Cecily Strong, Adam Driver (NBC)
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“I’m not an actor, I’m a [TV/biggest movie of all time] star!”

Maybe it’s just that his turn as reluctant boyfriend turned reluctant actor Adam Sackler on Girls is so compelling, but the news that Adam Driver was set to host tonight’s first SNL of 2016 perked up my antennae when it was announced. Sure, he’s a part of what’s become the biggest movie in the universe, but the same was true with his casting in that certain-blockbuster—Adam Driver, he of the offbeat looks and brooding intensity, is the kind of striking presence who seems to be slumming by agreeing to be in a huge franchise flick or a TV institution like SNL. There’s a NASCAR-like guilty tingle of anticipation when an unlikely host steps onto the 8H stage—while the possibility of someone showing unexpected virtuosity is part of it, there’s also the guilty, ghoulish promise of a spectacular crash.

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As it turns out, Driver, despite the show not starting until after 12:30 because of sportsball, was as game as SNL could have wished for, throwing himself into a handful of silly sketches where he donned every goofy wig and did every silly voice required. Unfortunately, the writing wasn’t there, leaving Driver’s commitment to play out to dead spaces and scattered chortles. (Maybe everyone was as annoyed and sleepy as those poor saps who can’t start writing their reviews until 2 a.m.) Still, Driver exhibited a winning ability to be a big, energetic goof, which was plenty endearing.

Weekend Update update

While the Colin Jost and Michael Che are having their best season behind the Update desk, largely thanks to a commitment to loosening things up, that doesn’t mean that there’s not a lot of room for improvement, especially when it comes to taking hold of a political joke and shaking something original out of it. Tonight, they introduced premises (Donald Trump, Ben Carson, the Oregon militia idiots) and then went for the easiest laugh they could find. (In order: Trump wears a rug, Carson’s nuts, dildos.) We’re in a campaign season—and a fucking insane one at that—which should have Update writers fairly gasping with delight over the easy pickings of bountiful political nonsense. Unfortunately, tonight, forget low-hanging fruit—they were picking up whatever fell on the ground. Disappointing. Jost and Che continue to josh around amiably with each other—Che’s jab at Jost’s film writing debut not getting any Oscar love scored a big, toothy thumbs-up from his deskmate—but the material was uniformly bland overall.

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Vanessa Bayer is clearly never happier than when she gets to bust out Laura Parsons, the Disney tween star (latest movie Study Break Tummy Ache) whose child actor delivery pitches everything humorously to the rafters. Her Update correspondent pieces as Laura are always the same joke, but it’s a funny one, as the ever-chipper starlet sells stories about Bill Cosby, El Chapo, that Glee star caught with child pornography, and the like as if she were in a road production of High School Musical. Bayer’s unflagging enthusiasm, and the fact that, despite her youth, Laura understands the seriousness of her stories, keeps the character entertaining, despite its utter predictability.

Speaking of young and charming, the fact that Pete Davidson keeps coming back as himself to be Update’s resident social issues guy is indicative of how shallow the political comedy bench is at SNL at the moment. It’s not that Davidson’s not funny—this time, turning a piece on gun control into his signature standup material, mostly about him being young and sort of charming. It’s that it’s more about how cute and funny Pete Davidson is than it is about anything else. Still, Davidson stays slightly more on-point than usual, especially sharing his own battles with mental illness as he derides Texas’ recent, very-Texas law allowing people to bring loaded guns into mental health facilities. If Davidson’s political material carries any force, it’s in his assertion that even someone as young and uninformed as he claims to be can see that something is patently ridiculous. I like Davidson—as his appearance as Marco Rubio in the cold open tonight shows, he’s not adept at playing much except Pete Davidson, but Pete Davidson is pretty enjoyable to watch do his thing.

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Best/worst sketch of the night

Maybe because the people in them were working on their normal, non-football-delayed schedule, but the two filmed pieces were the best sketches of the night. The Star Wars-themed “Undercover Boss: Starkiller Base” was certainly de rigueur, but Driver brought his wonted intensity to villainous Kylo Ren as he attempted to walk amongst the stormtroopers in disguise as Matt, radar technician. While Ren was unable to hide his hauteur under his bad wig, Taran Killam and Bobby Moynihan’s Imperial underlings did their level best to play along, even when Moynihan gets force-choked and psychokinetically hurled through a Coke machine for his trouble. As someone who always finds the commercial for happy capitalism that is Undercover Boss particularly insidious and phony, the idea of the embodiment of evil pretending to understand his minions’ pain (which he’s actually causing) was a comic match, and Driver did his own mandated task well.

