It’s gratifying to see Issa Rae, a multi-hyphenate who made her own opportunities and insisted there was a place for her in Hollywood, steadily garnering more recognition and roles from the institutional powers that be. While her HBO series Insecure aired its fourth season and was confirmed for its fifth, Rae starred in both a high-profile romance (The Photograph) and romantic comedy (The Lovebirds). And this was just 2020.
Before this debut hosting gig, Rae was no stranger to sketch comedy, having also executive-produced and dropped into A Black Lady Sketch Show. While “awkward Black girl” may be Rae’s comedic baseline, as she showed on ABLSS and on this episode of SNL, she’s got range. Despite feeling “scared as hell” during her monologue, Rae seemed at home on the SNL stage: She does accents, she’s happy to look silly on camera, and it’s easy to see SNL asking her back in the future — and hopefully giving her a bit more screen time than she got this time around.
As per tradition, this week’s sketches are ranked here from best to worst
Much of the first half of Update homes in on Trump’s continued rallies and the election as a whole. Michael Che makes a fine point about the choices in this year’s contest, in that a handful of voters actually consider Kanye West a viable alternative. Che’s punchline, about a possible third candidate during the battle between JFK and Richard Nixon, is as sweet as tutti-frutti. Donald Trump Jr. (Mikey Day) and Eric Trump (Alex Moffat) are joined by their little sister Tiffany (Chloe Fineman), whom Eric is meeting in person for the first time. Day and Moffat have refined their schtick at this point, so it’s nice they’re still eking out new, little moments. (At one point, after drinking hand sanitizer, Eric presents it to the audience like a newly corked bottle of Bordeaux.) Fineman, playing Tiffany as though she were Eric’s long-lost neglected twin, is a great addition.
The studio audience really impedes the momentum of this week’s Update — they groan and gasp on nearly every punchline, even the fairly benign gags. They can’t even seem to handle the idea that Paul Newman in a sombrero is mildly racist. But at least they enjoy likening Timothée Chalamet to a ring-tailed lemur. Aidy Bryant comes on with a remote bit about being quite literally in the field; there’s not much to it, but Bryant’s presence is always endearing. For a closer, Heidi Gardner plucks up another movie trope as “Famous ’80s Cocaine Wife, Carla.” The performance doesn’t include many jokes, but Gardner’s investment sells it. Her languid dancing, noxious coke snorting, and the inevitable breakdown that follows is all really well mapped out and executed.
This miracle product, which offers an afternoon of true compassion for Black people who have faced centuries of systematic oppression, is for all those who think the Obama presidency ended racism. In examining lip service from white people, the writers deliver the most biting bit of satire the show has seen since the start of the season. The performances, including Kenan Thompson’s voiceover, are really well calibrated. Beck Bennett, as the well-meaning, comfortably middle-class white guy who can’t quite bring himself to drink it, gives off just enough entitlement. And as the wife convinced she doesn’t need it because “I’m a woman, it’s the same,” Heidi Gardner has a nice moment punctuated by an excellent disappearance.
Somewhere in Michigan, four militia members want their local theme restaurant Jack Flatts back open, and if they have to kidnap the governor to make it happen, so be it. The quartet of Kyle Mooney, Beck Bennett, Kenan Thompson, and new featured player Andrew Dismukes makes for a perfectly furious and hapless team. As they communicate the petty frustrations of this gang, they’ve got a twitchy, childish energy that is all pout and no potency. This sketch does a fine job of walking the line; while there’s nothing explicitly about the very real terrorist threat to kidnap Gretchen Whitmer (and apparently Ralph Northam), the motives explicated here are only a bit more exaggerated than those fired up by Trump’s “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” tweets. There’s also a nice, subtle irony in that these guys want to be teased by waiters seemingly more than they want to eat in a public place without masks.
Dueling Town Halls Cold Open
With so many Americans focused on election day, and what comes after, SNL naturally turns to this week’s presidential town halls. The channel-surfing format lets the writers create two very different atmospheres: At ABC, it’s a tepid bath in which Joe Biden (Jim Carrey) plays both Mr. Rogers and Bob Ross; at NBC, Savannah Guthrie (Kate McKinnon) swats Donald Trump (Alec Baldwin) until it becomes the latest installment of WrestleMania. The tone disparity is the most playful element here, though there are a couple of barbed jokes — including one in which Trump weighs QAnon’s anti-pedophilia stance against his former friend Jeffrey Epstein. Maya Rudolph shows up as Kamala Harris, but she’s wasted in another brief, unnecessary drop-in. Carrey has begun sinking into his Biden, and unfortunately, whatever underlying humanity that came through in that first week has given way to something between whimsical geezer and Fire Marshal Bill. It’s great for Carrey fans, but anyone looking for revelations about Biden won’t find them.
