What kind of Trump will Alec Baldwin be? What will Saturday Night Live do without Taran Killam's genial reliability or Jay Pharoah's impeccable impressions? When will they crown Kate McKinnon as their queen and master?
Whenever a new season of SNL begins, all kinds of questions float around in a fan's head. This opener answered plenty about season 42, though the most pressing involved neither cast nor special guest, but Australian actor Margot Robbie: How would she fare as a host? Robbie landed the gig thanks to her role as Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad — and hey, Harley's a clown. That's promising, right? By the episode's end, Robbie proves her comedic chops, solidly leading the cast in a night of sketches about everything from the election cycle to Scooby-Doo.
Presidential Debate Cold Open
If you talked about presidential debate all week, you undoubtedly want to see this ten-minute opener. The sketch tackles the debate's oddest and most memorable moments, while giving Kate McKinnon and Alec Baldwin room to stretch their legs. Fresh off of winning an Emmy, McKinnon comes across as not only controlled and focused, but fired up about resurrecting her Hillary character. Though Baldwin relies on a lot of sneers and pouts to stitch his Donald Trump impression together, he makes a great lout and his timing is fantastic. In this cartoon version of Trump's onscreen meltdown, he repeatedly references China (or, as Trump says it, "Ghina"), recalls making out with Sean Hannity, and drops the "nuclear bomb" of Bill Clinton's infidelity. Meanwhile, Hillary just shimmies. "Can America vote right now?" she asks as Trump moans about Rosie O'Donnell.
Margot Robbie's Monologue
It's no highlight, but this monologue serves its purpose: The audience gets to see Margot Robbie excited and out of character, while SNL's favorite players lend a reminder of what's to come. The underlying conceit involves the real-time fact-checking that Donald Trump's egregious whoppers warrant; every time Robbie or another cast member makes a comment ("Lorne is the best!"), they turn to another camera to fact-check themselves ("I've never met Lorne."). As silly as the fact checks are — e.g. Cecily Strong getting wasted and riding not a mechanical bull but a man named Beef — Leslie Jones apparently did call McKinnon "Kate Middleton" after knowing her for a year.
Live News Report
On the scene to investigate a sinkhole, a local reporter (Kenan Thompson) and news anchor (Beck Bennett) just can't accept that the beautiful, mini-dress clad Robbie is going out with a man who identifies himself as Matt Shatt (Mikey Day) — "with two Ts," he insists. After finding out Shatt is a Crocs-wearing puppeteer who drives a Kia Sportage and has a very curious issue with his junk, the guys stammer in disbelief. As Alexandra Kennedy Shatt (Robbie) defends her husband, even the ladies in the scene (Cecily Strong, Leslie Jones) forget about the sinkholes. There's something stale in the "Is She Really Going Out with Him?" premise, but the specifics in the takedown of Matt Shatt make it fun.
Immediately after making Robbie the sex object, SNL gives her the chance to play it weird and chew some scenery. In this sketch, she plays a seemingly cute, straight-laced librarian with whom all the teenage boys are infatuated. As the boys gawk, Robbie twirls and shakes, and the baump-baump-chooka-chooka of Yello's "Oh Yeah" kicks in. And then fantasy girl starts tearing out her hair in clumps, reveals her disgusting teeth, and dances with a guy and his snake. The kids lose their, uh, faith as the choruses of "Oh, yeah" becomes "Oh, no." Great sight gags make this one worthwhile, and the whole package lets you know SNL Digital Shorts will be okay without director Matt Villines, who passed away in July.
Family Feud Political Edition
"When does this actually start? The whole thing is hellos. My grandmother can knit a sweater in that time." Bernie Sanders (still the blustering Larry David, thankfully) offers up this complaint about the Feud, and it's really the complaint to make about all Feud sketches. This time, it's Team Hillary versus Team Trump, and because we've already seen the primary players, this long series of momentary impressions land on supporting characters. Watch for the creepy Children of the Corn moment with Trump's kids, a haunting visit from shirtless Vladimir Putin (Bennett), and new player Melissa Villaseñor nailing Sarah Silverman's tone and cadence.