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But better was the Golden Globes short, with Kate McKinnon and Kyle Mooney doing touchingly earnest work as a pair of siblings earnestly following their awards show parents’ blithe “now go to bed” TV speech with angelic dutifulness while mom and dad (Driver, Bayer) go decadently berserk at the afterparty. Mooney and McKinnon truly commit, with slightly older brother Mooney adopting the caretaker role, reassuring his little sis even in the face of unexpected noises and genuine worries about their parents’ return. And the capper, with a shirtless Liev Schreiber (whose “Ray Donovan-sized” dong the dad had checked out at the afterparty urinal) offering to make breakfast was the biggest laugh of the night for how unexpected it was, and how committed Schrieber was to the role. (“Your parents are very cool people. We had a very good, very cool time.”) If this leads to a Driver-esque improbable SNL hosting gig, I’m all for it.

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In what should have been a belly laugh machine, the Aladdin sketch never lifted off (sorry), even as Driver and Cecily Strong sang their hearts out on the flying carpet, and even as Strong’s Jasmine took a pelican, falling bomb, and emptied airplane toilet to the face. Strong got some laughs trying to maintain the mood (“I’m still into it—just, that was a lot”), and Beck Bennett and Leslie Strong added a few nicely underplayed touches as airbase flight controllers caught up in the mood as well, but there was a lot of air around the jokes, a problem for most of the live sketches tonight. The same goes for the classroom bullying sketch, which had a nicely off-kilter premise (Driver and Cecily Strong’s presentation against playing elaborate, expensive mind games inspires the kids to play elaborate, expensive mind games) but petered out without fully realizing its potential. Again, blame football if it makes you feel better.

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

We got another Laura Powers, another GOP debate, and another visit from Aidy Bryant as a cheerfully oblivious schoolgirl interrupting a porn shoot. As with her appearance in the Amy Schumer episode, Bryant’s a champ at this sort of young, precocious character, but, even less than in the Schumer bit, the sketch around her failed to, um, satisfy, even with Beck Bennett and Driver doing their best affectless porn acting. Again, all of the live sketches seemed to be stuck in the snow tonight, and this one, too, never picked up enough comic momentum to ascend to anything but chuckles. Most of the rest of the male cast—brought in for an orgy with Driver’s Dr. Rockhard—wrestled playfully around the stage to end the sketch. It looked like they were having fun.

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

The Republican debates, as numerous and peopled exclusively with outsized targets as they are, will, it seems, occupy the cold open in any week they air, which at least means that we get a regular dose of cast member-turned-announcer-turned-designated Trump Darrell Hammond. No offense to Taran Killam, who did a serviceable The Donald, but if you’ve got the best Trump in the world right in the booth, that’s who you go with. (Hammond’s explained that he’s happy with the announcer gig, but working him back into this cast would provide an interesting old guard presence in the mix—think about it, Darrell, Lorne.) As usual, the candidates themselves provide plenty of fodder, and SNL generally just plays up the most obvious traits, gaffes, and coded racist statements of this GOP field and calls it a day, but there are always a serviceable number of solid laughs. Trump’s recent attacks on a resurgent Ted Cruz over Cruz’s Canadian heritage (this really is a childish shitshow of a campaign season) gives Hammond’s passive-aggressively bullying Trump humorous things to do, while he drops the passive part to simply clobber Beck Bennett’s hapless Jeb Bush into submission. (Bennett continues to make his bewildered Bush comically downtrodden, his hopeful “Really?” when the moderator says it’s his turn to speak a solid piece of character comedy.) But the boldest joke was at the expense of Taran Killam’s Cruz, who unpacks his loaded derision of un-American “New York values” with a smug, “Look, if I could say liberal Jews, I would” that elicited welcome gasps from the crowd. Again, it’s that sort of campaign, and—NYC institution SNL taking personal umbrage or not—that’s the sort of nasty truth bomb the show needs a lot more of.

