The swells of music are nice, and certainly the close-ups on Davidson’s face sell his zen-like cluelessness, but this could have played just as well in the live setting. Upon seeing a new hunk (Nick Jonas) mowing her lawn, JLD nails her last line: “I’m gonna fuck that kid.”
The premise of this one, a movie star who inspires spontaneity in her performances by placing some of her lines in various places around the set, ain’t bad. JLD is Marla Bartlet, the ’50s actress who adds excruciating pauses to the action while she scans the bottom of prop clocks for lines she scribbled there. The execution is over-the-top, which helps communicate the gag on TV, but certain choices — printing Bartlet’s lines on decorative blinds, say — make things too clunky. One nice moment involves Bartlet misreading her own annotation, and demanding of her love interest “Kick me. Kick me like you mean it!”
The ad sounds like an endorsement of the future of green, automotive intelligence but is actually an automobile shell that runs on 9,648 AA batteries. It takes some time, but there’s a nice payoff when JLD (as the car’s spokesperson) announces the “ribbon release auto-dump features,” which is nothing more than hundreds of used batteries elegantly spilling onto the ground.
Bernie Sanders mentioned he was “one of the poorest members of the Senate,” so Colin Jost sets him up as a “cartoon opposite” of the boastful Trump. (One nice shot in this sequence of fun comparisons: “Trump spends two hours a day on his hair; Bernie’s barber is the wind.”) There’s also a nice hit on Ted Cruz, a.k.a. the man who “failed to get the endorsement of his family’s Christmas newsletter.” Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah show up as Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal; nothing in the content of their bit is all that worth mentioning, but Pharoah’s cross-eyed and dopey Shaq is worth watching.
Aidy Bryant slides in to play the smiley Animal Annie, an expert whose fun factoids about creatures have more to do with her depressing personal life. It’s cuter than it is funny, but lines like, “I got catfished by a 14-year-old member of ISIS,” help out. Jost and Michael Che trade a few more lines, including a Wiz Khalifa joke Che outright calls lazy. Finally, Cecily Strong plays her recurring character The One-Dimensional Female Character from a Male-Driven Comedy for another brilliant excoriation of tired Hollywood writing. Strong’s dry, focus-group-inspired performance and the piece’s excellent writing (“I’m somewhere between 18 and 27, but I date 40 and up, the fatter the better.”) do not get the credit they deserve with the studio audience.
Who Works Here?
The game show parody is charming and well-observed — though the number of belly laughs it provides may be directly proportional to the amount of time the viewer spends searching for vitamins and hairspray in the aisles of pharmacies. As “dull” contestants are presented with a series of sketchy characters, they have to decide whether or not the oddball works at CVS. Many recognizable types are on display here, including the grouchy lady in a uniform (but no name tag) and a security guard who spends more time in the bathroom than he does on the sales floor. It seems weird that CVS would pay to have its name all over the set while enduring digs about their employees — “She’s actually a full manager, so technically all she has to do is dance” — but hey, if they’re cool about their disaffected staff and bizarre customers, maybe you can be, too.
Otherworldly sirens JLD and Kate McKinnon take over a “Meet n’ Match” mingle at a local bar. Their blackened eyeballs, monstrous voices and Carrie-like prom dresses don’t distract the horny dudes at the party; even when the alien ladies spit lines like, “Our twin stars are dimming, our kind is dying, we need to produce a child now,” the fedora-clad douchebags still follow the creepy duo into the bathroom. The consequences are grave. JLD and McKinnon paint a nice silly-spooky picture, and they’re enjoying themselves, though I’m guessing the thing flew better at the table read — without the distraction of the digitally-enhanced monster voices, there’d be a bit more immediacy.
God Is a Boob Man
This faux movie preview is a nice piece of satire aimed at prejudiced service providers who use religious convictions to justify their refusal to serve gay people. In this conservative flick, Vanessa Bayer is a devout, well-meaning baker who fights the sinister gay agenda (“Gays are the most powerful force in America.”) and an evil, Jewish lawyer who wants to make her say the words, “God is gay.” It’s a pitch-perfect parody of the David vs. Goliath courtroom dramas, and Bayer is excellent as the sunny everywoman forced into a battle she did not choose. No, this sketch isn’t going to change your Republican uncle’s mind when you post it on Facebook, but it helps neuter those who use religion to defend bigotry. It’s the show’s highlight.
This episode is completely serviceable. Cecily Strong’s Weekend Update performance and the last movie parody are solid, but nothing stands head and shoulders above the rest. By the same token, nothing really tanks, either. I have to give JLD credit, as she goes at the material with everything she’s got.
One distracting thing to note: The episode felt bloated with product placement, a.k.a. native advertising, if you’re slick like that. There are sketches entirely dedicated to CVS, Match.com, and Duracell batteries — maybe the regular commercial spots don’t rake it in like they used to, but all of this becomes a bit too much.