“I’m not an actor, I’m a [movie & TV] star!”

Elizabeth Banks is a confident comic performer and a consummate team player, qualities that SNL sorely needed after floundering around the black hole at the center of last week’s episode. The show will occasionally find a diamond in the dirt, host-wise, but building a show around someone so at home in ensemble comedy is undoubtedly easier for the writers and cast. It’s certainly easier to watch. Starting in her monologue—where she put her newly-minted directorial experience to use, second-guessing director Don Roy King’s every decision while she belted out the Flashdance theme—Banks’ ease in her first hosting gig helped SNL settle back into its normal rhythms. That those rhythms have been pretty pedestrian this season is another issue, but at least, with the steady, committed Banks on hand, watching the show wasn’t an exercise in jaw-dropped disbelief.

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Banks just looks funny. Which isn’t to say that she’s not beautiful—it’s just that her model’s looks are blessedly paired with an interesting, mobile face and crazy eyes, a combination that gives her performances an entertaining, unpredictable vitality. When, in that monologue number, she demanded an octopus on the green screen behind her, demanded more diverse backup dancers, and summarily dismissed Bobby Moynihan from the stage mid-lyric, it was all of a piece with her signature performing energy. Confident, weird, and game for anything—all valuable host qualities.

Weekend Update update

While any hope that Update would embrace the freedom of a Donald Trump-less episode to exorcise any pent-up frustration over last week’s show didn’t come to pass in any meaningful way (see below), the Michael Che-Colin Jost team continues to loosen the hell up, much to the segment’s benefit. Instead of two uncertain performers reading jokes in isolation, this season, the duo has formed an intermittently effective comic team, punching through the formerly rigid boundary between their anchor chairs with a joshing camaraderie that’s a lot more fun. Sometimes it’s just Che feeling freer to throw in a seemingly-improvised dig at his desk mate (His “Well, your mom stinks,” seemed to actually catch Jost off guard during a back-and-forth). Sometimes, it’s part of the point-counterpoint bits they’ve done more of this year. After Jost—in their bit about the Yale professor who defended students’ right to wear racially offensive Halloween costumes—advised that white people don’t need to be the first one to offer an opinion whenever a racial debate comes up (“I’m never like, I’ll go first”), Che tossed out, offhandedly, “You genuinely just did.” It’s still not great, but at least their dynamic has evolved into something more natural and entertaining.

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For correspondents this week, look for Pete Davidson in the political comedy section (no, really), and two sort-of favorite recurring characters below.

Best/worst sketch of the night

No real bummers tonight, although the Ten-To-Oneland sketch about privileged young women calling everything “ghetto” wouldn’t have amounted to much without Banks’ signature commitment as the member of the group who cluelessly revealed that she does, in fact, live in some pretty dire housing circumstances.

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The best sketches were filmed pieces, something that’s occurring with disappointing frequency on a live sketch show. Luckily, “First Got Horny 2 U” and “Uber For Jen” were both pretty great.

The first, another in the always fruitful line of female cast-led music videos, saw Banks, Vanessa Bayer, Kate McKinnon, Cecily Strong, and—all-star of such things—Aidy Bryant, singing a hilariously smooth paean to the celebrities that first stirred their pre-adolescent libidos. The choices were delightfully weird, with the rich British guy from The Nanny (Banks, IMDb-ing him for the hundredth time), one of the lads from Hanson (who taught Kate she was gay), Carson Daly (no judgement, Cecily), the cuter Menendez brother for Vanessa, and—best of all—the teenage son from Dinosaurs getting the job done for the actresses’ younger selves. Like all these musical numbers, the bit is exquisitely produced, the song is lovingly written and performed, and the whole enterprise allows the female cast to express themselves with endearing directness.

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Mike O’Brien, after leaving the writer’s room back in September, returned tonight for another of his traditionally weird and wonderful short films. He didn’t gel as a featured performer (although I thought he could have fit in just fine with a bit more time), but his filmed pieces have always been great, and “Uber For Jen” partook of his particular brand of deadpan absurdity, with Banks’ confused and exasperated passenger gradually being drawn into the inexplicable plans of O’Brien’s uncommunicative driver as he swings by White Castle, his bank, the baby store, and his house, where very pregnant wife Vanessa Bayer eventually gives birth in the back of the car. Oh, and Banks helps him dispose of a body after he, distracted by their whirlwind of a day, runs over a guy. Like all O’Brien’s pieces, it’s strange—and strangely sweet.

