Miley Cyrus, Leslie Jones

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [pop] star!”

According to the internet (which would know), the internet was ablaze with even more than usual preemptive dudgeon as Miley Cyrus’ third hosting gig grew near. The facts that this is her third hosting stint, that she’d done serviceable work in her last two appearances, and that she is hardly the first youth-friendly non-actor to host the show in the past few decades make it easy (and correct) to chalk up the ire to the easy griping of people looking for something new to complain about. And yet—Miley Cyrus isn’t an especially good SNL host.

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Part of the resistance stems from Cyrus’ position as host-musical guest double threat no doubt, as the inevitable comparisons to double shot all-star Justin Timberlake doesn’t do her any favors. In her three appearances (and her cameo at last year’s anniversary special), Cyrus just isn’t the actor Timberlake is. (I’ll let those who have stronger attachments to either’s music adjudicate their relative merits.) Despite both being performers since they could walk, essentially, Timberlake—who, I’m not the first to say, could be a full cast member anytime he chose to set aside his lucrative recording career—has the ability to throw himself into a character. Cyrus’ performances on SNL partake of the self-promotional energy of her public persona to the extent that she’s always herself, a deadening quality in an SNL host. It’s not that she’s bad actress, it’s that she’s not really an actress. It’s like when you watch on old Muppet Show—the famous guests are all undeniably talented, but only about half are really committed to doing that musical number with Piggy. The rest are hedging their bets by winking at the camera.

With her husky voice and self-referential jokes played to the cheap seats (did you know there are rumors Miley smokes weed?), there’s something old-timey in Cyrus’ delivery. An old saw is that the original writers would dismiss a joke as being “too Carol Burnett,” but Cyrus seems like she’d fit right in there, or—with her penchant for singing in tiny costumes festooned with/made of weird doodads—Sonny And Cher. Appearing in a number of revealing/ridiculous outfits tonight (some of which she brought with), it’s tempting to dub Cyrus with the traditional SNL compliment “game,” if not for the fact that dressing in attention-grabbing, revealing costumes is sort of her brand.

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Playing to her strengths, Cyrus’s monologue is fashioned around a song, with her singing “My Way” over an Oscars-style montage of this summer’s news figures and internet memes we’ll never think of again (Rachel Dolezal, Kim Davis, the assholes who killed Cecil the lion and raised prices on that AIDS drug respectively, the Entourage movie, pizza rat, Ariana Grande’s licking donut, and Jared Fogle/Josh Duggar—Bobby Moynihan just does a twirl and removes his glasses, in a funny bit).

In her performances tonight, she was competent but never did a better job in any role than a cast member could have done. (Call it SNL VOR[NRFPT]P, fans of SNL statistics I just made up.)

Weekend Update update

If there’s an improvement in this year’s Update formula, it’s that there are hints that Michael Che and Colin Jost have developed a strategy of having Jost (or the character of Jost) embrace his privilege. Several times tonight, the Update dynamic involved Che (or correspondents Pete Davidson and Leslie Jones) pointing out that Jost’s white, preppy demeanor comes with benefits they can tease him about. Jost’s blackface joke sees him adopting a persona of a rich white guy not getting why it’d be inappropriate for him to go out all blacked up for Halloween, and Che saying, “I begged you not to do that joke.” Davidson, talking about his efforts to placate his conservative grandfather, tells Che he has to tell the old man they’re not friends, but assures a beaming Jost that gramps loves him. (Jost gives a clueless wave to the camera.) It’s not overplayed, and it remains to be seen if the show is invested in the comic concept, but it does serve to add a little necessary personality to the anchors’ onscreen partnership.

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As to the jokes themselves, it’s the same mixed, mostly safe bag, although Jost’s joke that Trump and Ben Carson are both polling at “too much” at least suggests the show’s fake news may be staking out a real position. And both Jost and Che are given a chance to make asides and go on mini-rants are more energetic than their signature watery political material. I’m going to go ahead and call it a promising first show back and hope for the best.

