Chris Pine, we're almost certain (Photo: Will Heath/NBC)

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [starship captain and superhero’s boyfriend] star!”

On Scrubs, the Janitor once referred to guest actor Scott Foley as “stunningly handsome, full-lipped guy,” a nickname so comically apt that my wife and I refer to him that way to this day. Chris Pine is another of those guys, his movie star handsomeness so artificially perfect one suspects he might have been grown in a secret Hollywood lab. Luckily for us, Pine (and the same goes for Foley) has a lot more personality lurking in that action figure presence, something that Saturday Night Live exploited to consistently funny effect in one of the best episodes of the season.

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While Pine’s done some musical theater work, he’s not a great singer. He is, however, great at acting while he’s singing, something that kept coming back again and again through the episode. I counted five sketches (including the musical monologue, where he unsuccessfully differentiated himself from the three other superhero Chrises out there) that were built around Pine’s singing. There was also one centered on his his lip-syncing skills, and another where his wordless dancing alongside Mikey Day provided the most purely joyous few minutes of this 42nd season. It was a conceit that was all the funnier for how little immediate sense it made. I mean, if you’ve got a Timberlake, Anna Kendrick, or Drake in the house, then maybe, but Pine just kept belting out songs in sketch after solid sketch, and it always worked.

It helped that those sketches were all conceptually sound, eschewing easy laughs for imaginative weirdness. And Pine worked each sketch like a very confident pro, finding his character and keeping the integrity of the writerly pieces, whether decked out in leather pants and Tommy Wiseau wig in a music video, in office attire unexpectedly joining bosses Vanessa Bayer and Aidy Bryant’s seduction duet, or teaming with Cecily Strong to steal game night thunder with a perfectly melodramatic love theme from Frazier: The Musical, Pine killed.

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Weekend Update update

Jost and Che were on, too, taking up the week in Trump-ian idiocy and landing a steady barrage of solid jokes. The House passage of the Republicans’ most recent attempt to kill the Affordable Care Act (with their own, grotesquely cruel alternative) saw Jost touting Trump “building a wall between Americans and their health care,” and pondering the bill’s proposed list of horrible policies, including mandated exploding wheelchairs for children. (“That’s not true—But isn’t it troubling that, for a second, you thought it might be?”) Che was right in it, too, describing Trump and the Republicans’ rah-rah, all-white garden party celebration as looking like “they just invented sickle cell.” Che continues to ply his image as the roguish bad boy courting controversy, here mocking the idea that “Trumpcare” treats pregnancy as a pre-existing condition by joking that he’s tried that line on women before, with no success. With SNL’s number one anti-fan in the White House very publically watching, these were solid jokes that found the absurdity in what’s become the country’s unsettling reality and found just the right angle to stick the knife in. Jost’s joke about a number of Republicans voting to strip millions of health care despite not having read the bill (treating it like “an iTunes agreement”) is the sort of analogy that’s just the right shade of clever to make the joke sting.

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It’s rare I hope for a recurring segment, but any time Vanessa Bayer wants to come back as beaming, babbling meteorologist Dawn Lazarus is just fine. The joke is that Lazarus, winner of a Weekend Update contest, is too nervous to do her job is pretty basic stuff. But Bayer keeps Dawn’s glassy-eyed weatherperson nonsense so tightly controlled in the midst of the runaway train of her panic that it becomes inspired. Anyone can have flop sweat, but Bayer presents a woman so unhinged by the cameras that her mind has clearly jumped its tracks, even as her training and instincts keep her half-intelligible predictions penned into the appropriate meteorologist cadence. Virtuoso stuff from Bayer. (Her confidently nonsensical recurring word “Hap!” made me laugh every time.) And points for bringing her back with an equally perfect update later on Update.

And Leslie Jones returned as herself, giving perpetual lust object Colin Jost the news that she found love (or at least some great, island-rattling sex) on her recent Jamaican vacation. Jones is at her best as herself on the show, and here, her happy, confident silliness (voyeuristic crab impression and all) was pretty delightful. Also delightful: How she whipped the death stare on Jost when he made a “got her groove back” joke, something she’s no doubt heard a lot.

