Remember May? If anyone has already forgotten it, or blocked it outright, it’s worth remembering the end of Saturday Night Live’s 45th season did not go as planned. In several unprecedented shows, performers valiantly pre-taped sketches at home or over Zoom. Naturally, as we are all neck-deep in the never-ending quagmire of 2020, the return of SNL was just as unusual. While it’s once again being filmed live, audience members were masked and given temperature checks. Backstage, actors kept their masks on until just before their entrances. And God knows how much bleach the crew used to swab down the “Update” desk. The things that would usually pull focus — Jim Carrey playing Joe Biden for the first time, Ego Nwodim being promoted to full cast member, adding three new supporting players — all took a backseat to the specter of the coronavirus.
Chris Rock was, at once, a smart and intuitive choice to host this very unusual season premiere. Alums understand the show well, so Rock seemed unfazed by any weird rhythms dictated by safety protocols, and he did what a stand-up will do innately: He acknowledged the bigger, unfortunate circumstances of the moment and helped ease the audience into the show. Anticipation and anxiety went hand-in-hand in this season premiere, but given everything that could have gone wrong, SNL managed to make it feel like it was 2019 again.
As per tradition, this week’s sketches are ranked here from best to worst.
Debate Cold Open
The main event of this rehash of Tuesday’s debate is undoubtedly the arrival of Jim Carrey as SNL’s new Joe Biden. Though there’s more than a little of Carrey’s standard mugging here, he does capture something that’s underlying Biden’s calculated facial expressions. In particular, the line “Stand here and look lucid” sends Carrey off into a minor frenzy of tics. The writers don’t seem to have a firm grip on what, exactly, should happen beyond Trump’s constant interruptions and Biden’s forced smiles, so there are meditation tapes, a visit from Kamala Harris (Maya Rudolph) as a chastising mom, and a magical remote control à la Click. So while it isn’t exactly an incisive addition to the national conversation, there are nice moments — including Cecily Strong fulfilling all fans’ hopes that she’d appear as Kimberly Guilfoyle at the Republican National Convention.
Colin Jost and Michael Che ease into laughing about Trump testing positive for the coronavirus after relentlessly mocking masks and other precautions science tells us help stop the spread. The irony, Che insists, “is almost too funny.” While it’s a little mean, there’s a lot of truth to Jost’s idea that Trump detractors have to say they wish him well because they feel that “their first wish came true.” Bowen Yang then comes on as Chinese trade representative Chen Biao, dismissing a possible TikTok ban. This ongoing character is such a clever play on U.S. perceptions of China, and it continues to crackle with energy. If Yang can continue to find ways to keep this bit fresh, it could carry him through the whole of his SNL tenure.
The latter half of “Update” has a fun joke about Jost apparently forcing his way onto the board of directors at BET and another one about parenting that surely resonates for anyone still trapped at home with their kids. Aidy Bryant returns as overexcited travel expert Carrie Krum, who has to make do with her permanent staycation. The specifics (e.g., “Technically, I’m never alone because fairies are real and when it rains it becomes easier to see them”) and Bryant’s childlike wonder continue to sell this bit, which would really fall flat if handed to anyone with even a bit less innocent charm. “Update” concludes with a sweet and quiet surprise tribute, with Kate McKinnon nestled in the audience wearing her RBG costume.
Chris Rock Monologue
As is expected from stand-up hosts of SNL these days, Rock performs an overstuffed monologue that feels like a routine in progress, but Rock’s calm and confident delivery is exactly what the moment requires. The best joke comes right at the top, when he acknowledges that Trump is in the hospital with COVID by saying his “heart goes out to COVID.” From there he touches on canceled plans and reevaluated relationships during the pandemic, but the most poignant section involves “renegotiating our relationship to the government.” Nothing sings, but it’s nice to hear a master comic thinking out loud, especially as he assures Americans that if they want change, they can insist on it.
The Drew Barrymore Show
It’s great to see Chloe Fineman get such a big, featured piece right out of the gate. Her impressions really made an impact on last season’s shows — especially during the last few lockdown episodes — and she seems poised to do it again in 46. In this parody of The Drew Barrymore Show, Fineman not only nails the cloying, outsize whimsy of Barrymore herself, but also gives us a Chihuahua-like Reese Witherspoon and a brief but accurate Nicole Kidman. The writers deserve credit for dismantling Barrymore’s misguided segments so thoroughly, and Kenan Thompson wins again as Billy Porter singing “Edelweiss” to a flower.