First Date Exes
This sketch is essentially a parade of kooky exes dropping into a first date between Issa Rae and Chris Redd, but each of them has a nice flair — and down-on-his-luck street vendor Clifford (Kenan Thompson) sets the tone perfectly. By the time the sketch introduces “Karate Man” (Pete Davidson) and “Robot” (Bowen Yang), they feel completely within the realm of possibility — especially once Sharon explains exactly where she keeps meeting all these characters. Rae and Redd keep things pretty grounded, and as usual, Thompson really glues things together. And kudos to Yang for putting on full-body silver for a walk-on of approximately 30 seconds.
This video short is about one thing and one thing only: getting one’s groove on. While some of Kyle Mooney’s sketches speak to a small fraction of the SNL audience, this one should appeal to every secret bedroom dancer out there (Read: everybody). Of course, Mooney would stand outside of musical guest Justin Bieber’s door, dancing enthusiastically, if ineptly, to get the Biebs’ attention; the fun comes as Rae joins in, and the two of them leap into a Missy Elliott–Mad Max future in which busting a move is necessary for survival. The sketch ends with a coronavirus bit that was maybe unavoidable during this particular season, but it doesn’t take away from the joyful jams of all participants — including featured musical guest Chance the Rapper.
This eBay ad will surely hit close to home for many overly ambitious, homebound people who started the pandemic with extra PPP money in their pockets. It sums up where the nation is, in regard to pandemic fatigue: Now that privileged quarantiners are beyond treating ourselves and bettering ourselves, we’re left staring haplessly at shit we hoped would change our lives. (And, at the same time, realizing we spent our time watching reality TV.) Though Cecily Strong has been mostly absent from these last few shows, it’s nice to hear her bring back her genteel, commercial V.O. here. There are a couple of wonderfully absurd purchases highlighted —including a standing harp — and the preventative new “Prebay” feature is a clever idea.
Your Voice Chicago
At the top of this local political talk show, NAACP talking head Jamele Demmings (Rae) spells out the premise as she announces her intention to vote for “everybody Black.” While the details make the successive candidates more and more out-there, and Demmings’s attempts to defend their merits more ridiculous, the sketch doesn’t seem to gain much momentum. More than anything, it’s just nice that a sketch like this doesn’t feel like an outlier on the show anymore. The writing doesn’t slow things down to cater to a white audience; anyone who has supported their community out of a sense of blind loyalty will get it.
Issa Rae Monologue
While Rae’s monologue doesn’t feel especially polished, it is from the heart. Rae confesses that her inside jokes are all from SNL, that she hasn’t been working on anything during the pandemic but puzzles, and compares four years of producing a TV show to four years of high school. It feels genuine, but is centered on less on jokes than what feel like fun premises in an act that hasn’t been road-tested yet. Good puzzles joke, though!
Canadian News Show
The idea of Bowen Yang and Kate McKinnon as snotty, French-Canadian cohosts of a Montreal daytime talk show called “Bonjour Hi” seems like a formula for instant funny. Really, though, there’s not much more to the writing than loose jabs at self-righteous Quebecois and a few Drake jokes, courtesy of Rae’s brief “Drakewatch” segment. As an American journalist, Mikey Day plays the voice of reason — You can smoke in the studio?! — but the commentary feels clunky and a little superfluous. McKinnon and Yang are having fun, and there’s a playful bit of bagel-shaming, but it’s hard to understand why this one is right at the top of the show.
From eBay to busting awkward dance moves, the SNL writers come up with some nicely relatable material this week. And while the cold open continues with peanut-gallery commentary, two of the ads — “5-hour Empathy” and “Jack Flatts” — mark the return of a strain of satire that wasn’t quite there in the first two episodes of the season. Rae isn’t in a fair portion of the show, which feels like a bit of a waste given the nice energy and lightness she brings to the sketches in which she appears.
Next week, there is an SNL scheduled but as of yet, no host has been announced! We’ll have to see who Lorne Michaels pulls out of his Rolodex. I’m going to guess he still has a Rolodex.