Davidson does his usual, adorable “resident young person” number again, turning his standup into four minutes of correspondent material. If you think Davidson’s mumbly, self-effacing persona is amusing (I do), then all is well.

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Kyle Mooney reprises his Pope Francis from the monologue, here as a happy-go-lucky bro-Pope cheerfully recounting all the great food and hang time he’s had in America. It bombed pretty hard with the audience, and, as much as I value Mooney’s off-center sensibility, it’s not enough for his Pope to have a funny accent and say “crushed it,” “so scrumsh,” and “emoji.” I knew Father Guido Sarducci, sir, and you are no Father Guido Sarducci.

Look for the Leslie Jones report in the most/least valuable player entry below.

Best/worst sketch of the night

As season openers go, this episode was not encouraging. It’s a cliché to call out SNL for a weak show after some time off—funny comes when it comes, no matter how much time you’ve got to write—but not a single sketch here rose up enough to call it the best of anything. See the Leslie Jones entry below for the ones I thought most interesting, at least.

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While it was nondescript rather than outright bad, the terrible suspicion that “The Millennials” is going to be the new “The Californians” lands it in the bottom spot tonight. When people said they’d seen enough of “The Californians,” the proper response was to retire it gracefully, not transform it into an excuse to make fun of a different self-involved group with annoying accents. The idea that we may have just witnessed the birth of another “The Californians” is a tiring, dispiriting thought, people.

“What do you call that act?” “The Californians!”—Recurring sketch report.

Weirdly enough, the only recurring bit came from Kyle Mooney, who, as with Cyrus’ last hosting gig, posits a situation where Miley is totally into him every time she comes on the show. As with last time, Beck Bennett and Bobby Moynihan walk into Kyle’s dressing room to find he and Cyrus in a compromising position—this time they’re in the middle of their wedding ceremony—only for Mooney to confide in them his annoyance at his improbable good fortune. Like most sketches from the Mooney/Bennett shop, it’s prime Ten-To-Oneland material, as, every time Kyle checks back in on Miley, something even more improbable has happened—this time, its the progression of their entire married life together, complete with pregnancy, a grown son, and, eventually, his funeral. All three guys sell their parts with aplomb, and Mooney’s speculation that Miley might be some sort of Time Lord takes it all in an appreciably loopy direction. (Bonus points for Miley having turned his office into a ball pit at one point.)

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“It was my understanding there would be no math”—Political comedy report

New segment! With the long, soul-sapping prospect of a year of presidential campaigning ahead, it seems only right to examine SNL’s political satire this season. And, sadly, the return of SNL means the return of an impression-driven, lukewarm political cold open, as Taran Killam snags the (for now) prime Donald Trump assignment. His Trump is a solid entry in the long, fruitful SNL Trump tradition—he’s doing a lot of specific, vivid lip work—but the whole premise of the sketch is that, well, Donald Trump is Donald Trump. Granted, it must be hard to not just transcribe an actual Trump speech and have a cast member read it in a slightly exaggerated voice, but the fact that Trump is a boorish, under-qualified, womanizing blowhard isn’t so much a satirical point of view as it is a case of holding a mirror up to nature, and having his latest wife (a chirpily accented Cecily Strong) make him uncomfortable by saying all the inconvenient truths his right-wing base will find unpalatable isn’t any more trenchant. It seems we’re to be stuck with the Donald for a while longer yet—it’s be nice if the writers developed some new material for the Trump franchise before he’s done.