Ah, what a relief to have Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant goofing around in a room together. (Let’s just imagine they’re in a pandemic pod in real life. Because it’s fun.) It’s a silly premise that within the stunt-performer industry there must be a smaller, slightly less glamorous crew of performers who work in slapstick comedies. Think about it for half a second, though, and it must be true. The specifics of the stunts — e.g., getting kicked into a dumpster by a cow — and the film roles — e.g., Ugly Shusher in Cool Kid Library — are great, but the sight of McKinnon and Bryant smacking one another on the ass with a frying pan and doing pratfalls with stuffed dogs is alone enough to sell this one.
This slithery trap track spells out a 2020 dilemma: how to get that safety-conscious love interest to take off their mask. Chris Redd, Kenan Thompson, and Pete Davidson make for an insistent (if slightly creepy) crew, but things don’t light up until the rebuttal from Ego Nwodim and musical guest Megan Thee Stallion. Megan is unsurprisingly good at punching up her lines, and the 8H audience audibly recoils at the idea of having to “swallow his droplets.” Rock brings the track home with a version of his hip-hop alter ego, but he can’t quite top the ladies’ appearance. The production values are so spot-on here it’s easy to forget that the sketch was made in the middle of the pandemic (well, except for the whole mask thing, of course).
Either this sketch is a Kyle Mooney-Beck Bennett production, or Mooney and Bennett just have a way of making the sketches in which they feature together feel like they wrote it. As the kid obsessed with Tony Hawk Pro Skater, Mooney’s awkward exuberance (and whatever vocal inflection he’s got going) is oddly endearing. And when Bennett comes on as Mooney’s older self, the way in which he matches all of Mooney’s affectations is pretty enjoyable. As the titular ghost, Rock looks great but doesn’t add much. Somehow, the sketch manages to save its best bit for last.
When an employee of the “Legal Change of Name Office” tests positive for the coronavirus, a local news station interviews people who have been affected. Enter the unfortunate Edith Puthie (Ego Nwodim) and the slightly more fortunate Irma Gerd (Lauren Holt). Once the premise of this sketch is spelled out — characters will have funny names — that’s pretty much it. Well, some names, e.g., Tess Tichol and Mike Litt, get innuendo layered on top. While the players don’t have much to do here, Kenan Thompson is still a stand-out. As a reticent man named Jeffrey B. Epstein, Thompson pleasantly insists the news anchor use his middle initial and avoid saying things like “Jeffrey Epstein is a hero.” As usual, he grounds the sketch’s wackiness and makes things feel more accessible for a moment.
NBA players’ “first wives, second wives, mistresses, and side pieces” audition for the chance to visit their men, who are quarantined inside the Orlando bubble. And because it is an audition, this sketch is essentially a rapid parade of characters and caricatures. Highlights include Aidy Bryant in a leopard-print suit insisting that “it’s all velvet down there,” Kate McKinnon as a disappointed lesbian hoping to hook up with someone from the Storm or the Aces, and Maya Rudolph as a disgruntled wife who finds out that her husband just didn’t invite her to visit. Rock doesn’t have much to do here, and most of the rest of the cast just have to make do with a little slut-shaming riff. The sketch does entertain a question that surely has come to sports fans’ minds, but the answer here is a dull one.
Rock proved a steady presence throughout the night but also showed his limitations: He has always been pretty stilted reading off cue cards and doesn’t so much act as play himself. While he did his job and said his lines, he didn’t really add a lot of life to the sketches. The cold open helped Carrey prove himself as Biden, but it’ll be interesting to see what sort of dimension Carrey brings to him given a bit more time. (Unfortunately, Baldwin still looks trapped inside a cartoonish character of his own design.) Update did some precise dances around Trump’s diagnosis, but the rest of the show belonged to SNL’s women; Fineman’s impressions, McKinnon and Bryant’s physical play, and Strong’s triumphant cameo won the night. While it may not have been a stellar show, it looked and sounded much like a standard episode of SNL. For that, cast and crew should be commended — and hope it continues as smoothly when stand-up Bill Burr hosts next week.