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

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“Black Jeopardy” came back, with Banks’s well-meaning (“I dated a black guy once, so I don’t see race—I just see Jeopardy!”) white contestant struggling to pick up the vibe of such categories as “I don’t know you,” “Who try’na?,” and “What happened was…” (Banks loses out on that last one by beginning her answer with a stiff, “Well, it just so happened…”) As ever, the sketch hinges on the white contestant being thrust into a situation where she’s the uncomfortable one for a change, and, while it’s never the funniest sketch around (and, unlike about six recurring sketches in SNL history, it only gets thinner the more it comes back), it gives the show’s black cast members (here, Sasheer Zamata, Jay Pharoah, and, as ever, Kenan Thompson’s host) a showcase. And there’s even an ending of sorts to this one, as Banks’ frustrated contestant gets all the points for the realization, “It’s just like no matter what I do, I can’t win!” Cue dinging noise.

“Student Theater Showcase” may have worn me down. In its third(?) appearance, the spectacle of a high school drama department’s socially conscious experimental theater troupe making the sort of smug political pronouncements only teenagers who’ve just discovered them can really understand, man, finally elicited grudging laughter. It’s sort of a curmudgeonly premise for a recurring sketch, but, well, the show is 41 at this point, just the presumed age of reluctant audience parents Kenan Thompson and Vanessa Bayer, whose bewildered and exasperated asides to each other during the performance were nicely underplayed. Seeing daughter Aidy Bryant deliver a sanctimonious piece about cherishing time with her dead mom, Bayer exclaims, “What? I’m her mom. I’m not dead, and she is, like, such a bitch to me. Every day.” When Thompson sees that the stridently gay-friendly show is dedicating its proceeds to Neil Patrick Harris, his baffled “He doesn’t need that!” is just right, too. (The students have also reserved a seat at their high school production for Caitlyn Jenner. You know, just in case.) You win this round, “Student Theater Showcase.”

On Update, both Bruce Chandling and Olya Povlatsky return, wringing very different laughs from their signature bits. Kate McKinnon’s obvious performer’s delight in playing Olya—the most downtrodden woman in all of Russia—is always infectious, even as poor Olya suffers the added indignity of being too repetitious and comfortable to surprise any more. Still, McKinnon doing a crazy-eyed weirdo is always worth a chuckle or two, here decrying her village’s wolf infestation, New Yorkers’ infatuation with Hamilton (her switch to an American accent is an unexpected treat), and the fact that she’s only looking forward to her town’s tradition of Rock Day (their Thanksgiving), so she can throw her rock in the air and then stand under it and wait for the sweet release of death. Still, her unexpected segue from banter to horror (“Did you fall from heaven? If you did, please tell me my babies are up there!”) found the original core of the character and got a huge laugh.

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Kyle Mooney’s desperately hacky sad sack comic Bruce Chandling is another story, the gradually revealed horrors of his life playing out as a slow burn. Mooney is a singular voice on the show—he’s essentially the mayor of the last ten minutes of most episodes—but Chandling is the closest thing he’s got to a traditional recurring character, a shitty comedian (“You know what I don’t get? Women!”) whose inner turmoil registers first in subtle performance things. Unlike the crowd-pleasing Olya, Bruce is designed to be offputting and unpleasant, only winning over the audience (to the extent that he does) through the drawn-out spectacle of his self-destruction. Here, unwittingly revealing that his girlfriend has not only cheated on him, but is also most likely an underage high-schooler, Bruce’s crumbling life can be read in Mooney’s precise face- and voice-work. Like most of Mooney’s stuff, it’s more conceptual—and tries a lot of people’s patience. I like it.

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

No one wants to talk about last week’s episode less than I do at this point, but it’s telling that the first Update joke tonight was at the expense of Donald Trump. It’s also telling that Colin Jost began the joke—which did go on to highlight some of the most offputtingly bizarre moments from an infamous recent Trump campaign stop—by reassuring us, “He seemed fine when he was here.” Apart from the fact that Trump did not seem fine in his tetchy, stiff, and disinterested hosting appearance last week, the fact that SNL still feels the need to coddle the departed Trump suggests that all the purported simmering resentment against NBC and Lorne Michaels’ choice of host is going to have to wait for the next edition of the SNL oral history. (Or for interviews of current cast members after they’ve left the show.) Even freed from the need to keep a host happy, the show’s political material stayed blandly inoffensive and obvious.

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The jokes at the expense of Bernie Sanders (he’s grumpy and has old man hair), and Jeb Bush’s “I’d kill baby Hitler” moment plied the Weekend Update formula of hitting the most obvious candidate traits that week. They’re not bad jokes (Che’s exasperated, “So now this election is about who would make the best time-traveling baby-murderer?” hit the right note of absurdity), but they’re not particularly insightful or memorable ones either. At least, freed from Trump’s clear influence over the Update jokes at his opponents’ expense last week, there was more of an even spread here.

