One of the bigger frustrations for those of us following SNL’s 40th season is that, despite the show’s ongoing ups and downs, this current version of SNL is one we want to get behind. Kate McKinnon, Taran Killam, and Cecily Strong are as fun to watch and dominant in sketches as previous eras’ stars were (regardless how rosey nostalgia has tinted alums like Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg), and the video segments are as sharply executed as they’ve ever been. What SNL has been lacking are an overall confidence in its assets and a consistent understanding of how to deploy them effectively.
The stronger episodes this season have featured east cast member putting his or her best foot forward. For example, JK Simmons’ episode last month showcased Vanessa Bayer in a darkly nuanced commercial parody, Kate McKinnon as a skittish Ingrid Bergman, Bobby Moynihan as a dancing pushpin, and Taran Killam and Cecily Strong holding down Weekend Update with fan-favorite bits – a well-balanced use of each of their skill sets. By comparison, Dakota Johnson’s recent episode seemed much more muddled, with the cast sweating through occasionally amusing but largely unmemorable setups – Cecily as Cathy Anne, Kyle as a Fifty Shades-obsessed child, Aidy with her arms in casts (again), Kenan as a Trekkie doctor – while the pre-taped videos stole the show. That’s not to say producers can’t afford to mix things up, but with fans still making up their minds on SNL in 2015, we need to see a cast that’s comfortable in its own skin.
Perhaps that explains why I found last weekend’s Chris Hemsworth episode so satisfying, despite a number of dud sketches on par with other weeks. A little Aussie swagger was just what SNL needed right now, with Kate, Taran, Cecily, and hell, even the Weekend Update guys, proving they can walk tall in a season too many have prematurely tuned out of.
Hillary Clinton Cold Open. As the 2016 election approaches, the privilege of playing Hillary Clinton has apparently fallen to Kate McKinnon (Vanessa Bayer has also capably handled the role in the past), and not since Ellen Degeneres has Kate embodied an icon with such joy and gusto. As she defended her use of a personal email account – Checkers-speeching her loveless emails to her husband and coyly calculating her presidential aspirations (“If I’m running… who knows? I am.”) – I was struck by how much Kate’s take on Hillary reminded me of Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush, or even Amy Poehler’s Hillary: less concerned with mirroring the tone and cadence (as Jay Pharoah does with Barack Obama) than with simply capturing an aspect of their personality and making it funny. Kate’s Hillary Clinton is the first impression of a serious presidential contender in the past decade that I actually hope to see more of on SNL.
Monologue. Chris Hemsworth’s monologue more or less got the job done, presenting the Thor star and his brothers Liam and Luke as hunky Australians, with Kenan joining them as Callum Hemsworth: “Lotta beefcake up here, ladies!” Not exactly cutting-edge comedy, but it’s a step forward from the catcalling pander of Channing Tatum’s home base striptease. As a host, Hemsworth followed the template set by other handsome action stars, like Tatum, and Chris Pratt earlier this season: embracing all things physical and showing a sense of humor about his good looks… even if some viewers may be doing more ogling than laughing.
American Express Ad. The show wisely tackled Chris Hemsworth’s looks early on with this parody of the American Express ad (featuring Mindy Kaling recalling her unlikely success in showbusiness), with this version tracking Hemsworth’s relatively easy and obstacle-free rise to fame: “I bounced around Hollywood for days. And then someone stopped me in the street and said, ‘You gotta be Thor! Come with me!’” Even for those not familiar with the ad, this video came across both funny and functional, characterizing Hemsworth as a guy not afraid to joke about how much easier beautiful people have it.
Brother 2 Brother. SNL cut deep with less-attractive twins and average-looking comedians everywhere with this parody of a Disney Channel sitcom (in the vein of The Suite Life of Zack and Cody), featuring Taran Killam and Chris Hemsworth as teenage “twins” Matty and Marky who swap places… a charade abruptly ended by a teacher cruelly pointing out each of Taran’s physical shortcomings to his counterpart: “His chest just goes out, it just takes up more room in the room, ya know?” While normally a sketch like this would explore the twin comparison in various beats, I actually appreciated that the script stayed as a simplified flat-joke in the classroom, forcing Taran to endure the endless torture. Best of the Night.
Empire Promo. FOX’s Empire has become enough of a breakout hit to earn itself an SNL parody (with a cast diverse enough to do it justice), featuring Chris Hemsworth as a milquetoast office assistant designed to appeal to white America. While Kenan and Shasheer’s antics as Lucious and Cookie might appeal to fans of the series, the sketch’s racial satire didn’t quite land, with Hemsworth not plain and white enough (Chip seemed like a role resident-white-guy Mike O’Brien would have been better suited for), and the beats of the parody stealing too much focus.