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The biggest news tonight, naturally, is an actual, viable presidential candidate on the show, in the form of presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton. As far as these things go, her sketch, tending bar as no-nonsense bartender Val opposite Kate McKinnon’s ever on-point and amusing HRC, acquits herself well. It was a smart play to agree to play a character rather than do the old “come out to applause as yourself and make some jabs at your opponents” routine, especially since Clinton commits. Sure, she and McKinnon get in some digs at the Keystone Pipeline, Trump, and Clinton’s early (but not too early) support for gay marriage, but Clinton makes Val a real character there behind that bar. (Seeing the gay McKinnon needling Clinton over gay marriage even had a little edge to it.) McKinnon’s the real Clinton (on SNL anyway) of course, and, as always, her glassy-eyed mania for the presidency provides McKinnon with plenty of opportunity to do her thing. (Contorting her mouth as she attempts to pronounce the unknown concept of “vacation” is hilarious.) Plus, anything that can lure Darrell Hammond’s Bill out of the announcer’s booth is most welcome. When Clinton’s appearance was leaked earlier in the week, I was prepared for the usual SNL politician drop-in, but this was a better than expected effort.

The “Abilify For People Who Think They Can Be President” commercial is amusingly toothless, punching down at Republican presidential hopefuls Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, and Jim Gilmore (who, I confess, I had to re-Google) for their single-digit (at best) polling numbers. Not bad—as ever, SNL excels at recreating commercial aesthetics, and the performances were all nicely specific—although not especially pointed.

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I am hip to the musics of today

Again, I’ll leave it to Cyrus fans to judge how well she performed her two songs tonight. They were both ballads, which her old-for-her-age voice rendered at least slightly more idiosyncratic than one might have expected. (So sue me—I do not own any Miley Cyrus.) On the costume front, there was a Lady Godiva thing and one other—I know her band wore some sort of animal heads. Look—it’s not what I was here for.

Most/Least Valuable (Not Ready For Prime Time) Player

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Leslie Jones takes center stage in a surprising number of sketches tonight, a fact that, based on past comments sections, will no doubt baffle some, and enrage others (who should really get outside more). It’s still strange, though—Jones is primarily known as a writer on the show, and is still billed as a featured performer. Plus, as much as I think Jones’ brash, unapologetic energy is something SNL definitely benefits from, she’s shown an unnerving propensity for blowing lines in her time on the show. Tonight, however, she’s given three major pieces and delivers on all of them. Her Update segment as herself is of a piece with what she does there—dispensing big, brassy outrage at the relationship indignities inflicted upon her as a six foot tall, middle-aged, funny black woman. Some don’t care for it. I do. Jones has a voice and, as her confidence grows, she’s better at using it to deliver big laughs that are, at their best, irresistible. Her “flirting with the straight-laced white boy” schtick with Jost strikes some people as stereotypical, but SNL has always been a home to broad, showy character bits like that, and, tonight, her exasperation with Jost’s seeming inability to take the hint cracks it open with new immediacy. When Jones booms, “I want to have sexuals with you Mr. Colin Jost! How am I being subtle?,” it’s funny and it’s real.

The When Harry Met Sally fake orgasm sketch, too, relies on Jones going huge, and, similarly, I say it works. As much as SNL’s quieter, more thoughtful sketches are some of its all-time best, the show’s bread and butter has been in performers who grab a bat and swing for the fences, and Jones here delivers. In assessing the primacy of “guy humor” in the early days of SNL, original writer Anne Beatts once said, “The men on the show always wrote sketches where people got dressed up in suits of armor and banged into each other and fell down” in describing the sorts of belly-laugh pieces that got the most attention. Well, Leslie Jones (and here I’m assuming she wrote this sketch) fashions herself a big, loud suit of armor and moans, and screams, and curses out a succession of remembered lovers, and she crushes it. The premise of the sketch isn’t original (I did like Vanessa Bayer’s prim belief in her Billy Crystal impression), but Jones—her every orgasm ever seemingly culminating with a broken condom—owns what’s there.

