Saturday Night Live returns from the holiday break with host Ariana DeBose and musical guest Bleachers. Original musical guest Roddy Ricch had to drop out due to COVID exposure on his team, and there must be jitters on staff as New York City still faces a high rate of positive cases. DeBose, who is generating Oscar buzz with her star turn in West Side Story, is yet another SNL host this season at the beginning of their career. And who knows, it might be Pete Davidson handing her an Oscar. SNL has had trouble with younger hosts without the cultural cachet of the likes of Kim Kardashian and Rami Malek. Without that history to dip into, they have to create funny, original sketches. And tonight, they did.
Best Biden Deflection
Joe Biden has one message for Americans gripped by the Omicron surge, inflation, and the Ukraine crisis: “Stop seeing Spider-Man.” James’s Biden is a little low-energy here. While it’s probably because he is focused on accurately emulating the president, it can hurt a sketch like this. This is still a solid cold open, as the “stop seeing Spider-Man” refrain is soon revealed to be just another Biden administration deflection. Eventually, the “real” Biden, played by Pete Davidson, enters from a portal to tell us our universe is a collapsing joke created when the Cubs won the World Series in 2016. A weird ending for sure, but a solid start.
Best Host Entrance
Ariana BURSTS onto the stage. I’ve actually never seen her before, but I am in awe of her stage presence. In what I believe is the first time this season, the host’s monologue is interrupted by a cast member — Kate asks if she can sing some Broadway tunes with Ariana. This is a welcome change, as the taut two-minute host monologues got a little stale. Also, it’s more fun! The crowd loves it when SNL cast members interrupt the monologue. Give them what they want!
Best Shaq Replacement
Bowen Yang is a giant monotone Yao Ming on NBA on TNT. Keenan, as Charles Barkley, has even seen Yao eat an entire pumpkin, stem and all. (“It’s just a snack for Yao.”) The TNT crew goes over NBA games stricken by COVID, as the Sacramento Kings had to suit up their equipment manager, a fan, and a small child. Ariana is great as the casual fan out on a girls’ night who is thrown into the game. (“I don’t know what that means, but go Sacs!”)
Best Insult of a Virgin Teenager
“He’s a lazy wiper; you can smell it.” In “Winter Formal,” Sarah Sherman and Pete Davidson run a one-stop shop for all your daughter’s school-dance needs. And if you’re worried about your daughter having sex after the dance, they suggest you rent their nerdy son Donovan, played by SNL’s resident teen, Andrew Dismukes. This is an excellent trio, as Pete, Sarah, and Andrew really bring out each other’s weirdness. Pete and Sarah nearly lose it as they zoom in on stone-faced Andrew’s weird white lips. (“Is that cream cheese?” “Nah, I just think my mouth is like this.”)
Best Mayoral Introduction
Chris Redd is the new New York City Mayor, Eric Adams. “I was a police officer for 70 years,” the new mayor says. Ariana DeBose nearly steals the sketch from under him, randomly popping in as his confrontational spokesperson. (“This ain’t the C train, okay? We have rules here.”) The only thing holding this sketch back are these awkward split-stage reporters. Can somebody please figure out a way to put an entire press conference sketch on the same stage? However, I hope swaggy Eric Adams becomes a recurring character because it is a real treat.
Best Ancient Greek Lesbian Poem
“Golden raisins. River banks. Nancy, we just met. You’re scary and a bitch. Move in with me.” A PowerPoint sketch is Kate’s bread and butter, and Ariana expertly plays along in “Sappho.” This sketch has a lot of great lines. (“Thank you for the grant from our corporate sponsor, Fage yogurt. Fage, be careful when you say it.”) And combined with the very silly “ler” “Kitchen Staff” sketch, it gives this episode a strong finish.
Chris Redd gets my MVP tonight. His Eric Adams impression brought the house down, and he and Ariana DeBose showed tremendous chemistry. Chris is a versatile performer who can occasionally find it tough to get screen time, but there’s a star waiting to burst out there. If SNL ever mercifully pares down to a smaller cast (no Cecily or Aidy tonight), Chris and a few others are ready to carry to show.
Ariana was excellent as the host, and they used her smartly. She crushed as the NBA fan and Eric Adams’s spokesperson, and she was equally comfortable standing next to Kate in the “Sappho” sketch. There were only a couple of minor disappointments, none to do with her. The Sound of Music sketch was right in Ariana’s wheelhouse, but the writers didn’t really find an angle, and please, can we give up on the Simpsons references? It’s cringe for a comedy to reference another comedy. Also, I cannot believe they couldn’t figure out how to pair their first Latina host of the season with their seldom-used Latina cast member, Melissa.
Otherwise, this was the Saturday Night Live episode I’d been waiting for all season. They dumped the character carousel sketches, which all felt more like a showcase than an actual sketch, and instead gave performers time to shine. I really love that they did an NYC-centric sketch with the Eric Adams press conference. At the end of the day, this is still a New York show. SNL has rebounded after a Christmas special wrecked by COVID. I think this episode has given them the playbook for success going into next week when former cast member Will Forte stops by to host. I expect that will be great.