Spaceship. It wouldn’t be SNL without at least one totally bonkers premise in the lineup, and while it seems like a reasonable enough formula for comedy to see Chris Hemsworth and the cast play straight on the bridge of a spaceship while their captain – a live chicken – roams about, clucking, it’s also one of those stunts that makes some people wonder what the fuck Lorne was thinking. Luckily, in the tradition of animal sketches like “Mark Wahlberg Talks to Animals” and “Dr. Dave & Buggles” earlier this season, this one seemed just silly enough to work, with Hemsworth nearly breaking as the chicken turned away from his face, and a fittingly absurd microwave rotisserie chicken gag to close things out: (Beeeeeep) “She’s done.”
The Iggy Azalea Show. It’s hard for me to not immediately tune out of these talk shows that mock music stars – even “The Miley Cyrus Show” and “Waking Up with Kimye” got old fast – so despite Kate McKinnon’s amusing transitions between Iggy Azalea’s wide-eyed Aussie and hard-core rapper personas, it was difficult to justify this as anything more than an excuse to force a dreadlocked Chris Hemsworth to proclaim “Bang Bang Boomerang!”
Weekend Update. While I’ve been reluctant to credit them much this season, Colin Jost and Michael Che finally won me over with their confidence, hitting an impressive stride while piling onto Dr. Ben Carson’s homophobic remarks. Jost even flubbed a line – reading “36 inches” instead of “3.6 inches” in a setup about penis size that was intended to show Che’s jokes sound different with Jost reads them – but still recovered admirably, earning laughs by ad-libbing “A guy can dream!” and finishing out the joke with the crowd on his side. Leslie Jones returned to the desk with her powerhouse energy to discuss the challenges of dating in New York, which turned into a rant against urban life in the winter – “These avenues are killing a bitch! I’ve been on Fifth Avenue for 10 hours! When’s it gonna be Sixth?” – that landed about as well as any inside-NYC jokes do on the show. (SNL has always been a show by New Yorkers for New Yorkers; some of the bits just won’t hit as hard with the millions of us who, thankfully, have never inhaled rat feces dust in the subway.) Cecily closed out the segment with the return of her Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started A Conversation With At A Party (VI), whom we haven’t seen since the season premiere, with her always-enjoyable takes on Kardastrophies and HMOs (“Um, how about just calling them gay people?”), and tricking Che into winking at her: “Congratulations. That’s assault.”
Avengers. Dressing Chris Hemsworth in his Thor costume was a given for this episode – I just wish the writers could have done so in a more complete premise than seeing each of the Avengers celebrating with bystanders in downtown New York, Ghostbusters-style, making 2012’s Jeremy Renner Avengers parody look actually decent. Considering the superheroes are already excessive showboats in the movies, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop here – the focus was more on Thor victory dancing than on the city being in ruins – so I had to settle for Pete as a dazed Bruce Banner saying, “I think I ate a guy.”
Movie Set. If the rumors that this would be Kenan Thompson’s final season prove to be true, it’s not surprising to see his one-off character bits sneak into the lineup in the back half (re: “Star Trek Doctor,” “Parole Board“). Here, he played the director on the set of a dramatic film coaching his actors to deliver lines ala The Jeffersons, with hammy, over-the-top reactions: “DYING?!?” As far as mission-impossible film set sketches go, this one isn’t one for the books, with neither Kenan’s character work nor the nods to the classic sitcom strong enough to carry this sketch for 4+ minutes.
Reality House. This parody of reality TV tropes framed roommates casually chatting about dinner as the kind of high-stakes drama you would see on Intervention, The Bachelor, or Survivor. Like most Good Neighbor sketches, the video committed hard to its genre, sometimes bypassing substantial laughs, but made up for it with weird little winks – the canned confession-cam soundbites, the big stupid nods during the choosing ceremony, Taran’s literal wink at the camera as the host. For better or worse, you can always count on Good Neighbor bringing something offbeat and interesting to the mix.
Pornstar Commercial VIII. At this point, Vanessa Bayer and Cecily Strong’s dummy ex-pornstars Brookie and “Supposed to be dead so shh…,” should have sold enough luxury goods to put their banging days well behind them. But eighth time was a charm, with the two once again redefining the 12:50am decency standards with quips about “the sultan of brown eye” and “Something died in me!” Of course, hearing the two of them say Dolkee and Gababba over and over would have been funny enough for me.
The show hasn’t announced who will host next, but I’ll see you next new episode, whenever it happens!