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Best/worst sketch of the night

I talked earlier about this being a writers’ episode, and, whether inspired by the narrowly averted writers strike this week, there was a tickling energy to the show tonight that came much more from concept than celebrity impression or stock jokes. The “Where In The World Is KellyAnne Conway?” game show sketch, for example, plays with meta-comedy in the fact that the elaborate setup for what looks like a tired reprise of the show’s often off-kilter jokes at the expense of Trump’s once-ubiquitous spokes-liar is aborted almost immediately. Given the chance to finally start the game—after Pine and company’s theme song and Sasheer Zamata’s able Lynn Thigpen impression—the adorable little girl contestant simply asks if they could not. And so they don’t, and the sketch ends before what looks like a so-so attempt to revive a stale subject can take off.

A similar conceit powers the break room sketch, where a bunch of blue collar guy mechanics all ineffectually attempt to hide their secret appreciation for RuPaul’s Drag Race before co-workers Pine and Bobby Moynihan challenge each other to a lip-sync battle. The sketch builds in performance and character first, as the guys try to keep their offhand corrections of every detail of the show nonchalant (“The whole picture is fishy realness, but I don’t know what I know…”), before the big turn into the musical interlude is sprung. It’s exhilarating in sketch comedy when you don’t know where a bit is going, when the premise isn’t laid out in predictable lockstep. Plus, Moynihan and Pine throw themselves into their contest with some Patrick Swayze-Chris Farley-level enthusiasm.

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But the sketch of the night, in a walk, was the police stakeout. Here again, the idea that Beck Bennett and Kenan Thompson’s cops see something weird next door to their intended suspect’s apartment could go anywhere. That it becomes a rumination on the sheer, exuberant joy exhibited by Pine and Mikey Day’s neighbors, whose “dance like there’s no one watching” playtime is watched with growing appreciation by the cops, is a three-minute slice of pure delight. The cops bafflement at what they’re seeing, the expertly deployed escalating eccentricity of what they’re seeing, and the wondrously precise analysis of why what they’re seeing is so admirable, are all just right. Pine and Day (and Leslie Jones, revealed as “a tall African American woman in a zoot suit and eating the world’s biggest gummy bear”) make their characters’ cotton candy dance party, backpack fashion show, and essentially everything they do seem, as Kenan’s cop puts it “an absolute blast.” Easily my favorite sketch of the night, maybe the season. (It reminded me of a Mr. Show sketch, which is about the highest compliment I can pay an SNL sketch.)

Even the one Star Trek sketch went blessedly weird, with Pine doing a fine Shatner impression as Kenan’s Neil deGrasse Tyson introduced some never-aired clips from the original Star Trek series’ fictional third season. Again, as a starting point, the piece could have gone in any number of predictable directions, instead focusing on Moynihan’s turn as Spock’s brother, a half-Vulcan from Queens named Spocko, played here by a one-hit wonder singer named Sal Delabate. (Performer of the novelty hit “Pizza Beach.”) If Moynihan’s indeed leaving, that’ll be a big loss for Saturday Night Live, as he’s quietly revealed himself to be a fine character actor. He can go small and nuanced, or, as here, he can go huge, Delabate’s catchphrase-mugging boor funnier the more the ridiculous details of his life and hiring come out. (He has jelly bones because of a diet of pearl onions and ice chips, to pick but one example.)

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

Apart from Leslie being Leslie, things struck out for uncharted territory all night.

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

After it seemed Trump-for-hire Alec Baldwin was poised to shoulder aside this season’s ensemble concept for more and more time in the Donald wig and greasepaint, he appears this week only as a voice on the phone. Not that he figuratively phoned in his Trump—Baldwin’s broad but amusing impression saw Trump calling Morning Joe in the guise of his infamous, typically bananas “John Miller” guise, to amusing effect. Here, too, the cold open did something different, this time focusing on the recently confirmed romance between the show’s co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, who, in the persons of Alex Moffat and Kate McKinnon, can’t hide their mounting passion. (Even as their guests and co-workers react in barely concealed horror at their on-air verbal and physical foreplay.) While still managing to lay out some real-world criticism of the aforementioned AHCA (Trump hasn’t actually read it, it treats C-sections as pre-existing conditions but not erectile dysfunction, Trump is celebrating a “win” even though the AHCA faces a major Senate battle and promises to kill a whole lot of people), the sketch is powered by McKinnon and Moffat, who pepper their impressions with some fine physical comedy. (McKinnon, game for anything as ever, does some laugh-out-loud nose-nibbling.) I’ve maintained that just wheeling Baldwin out there as Trump in the cold open every week was steadily losing steam. It’s no doubt irresistible for Baldwin to just lightly tart up the actual bullshit coming out of Trump on a daily basis, but it makes for a satirical sameness. Couching the traditional top-of-show Trump attacks in different contexts has served SNL better.