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I am hip to the musics of today

No offense to authentically tuneful mountain man Chris Stapleton, but since Lorne Michaels knew SNL was going up late because of the Green Bay-Arizona playoff game (which ran even longer because apparently no defenses think getting in front of Packers receivers on Hail Marys is anything to worry about), I can’t imagine anyone would have minded if he just played David Bowie’s 1979 SNL appearances in full and called that this week’s musical guest. (It’s not like there are going to be any ratings for this episode to speak of.) As it was, Fred Armisen’s sweetly sincere introduction of a sadly truncated clip of Bowie’s SNL version of “The Man Who Sold The World” (alongside backup singers Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias) perfectly illustrated Armisen’s pronouncement that the late Bowie “transformed whatever space he was in, whatever medium he was using.” Enjoy.

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

Cecily Strong gets the top spot tonight, taking center stage in the Aladdin sketch and doing a funny turn alongside Kate McKinnon in the solidly funny “America’s Funniest Cats” sketch as one of a pair of blasé French TV hosts whose archly dismissive Gallic version of the show involves a lot of talk about death and very few funny “boi-oi-oing!” sound effects. Just watching the two of them muttering superciliously in half-authentic French gibberish made the sketch worthwhile. Still, despite it being another example of Adam Driver throwing himself gamely into a silly premise, the sketch didn’t have much to it otherwise.

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As much as the show put him up front in the classroom bullying sketch, new guy Jon Rudnitsky continues to scramble for parts. No that he’s been given much chance to show his stuff in the first half of this season, but in the time he’s had, Rudnitsky hasn’t made much of an impression. Still, there’s time.

I don’t remember seeing Sasheer Zamata at all this week, not even in the goodnights.

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

That was Dr. Rockhard in the ten-to-one spot tonight, and while lines like “I hurt my big thigh during the big game” were admirably weird, the sketch, like much of tonight’s show, just couldn’t get over the hump. You get it.

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Stray observations

  • Driver was, indeed, a Marine, signing up after 9/11.
  • Bobby Moynihan, being called out by Driver for his $6,500 Kylo Ren costume (the wig was an additional $800): “It could be Kenan under here, you don’t know.”
  • Jay Pharoah just keeps refining his Ben Carson into a weirder and funnier creature, now resembling nothing so much as a cartoon Disney villain (probably some sort of cat-lizard), his weaving head movements and lulling speech making lines like “I just go into beast mode” laugh-out-loud funny.
  • Bobby Moynihan’s belligerent Chris Christie, too, is a reliable laugh—too bad the “3 per cent gong” may have removed him to the kiddie table debate.
  • Perhaps in revenge against being pre-empted, SNL destroyed the Green Bay quarterback’s knees, over and over again. It’s an odd sketch—for one, the show popped for a huge number of authentic Packers and Cardinals uniforms and then went with mocked-up game footage that could have been done on the cheap. And while Driver energetically approximated announcer Cris Collinsworth’s toothy, self-impressed persona, and Kenan Thompson mugged his trainer’s horror at the QB’s mangled body entertainingly, the whole thing played out flatly. For one, if they wanted to really go for the NFL’s knees, why draft Pete Davidson’s fictional fourth-string passer (especially since the premise means that Packers QB Aaron Rodgers was knocked out of the game already). And the whole “show the gruesome injury over and over again” joke has been a comic premise since the infamous Joe Theismann injury (30 years ago).
  • French cat-ladies’ idea of funny cat video humor: “He died from drugs but that’s okay.” “I want to be in hell with him where all suicides go.”
  • Update: Some attentive person on Twitter just pointed out to me that Bowie’s performance of “Boys Keep Swinging” has the line “other boys check you out” edited out on NBC.com. Apparently, it was done back in 1979, and although the NBC censors saved America from such verbal scandalousness, they didn’t catch the giant, throbbing cock that emerged from Bowie’s costume at the end of the song, which is still preserved in all its glory on the NBC site. (Right around the two-minute mark, in case you’re interested.)
  • The joke about Michael Bloomberg operating Donald Trump from inside like Krang from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles didn’t go anywhere. We know why.

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