The first episode in a while not to include a presidential debate sketch, this week saw Jay Pharoah trotting out his funny approximation of Ben Carson’s tight-lipped, sleepy speaking style in a sketch visualizing some of the candidates’ increasingly ludicrous tales of youthful violent bravado. Pharoah’s performance was solid—delivering the young street tough Carson’s threats (“I am hot with rage,” “Here comes with the quickness”) in the adult Carson’s tight little voice was funny throughout. But the real genius of the sketch was providing footnotes to the young Carson’s presciently loopy pronouncements (about evolution, the pyramids, prison turning men gay, Obama’s America being like Nazi Germany), flashing the dates when Carson actually said them. Like Che’s Update line, it scored comic points by sticking a pin in the idea that the current state of political discourse has fallen to the point where otherwise reasonable people are forced to debate nonsense. Effective.

Pete Davidson, of all people, provided the episode’s other effective example of the joke, as his typically adorable Update piece saw him dismantling the recent defeat of a Houston civil rights bill. Taking on the fact that voters there responded so strongly to the opposition’s assertion that the bill was really about transgender people using the “wrong” bathroom, Davidson punctured the premise that, “men, in their relentless quest to watch women in the bathroom” would undergo the long, difficult and life-changing transition just so they could “pee in a room without urinals.” Again, a tightly-written and delivered appeal to common sense is often the best tactic in political comedy, and, coming from the ever-goofy and unassuming Davidson, it worked all the better.

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I am hip to the musics of today

They brought no cowbell, but British brother duo Disclosure definitely had the woodblock in evidence in their first number, backing their electronic “groove-based house and bumping U.K. garage template” (as described more melodically than I could by AV Club reviewer Lily Moayeri) with nine syncopated drummers. Lorde sang on that one, while Sam Smith came out for their second number.

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

It’s rough out there for a featured player, and new guy Jon Rudnitsky showed up just once, holding a clapperboard in the funny cop show sketch. Out of the established players, usually ubiquitous Taran Killam wasn’t much in evidence.

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Speaking of that cop show sketch—where a well-meaning guy who’d won a charity auction to appear as an extra found himself getting much more unwanted screen time than he thought—Bobby Moynihan continues to reveal himself as perhaps the best pure actor in the cast. His reactions to the escalating revelations of his character’s perverted proclivities (“Oh God, I told so many people about this!”) were just the sort of beleaguered underplaying he does so well. Sure, Moynihan can go big, but the sight of his excited middle school principal gradually realizing that he’s not only being portrayed as a child’s bathing costume-sniffing creep, but that his role will be spotlighted during the Super Bowl, saw him building his character’s horror in ever-funnier increments. Some have complained that this SNL cast doesn’t have any breakout stars in the mix, but the overall ensemble feel of the show this season isn’t necessarily a bad thing, giving different people a chance to poke their heads above water each week. This sketch gave Moynihan the edge.

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

The “that’s so ghetto” sketch mentioned above sat it this spot, but didn’t own it, Banks commitment to the potentially biting bit the only thing suggesting the strangeness a real final sketch should have. Instead, like much of tonight, Banks made the most of some middling material.

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Stray observations

  • The show gave over the cold open tonight to a simple, heartfelt, bilingual acknowledgement of the terrorist attacks in Paris this weekend, with Cecily Strong sitting at home base and movingly pronouncing, in English and in French:

Paris is the City of Light, and here in New York City, we know that light will never go out. Our love and support is with everyone there tonight. We stand with you.

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  • If you’re trying to do a live comedy show in a world where people are doing terrible things to each other, this is, sometimes, all you can do. I thought SNL handled it as well as they could here.
  • The other filmed bit was a parody commercial matching nonviolent sex offenders with homeowners looking for cheap labor. The reveal was handled deftly—and elicited a few welcome gasps—as was Moynihan’s janitor confessing, “I peed in all the file cabinets marked ‘P.’”
  • Someone in wardrobe is getting chewed out for not having Banks’ tearaway gown ready to go for the monologue. Eh, it’s live TV. Go easy, Lorne.
  • As Banks confirms, the actor from The Nanny is Charles Shaughnessy.
  • Thompson’s dad, after seeing the kids do a sketch about white people running the world: “Why would they do that scene when they’re all white? It just sounds like bragging.”
  • Che on the new, caffeinated peanut butter: “Perfect for that creep that wants their dog to just go to town.”

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