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I’m sounding as predictable as this SNL was not, but The Handmaid’s Tale filmed piece went in a much more interesting direction than I thought it would. With the ominous voiceover talking about women’s rights being stolen by an oppressive government, it looked like the big reveal was going to be that it’s actually now and the oppressor is Trump and so on. Instead what we got was a more trenchant examination of how the everyday patriarchal cluelessness of average dudes is just as dangerous, with Pine, Moffat, Mikey Day, and Kyle Mooney’s oblivious bros totally not comprehending how ungodly awful their female friends’ plight is. Various, half-listening imprecations of “whoa, that sucks” are pretty much all the guys can muster, as the fact that women have become brood mares for the state elicits head shakes and questions of whether “there was a protest or something.” Again, everyone’s acting here is on-point, with the gnawing unease coming from the premise that, for evil to triumph, all that deeply mediocre men have to do is worry that their female friends won’t show up to their keggers, rather than that they’ve been turned into woman-slaves. (Points for Hulu’s slogan, “See, Netflix? We have one, too.”)

I am hip to the musics of today

LCD Soundsystem are reunited, and their performances here show just how much their literate, danceable weirdness was missed. Rawer and more passionate than the average Saturday Night Live musical guest (especially this season), the band crammed together into a small area for their first number, with everyone, including “Morrissey after a bender” frontman James Murphy, going at their new songs with gusto. The new album comes out soon. I’ll buy it.

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

Bobby had his lip sync and Spocko, but Beck Bennett had a great showcase as one Stav D, Slavic singing star, whose heartfelt “Song For Peace” gradually revealed itself to be more about his struggle with porn addiction. Like Pine, Bennett does some great song-acting, building his character throughout the song. (Pine helped out, belting the chorus with all-too earnest, open-shirted passion.)

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

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This was Pine and Strong as the intense couple whose dedication to Frazier: The Musical made a couples night TV theme song game an extended, loopy joy to watch. Both were amazingly committed to the preposterousness of the lyrics and their couples’ love of this off-Broadway not-hit, and its window-smashing, bloody-handed melodrama. Another fine sketch in a solid episode where almost any sketch could have slotted quite comfortably into the ten-to-one spot.

Stray observations

  • Unless I’m mistaken, that’s longtime SNL production designer Leo Yoshimura reprising his turn as Sulu in the Star Trek sketch. He was on the bridge all the way back in 1976, in the legendary, Michael O’Donoghue-penned “Last Voyage Of The Starship Enterprise,” with John Belushi as his captain.
  • Pine, Bennett, and Mooney all did fine work in the reality show for bros sketch, where the traditional relationship drama takes the form here of three inarticulate dudes reacting in typically inarticulate dude ways. It never quite took off for me, but if this was the dud sketch of the night, that only shows how strong this show was.
  • “John Miller” on Cinco de Mayo: “It’s when Mexicans eat a sink full of mayonnaise.”
  • Kate McKinnon on all the blond movie star Chrises: “Scruffy, and squinty, and jacked—but in a sweet way.”
  • Kate and Leslie can’t remember which Chris is hosting, even though they both starred with Chris Hemsworth in the same movie.
  • Che, on Major League Baseball’s condemnation of the racial incident in Boston: “We all know that the only place for racism in baseball is on the hats.” [Cue picture of the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo.]
  • That Jost’s crawl of all Trump’s accomplishments in his first 100 days (“Gorsuch, health care?, golf, golf”) is set to the first few bars of “You’re The Best” was a fine choice.
  • Noted dad joke enthusiast Neil deGrasse Tyson, giggling at his own line: “I’m sorry, science makes me silly.”

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