Ah, the new season of Saturday Night Live: new writers, new featured players, new opportunities for Leslie Jones to give the camera her death stare! And nowhere in the betting pool for the first host: Adam Driver, who kicks off SNL’s 44th season with his second hosting gig. His first shot, back in 2016, had its moments. The Star Wars/Undercover Boss mash-up, a sketch about one crazy Golden Globes, and a cut-for-time short film about the fish man from The Shape of Water, were all great. This time, Driver isn’t surfing the Star Wars wave, nor is he the breakout star of summer, but he’s got a solid credit in Spike Lee’s excellent BlacKkKlansman. The writers found enough for him to do without forcing him to wear the black cloak and make another Kylo Ren appearance.
Kavanaugh Hearing Cold Open
As Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford were all that anyone could talk about this week, it follows that some aspect of the sexual-assault hearings started the show tonight. And if you were wondering whether SNL’s stunt casting streak would end, you got your answer when Matt Damon strode onstage as an aggro Kavanaugh. A parade of senators and the hired prosecutor (Aidy Bryant) question Kavanaugh about his drinking, his drinking companions, the meaning of “the devil’s triangle,” and how closely he feels allied with Bill Cosby. Kavanaugh, for his part, is whiny and blustery whether he’s talking about beer preference or his days with “Handsy Hank” and “Gang-bang Greg.” And then, there’s the Alyssa Milano cutout. Damon doesn’t add a whole lot of nuance, but the sketch is a smart start to the season and Kate McKinnon’s no-neck Lindsey Graham is lovely.
Adam Driver Monologue
The thing Driver hates most about the fall, or more specifically working with SNL players in the fall, is hearing the same small talk about what happened over the summer. Everyone “worked a little and traveled a little,” but because Driver is terrible at small talk, it makes him curse Aidy Bryant, Beck Bennett, and Kenan Thompson under his breath. The only person whose summer Driver does want to know about is Pete Davidson — but Davidson ain’t talking (yet). This monologue hits just the one note, and the note is not particularly funny, but hey, it does what an intro needs to do.
While getting pumped for a game of Fortnite, two kids (Davidson, Kyle Mooney) are joined by tentative dad William McTavish (Driver). Because his son Miles plays Fortnite with his stepfather Rick, William wants to be better than Rick right away. That won’t happen, unfortunately, while he’s running his character avatar (Mikey Day) into walls and doing superfluous emotes. This sketch is novel, in that half of it is the three players talking on headsets and half is the gameplay enacted by several more performers. But this is also part of the problem: The writers never quite decide which part is going to pull focus, the awkward father doing his best or the visual gag of the characters goofing around.
A New Kyle
In another of Kyle Mooney’s backstage dramas, Kyle feels anonymous and gets jealous of Pete Davidson for all of the extra attention Pete received over the summer. So Kyle cuts his hair, dyes it blond, starts calling people “bro,” and gets a celebrity girlfriend in Wendy Williams. An angry Pete resents Kyle’s biting, so the two must settle things “the SNL way,” with medieval weapons of war. There’s a battle, blood is spilled, and lives are changed irreparably. There are a few good jokes here for those who know a bit about the cast members — stay tuned for more about Davidson’s engagement to Ariana Grande — and absurd bits like Driver taking an arrow to the thigh for trying to interfere with internal cast quarrels.
Interested in an infomercial for Burger King’s BK Joe coffee? This sketch, in which the characters talk about BK Joe for five minutes, is the one for you. A crass quasi Italian couple (Driver and Strong) don’t understand the premise of a single-blind study in which the fancy coffee they expected was replaced with affordable, delicious BK Joe coffee. As the couple gets more and more riled up about the subterfuge and being fed “burger juice,” the guy running the study (Day) tries to calm them. It doesn’t help, and the couple doesn’t get it. But the rest of us do: It’s SNL’s advertorial for BK Joe coffee, in which a man says “biscooti,” rather than “biscotti.” If this does it for you, congratulations, you are easily amused.