From the outset of Update, it's clear that anchors Colin Jost and Michael Che will have even more room for casual banter this season. When talking about issues the anchors feel strongly about — here, it's the candidates, the debate, and stop-and-frisk — the zingers are tempered with stretches of more chatty, observational material. (This works especially well for Che, whose stand-up relies on the latter.) One of the best moments of the first half is Jost's dissection of Clinton's gloating, as well as the campaign's attempt to prove she's healthy by playing "I Feel Good" at rallies. "I just want to point out that James Brown died of pneumonia," Jost says. Che follows up: "If she actually had black friends, she woulda knew that."
As for characters, Cecily Strong returns as mom-jeaned hot mess Cathy Ann. The character has appeared in high-concept sketches, but it's well-served by the focus of Update. Here, as Cathy Ann talks about the presidential candidates, we can better appreciate the nuances of Strong's mush-mouthed ranting. ("I have a pretty bad history with drugsanalcohol," she confesses.) Shortly thereafter, Kenan Thompson returns as "Big Papi" David Ortiz, on the verge of his retirement from baseball. Of course, his culinary obsessions remain: He touts favorite treats including "horchata con jamón." Though there's not a lot of bite to Thompson's impression, the enjoyment he gets from jabbering as Big Papi is worthwhile.
This live-action Scooby-Doo parody follows a gang of mystery-solving teens in '70s attire as they unravel the case of Groundskeeper Coggins and the spooky old castle. The only hitch? Tad, the Freddy character (played by Beck Bennett) brought along his new girlfriend Becca Ashley (Robbie). She can't stop calling other members of the gang "pussies," and repeatedly insists that the rubber mask they find must be a mask that a real monster made from its own face. While the sketch isn't outstanding, it's fun to see Robbie play a broader role you might normally expect to see from McKinnon or Strong. When a character says he hears someone coming, Robbie sells the next line: "Eww, who would have sex in this filthy old castle?" The unsung hero here is Kyle Mooney, who does an excellent, squawking, Shaggy-like stoner dude.
Melania Moment #27, the Passerby
This short blackout sketch is a clear winner. With its ambient synths and soft-focus lens, it provides a portrait of Melania Trump as she lounges in the Trump Tower penthouse, pondering life's great questions. A soothing male voice over asks, "Is there a Sixth Avenue? A Fourth Avenue? One day, I'd really like to know." It nails a certain public perception of Melania — that she's vapid, out of touch, and something of a kept woman like Helen of Troy.
Women in Film Round Table
Just wind Kate McKinnon up and watch her go. This sketch, not far in form and function from last season's incredible alien-abduction sketch with Ryan Gosling, finds a panel of modern actors (Robbie, Cecily Strong and Sasheer Zamata) dealing with '40s Hollywood headliner Debette Goldry (McKinnon). In Goldry's day, struggle didn't mean having to play the girlfriend role, it meant getting pumped full of amphetamines and getting paid in brooches. Lines such as "I ended up flapping my toots for a bunch of Krauts," are gold, and make Robbie lose her composure.
Mr. Robot Parody
The premise of this filmed sketch is excellent, timely, and unfortunately, much better than its execution. It's a Mr. Robot episode in which the hacker character, Elliot Alderson, helps Leslie Jones find out who hacked her personal website. In the aftermath of all those horrible attacks Jones endured this summer, it's admirable that she's already willing to joke about it. However, most of the sketch is broad swipes at Jones's seeming inability to keep up with technology. "Do you know Windows 95?" she asks. The jokes just continue in this vein.
If you're exhausted by the election, you probably didn't find relief in this kickoff, but it was a good night for everyone else. The debate gave SNL a chance to be a part of the conversation, an opportunity that the writers, McKinnon, and Baldwin capitalized on. For her part, Margot Robbie was playful and seemingly willing to go along with whatever the sketches needed. She certainly held her own when it was time to play bizarre, homicidal ladies — perhaps an unsurprising direction, given her Suicide Squad performance. The looser Weekend Update seems promising, and strong performances from McKinnon and Strong indicate that the 42nd season of Saturday Night Live will belong to them.