Jessica Chastain has done space movies, war movies, horror movies, period pieces, and family dramas — but no, she has not done a lot of comedies. Her most recent project, Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, Molly’s Game, gives Chastain room to be a ball-busting poker entrepreneur, but you wouldn’t call it a movie with a ton of fart jokes. It’ll be interesting to see not just how she handles her first SNL hosting gig, but what the writers cook up for her. So long as Chastain can play on those characters who either steel themselves to say the hard thing or gaze into the middle distance while holding back tears, she should pull together a solid night.
During the White House press conference, Sarah Huckabee Sanders (Aidy Bryant) welcomes journalists, talking about the president’s “first kick-ass year in office,” the government shutdown, and the border wall that is to be “paid for by Mexico with American taxpayer money.” Then, Navy rear admiral Ronny Jackson (Beck Bennett) steps up to the podium to confirm that Trump’s health and mental fitness are top-notch. Members of the press want to know whether the results of his physical exam were fabricated, and Pete Davidson shows up to ask about Trump’s relationship with porn star Stormy Daniels. This cold open simply doesn’t do much; it’s vaguely homoerotic talk, free of clever lines or sharp observations.
Before the show gets underway, Chastain confesses that she’s ready for comedy because she plays so many roles with lines like, “Take the shot, damn it!” She’s joined by Kate McKinnon and Cecily Strong to sing “You Don’t Own Me” in honor of the Women’s March, and then Aidy Bryant and Leslie Jones talk pussy hats; Beck Bennett and Pete Davidson invite themselves to (and then excuse themselves from) the march; and Heidi Gardner and Melissa Villaseñor consider the right kinds of fashion to catch a husband during a protest. While the Women’s March is certainly worth noting, the material is really flimsy here; it’s neither really funny nor a particularly good intro to Chastain.
In a parody of The Bachelor, one vapid race-car driver (Alex Moffat) is accosted by a horde of desperate, shallow Laurens looking to make out and/or win his heart. Lauren (Strong) hands over a pair of her underwear so the Bachelor never forgets where she’s from (“Labia, Alabama”); playing mini-golf with Young Sheldon really takes Lauren (Chastain) out of her comfort zone; and Lauren’s (McKinnon) first kiss was from a dead squirrel she carries around with her. Yeah, this sketch is aiming at pretty big targets, but there are a bunch of clever lines in it and the ensemble has fun hamming it up as dopes.
This parody of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s opening credits finds the Will Smith character truly afraid of those guys who started making trouble in his neighborhood — because they’re actual gang members (led by Method Man). After they lay siege to the Bel-Air mansion, Will runs. He is scooped up by the F.B.I., fakes his own death, and then gets delivered to the Yakuza. On paper, the juxtaposition of cute and violent feels right; a lot of resources went into making this and Redd does a fine job Fresh Prince–ing it up. Unfortunately, the whole thing feels overloaded and overwrought.
At this Q&A between Google host Summer Childs (Chastain) and a Berkley sociology professor (Moffat), audience members feel concerned about bullying. Some feel targeted because of their race, religion, or sexual orientation … and then there’s the one guy who gets teased for looking too much like Bart Simpson. Yes, one sad man named Bert Sampson (Mikey Day) has Bart’s perfectly spiky hair, red T-shirt and slightly yellow tint. Because of this fact, people in the audience give him the Nelson laugh, people watching online create memes with his image, and one caller who identifies herself as “Maggie” just sucks on a pacifier. As a whole, it’s just a visual gag with a few Simpsons references.
In this nebulous game show, the host (Chastain) mentions some unbelievable thing the president just said or did, and then asks the contestants (McKinnon, Strong and Thompson) whether anything matters anymore. When considering Trump’s comment regarding “shithole” countries or his affair with a porn star, the answer is … no, nothing matters. After a few exchanges, the contestants get concerned: “Is this still part of the game? Are there points?” No ideas they can come up with, not even an imagined sex tape between Trump and Don Jr., makes the host believe Trump will face any kind of consequences. Turns out, Jessica Chastain herself wrote the sketch in a fit of hopelessness. This sketch is smart and wily, and Chastain does great, but it would take a perfectly calibrated comic meltdown to make this not sound like a screed.