Another take on the Kavanaugh hearings, this filmed piece reconsiders a crazy party that took place at some college frat in the ’80s. While all the bros get wasted, supertitles tell us a little something about what happens to them in the future. Some tell a federal grand jury that what they do never took place, two are forced to withdraw their 2020 presidential bids, and the one kid who says, “I’m going places!” is dead now. The writers do a good job of looking at the premise from different angles, and there are some nice gags, but it’s definitely all too disconcerting and uncomfortable to be funny.
With so much of the news cycle dominated by the extended Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Update talked Kavanaugh. Michael Che made a good point that all the “yelling and crying” took place at what was essentially Kavanaugh’s job interview — and when that happens, “you don’t get the damn job.” While considering all of the little things Kavanaugh lied about, Colin Jost presented this nicely constructed drinking game: “If you took a shot for every time Kavanaugh lied about his yearbook, you’d be as drunk as Brett Kavanaugh was in the summer of ’82.” Then Kate McKinnon appeared as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, talking about this week’s dramatic hearings. The Supreme Court justice’s sassy dances and patented “Ginsburns” have not worn out in the least.
The second half of the segment has relatively few jokes from the anchors, but there’s a weirdly charming gripe from Che about why a show called The Cosby Show featured a lead character named Cliff Huxtable. Also, Leslie Jones comes on briefly to play Serena Williams and show off her toned physique — never mind that the U.S. Open controversy is several weeks old. Finally, Pete Davidson comes on to talk about what Driver wanted to know in his opening monologue. He describes about the magical experience of getting engaged to Ariana Grande, the less-than-magical experience of getting death threats, and what it is to have a fiancée who is the breadwinner. Davidson’s natural charm wins again, as in the moment he describes the effect of his engagement akin to San Francisco helping a kid with leukemia realize his dream of becoming Batman.
Abraham H. Parnassus (Driver), the silver-haired, mustachioed progenitor of young Mordechai (Davidson), visits Sierra High School to teach his son’s class a thing or two about his work as an oil baron. Primarily, this involves crushing his enemies underfoot and “grinding their bones into dirt.” While some of the kids encourage Parnassus’ terrifying stories, Mordechai’s embarrassment is obvious. Perhaps this is because Parnassus’ wife was the granddaughter of his mortal enemy, H.R. Pickens. This sketch has magnificently dark turns of phrase and really gives Driver good reason to chew the scenery. (Davidson has a hard time holding it together whenever Driver demands eye contact.) Beyond playing another version of Kylo Ren, this sketch is the single best use SNL has made of Driver’s singular intensity.
In the only sketch that plays on BlacKkKlansman, a bunch of white people gather to share their resentments about minorities and immigrants, and dream about a place where only white people live. “That sounds like Vermont!” hollers one guy in the crowd (Driver). Though Jim (Bennett) and Todd (Mooney) try to counter the stranger’s claims, all the talk about farmer’s markets and dogs with bandanas only prove that Vermont is a white supremacist’s haven. Indeed, it must be the place where “the leaves change color but the people never do,” because the security guard (Redd) doesn’t want anything to do with it. There’s a clever observation at the heart of this sketch, and its fun hearing the writers tease it out.
While Driver’s approach and timing aren’t yet as nuanced as some favorite SNL hosts, he once again played well with others. His 2016 gig featured some silly characters, as in his chipper, chirping Aladdin, but nothing gave him space to succeed as he did with Abraham H. Parnassus in “Career Day.” The cast seemed well-rested, exhibiting an energy commensurate with a summer off. (Unfortunately, new cast member Ego Nwodim didn’t get much air time, but then again, it’s only her first show.) Next week’s host will be Awkwafina, representing the summer’s breakout hit film and one of the only female Asian-Americans ever to host SNL. Here’s hoping the rest of the cast of Crazy Rich Asians makes it to 8H, too.