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The same goes for the “Too Late With Ruby Nichols” sketch where her pioneering late night talk show host grows increasingly furious at the indignities she suffers doing her 1950s talk show in segregated Atlanta. If the deli sketch saw Jones go big, here, she does some excellent character work—telling a monologue joke about not being able to enter her own theater through the front door, she laughs it off with a pasted on smile and a deceptively cheery, “Makes me deeply sad.” And when Cyrus, playing Parent Trap star Hayley Mills, condescends to her, Nichols wears that same smile while warning, “All right you got one more time to call me silly.” When the clip Mills brought unfortunately shows some Stepin Fetchit buffoonery, it’s the last straw, with Nichols preparing to tell every white person watching exactly what she thinks before the screen goes to a test pattern. These aren’t great sketches, but Jones is great in them.

“What the hell is that thing?”—The Ten-To-Oneland Report

The Mooney sketch was the true Ten-To-Oneland, as it should be, but the previous movie trailer sketch—about Vanessa Bayer and Aidy Bryant’s best friends waking from comas to discover that Taylor Swift’s “squad” fans have decimated the world Walking Dead-style, is as weird as it is handsomely mounted. (Someone more into Taylor Swift than I will no doubt find this more hilarious. Or not—this is not my night for knowing intimate details of the lives and careers of young, blonde singers.) Their bewilderment at what the “squad” actually does mirrors mine, so I don’t feel too bad. (“They go up on stage with her I think?” “And then what?” “I think that might be it.”)

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Stray observations

  • SNL Vintage report: Two to take on tonight, as NBC primes the pump twice over with a screening of Bao Nguyen’s documentary Live From New York!, followed by a rebroadcast of the 2012 Mick Jagger season finale. Live From New York! plays like a handsomely produced, 82-minute DVD extra. For the uninitiated, it’s got a lot more interest than it does for we SNL geeks, who have heard or read nearly every anecdote a half-dozen times. For me, the only revelatory parts are Leslie Jones’ interesting, winning explanation of her controversial slavery bit from last year, and Jim Downey and Al Franken’s dueling analyses of SNL’s approach to political humor. Sadly, both topics get about three minutes each. Still, even warmed over SNL stories are always interesting—to an SNL geek.
  • The Jagger show may have been chosen because he, like Cyrus, is doing the host/musical guest duty. The whole SNL Vintage concept hasn’t been as adventurous as I’d hoped when it was first announced, but it’s nice when the pairing makes at least some connection to the new episode. And, like Cyrus, Jagger isn’t so much immersing himself in characters as barely concealing his amusement at playing characters (and sending up his image as mega-star and best pal of Lorne Michaels). That being said, Mick’s come along way in the SNL acting department since his first appearance in 1978, donning nerdy glasses and silly accents (and doing a deliberately terrible vocal on “Satisfaction”) and generally having fun. While he’s never anything but Mick Jagger goofing around, the goofing is pretty adorable. Plus, it’s got Stefon, one of the few recurring SNL bits that never got old. (The full list: Stefon, Kaitlin, Deep Thoughts, Drunk Uncle, Herb Welch, Get In The Cage. And that’s it.) And Kristen Wiig’s final farewell musical number still gets me misty.
  • In addition to lone new guy Jon Rudnitsky, Michael Che, Leslie Jones, and Pete Davidson are all still billed as featured players, which is surprising, especially considering all three have prominent roles tonight (especially Jones).
  • Rudnitsky—rumored to still be trying to live down the bad vibes caused by some crappy Twitter jokes—actually gets quite a bit to do tonight. There’s a slightly offputting “bro” vibe about the guy—he, naturally, plays Turtle in the Entourage appearance in the monologue—but he’s amusing in the sock hop sketch, his 50’s bravado completely unmanned by Cyrus’ rapping new girl and her bisexual, black Philly boyfriend Nasty Jack (Kenan).
  • Taran Killam says of Cyrus’ new girl, “I don’t think she’s been from Montana in a long time.” Get it? Are you sure?
  • “You are really easy to talk to.” “That’s the first time I’ve ever heard that.”
  • Davidson on Trump: “America needs to stop doing things because it’s funny.”

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