“This week, I was finally able to Google ‘Stormy Daniels’ on my work computer,” Colin Jost says at the top of Update, while he and Michael Che consider the sex scandal, the government shutdown, and Trump’s physical fitness. Che is upset that the Stormy Daniels scandal hasn’t produced details other than Trump got spanked by a magazine and the idea that he’s afraid of sharks: “Of course he’s afraid of sharks, he has the body of a seal.” Another great gag involves listing the accomplishments of the Republican-led government: “Tax bill … government shutdown.” Then Cecily Strong comes on as Stormy Daniels, telling America she is the “hero” it deserves. Her monologue has a lot of great points, but the character isn’t ingratiating or endearing enough to be funny.
The second half is taken up by more character monologues. The first comes from Prince William (Moffat) and Prince Harry (Day), who are on-set to make a statement about their relationship with Trump. Instead, Harry teases William about his lack of hair while William gives Harry shit about Suits, the USA series starring his fiancée, Meghan Markle. There’s some of the playful relationship between Moffat and Day on display, but the grousing brothers dynamic is pretty dull. Kate McKinnon then emerges, in heavy makeup, as Robert Mueller. Mueller is coy and happy, wanting to give Jost and the rest of America some details about the investigation, but can’t discuss particulars. Instead, he just says, “It’s gonna be fun.” McKinnon kills it, drawing out every moment as though Mueller were a teenager with privileged information about somebody’s secret crush.
When two L.A. ladies (Chastain and Heidi Gardner) order tacos, the waiter (Day) blows their minds when he tells them it’s BOGO. In order to make sense of it, they pore over the details again and again. “If I ordered chicken, can she get beef? If she orders beef, can I get chicken?” When the waiter tries to simplify things, they interrupt: “Lemme think about this because I’m trying to use my brain more.” An anonymous patron (Bryant) offers to pay for their meals in order to end the insidious drivel, but these ladies will not be bought off — and no, they don’t want margaritas because they’re performing surgery after lunch. There are fun non sequiturs here, like how one of the women can’t eat beef because she “ate all this raw hamburger last weekend,” but this is an infuriating linguistic fractal of a sketch.
This chapter in the ongoing saga of lunkhead Chad (Pete Davidson) finds a sexy doctor (Chastain) unable to contain herself now that Chad is about to get out of the hospital. While she talks of love, all he can manage is his robotic but pleasant “O-kay.” (One of the few exceptions is when she talks about climbing in bed to “make sweet love” to him, he says, “Noice.”) Chad can’t stay still long, however, and wanders into the hallway to ram a motorized wheelchair into the walls. Later, as the doctor flirtatiously tucks him in, he abruptly falls asleep. There’s no new revelations about Chad here, just more of the same, but Davidson remains strangely charming as the uncomprehending hero.
A TV director (Thompson) approaches actors Cynthia and Jackie (Chastain and Jones) after one run-through of their scene about pay equity in the workplace. He wants Cynthia to get to the “emotional heart” of the scene by mugging wildly and imagining that she is “biting an imaginary hot dog into four pieces.” As for Jackie, she needs to elongate her vowels and make some more faces, too. Though the actors fear the director’s notes are “career-ending,” they give it a shot anyway. It doesn’t quite work, but the actors are less than surprised to learn that the director’s only TV experience was playing a drifter on The Jeffersons who pooped into a washing machine. It’s perfectly silly material for the last sketch of the night.
Other than Jessica Chastain’s fun performance, there isn’t a lot to recommend in this week’s episode. Chastain herself is surprisingly strong, finding character hooks in each of her sketches and going for the emotion of scenes rather than tying herself to cue cards. Sadly, she’s stuck in one of the least well-written shows of the year. While there are a few smart ideas, like the twisty “What Even Matters Anymore” sketch, many of them feel uninspired, convoluted, or aiming for easy laughs. It happens, and next week is sure to improve as Will Ferrell returns to host for the fourth time.