(Photo credit: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC)

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [Best Actress Oscar winning former child and pop] star!”

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As far as Oscar winner hosts go, Brie Larson wasn’t given much of a showcase in her first hosting gig. Larson’s a bright and engaging presence—there’s a reason why she was one of the few elements Community carried over from its infamous “gas leak” season. Nonetheless, the Room actress was only in a handful of sketches, and never as the centerpiece, her clear but endearing discomfort during her monologue suggesting that Larson’s not especially comfortable with the whole live TV idea. Still, she wasn’t bad. Just sort of forgettable. Which could be said for much of SNL tonight—but for a few especially sharp sketches and one long-absent recurring character we’ll get to later.

Weekend Update update

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Part of the reason why Larson’s screen time was so short tonight (she was absent for a solid half-hour at one point) is that Update went so long, with three correspondent pieces. Colin Jost and Michael Che are doing their thing—I’ve come around pretty fully at this point. Jost’s leadoff joke about Donald Trump’s now-inevitable choice as the Republican Presidential nominee kicked off with a well-delivered, “Well, it happened…” (Because what else can you say at this point?) And his followup that the news sounds like the ominous opening crawl to any Star Wars movie was solid, too. Che’s run about being disillusioned that the GOP’s failure to stop Trump’s victory means they’re probably not actually Illuminati lizard people after all nicely summed up the collective bafflement running through much of the country. (The visual of Reince Prebus, Mitch McConnell and their ilk “playing butt-naked leapfrog in a sacred temple” is as funny as it is nightmare-inducing.) Like I’ve been saying—it took too long, but Jost and Che have found a smart-alecky, chummily needling partnership that’s consistently fun to watch.

Laura Powers came back, Vanessa Bayer, as ever, excelling at playing beaming, toothy showbiz kids. (Laura’s starring in the new Disney property The Lunch Bunch Detectives.) Laura’s got a schtick, like all recurring characters—her chipper tween delivery masks a deep understanding of the darker implications of what she’s reporting, which makes Che uncomfortable. But, in Bayer’s complete commitment, the bit manages to be both a showcase for the always-excellent Bayer and a sly vehicle for actual political satire. Reporting on Trump’s support from the KKK among others, Che worriedly asks if she even knows who the Klan is and Laura first makes a joke that her mom says their sheets are so they can always be ready for bed before belting out, “And they want everyone dead except whites!” with her signature “Disney school of acting” delivery. There’s not a lot Bayer can’t do on SNL, but this sort of character is her bread and butter, and she’s great at it.

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The other two pieces saw Pete Davidson and Sasheer Zamata come on as themselves, to varying success. At this point, Pete’s job is to be his mumbly, adorable self in these segments, and he does so again here, continuing the Mother’s Day theme that ran through the episode. Like always, Pete’s funny and decidedly un-ambitious, here talking about his mom (in attendance, along with lots of SNL mothers) setting up a Twitter account to threaten his trolls and hitting on Lorne. It’s cute, but, again, that’s all it is.

It’s great to see Sasheer Zamata get a correspondent spot—honestly, if she’s going to make a leap, she hasn’t got much time left before the end of another workmanlike season, and an Update spot to highlight her comic voice is a time-honored way to get noticed. And her story, about being accosted by a racist whose pickup was festooned with every possible stereotypical bigot signifier was fine. It’s a story she’s told to great acclaim on This American Life in the past, though, and here—perhaps due to how truncated it had to be—the story didn’t build much rhythm, playing out in fits and starts (and to audience silence, mostly). Much better was her defense of Larry Wilmore’s use of the word “nigger” at the recent White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where she, in order to avoid similar controversy, substitutes the word “McGriddle” as she makes the point that the mostly white audience and news commentators upset at the word routinely employ more coded versions of it. (“Fox News had white people condemning it who definitely say it off camera“ was an especially sharp blow.) And Jost questioning if he can say “McGridda” instead was a solid followup. Plus, in the end, Sasheer ended her observation “If we ignore it it feels like we’re ignoring the history,” by saying the word anyway, which was a fine way to finish the piece off. (Zamata ending by begging people not to be mad at her because it’s her birthday wasn’t necessary, though—if your goal is to be provocative, then go all the way.)

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Best/worst sketch of the night

See below for “Quiz Whiz,” the night’s best sketch in a walk. There was some competition, though. “President Barbie” wove all around the introduction of a suspiciously Hillary Clinton-like new Barbie doll, with the little girls in the commercial being decidedly underwhelmed, despite Cecily Strong’s announcer trying to whip them up into excitement. There’s a lot going on here—the girls’ noncommittal response to the enthusiastic marketing a joke about people’s ambivalence toward Clinton warring with the idea that there are little girls born in a time when the idea of a woman running for President is simply no big deal. Throw in Strong’s increasingly tetchy work as the announcer, whose annoyance stems both from being thwarted at doing her job and resentment that these girls have it easier that she did growing up (“I wasn’t alive then.” “Good for you!”) In the end, the sketch is more about the rather hopeful idea that, for all the sexist bullshit woman candidates have to go through (and we haven’t seen anything yet in this current election cycle, one imagines), at least, for girls growing up now, the fact that a woman could very well be President is just another everyday thing to be bored about. (Same goes for their imagination-based preference for Legos and maps of outer space over a mass-produced, carefully marketed Barbie doll.)

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The baby shower sketch was another especially strong all-woman piece, this time in the “Mom Jeans” vein, as a gathering of suburban housewives gradually revealed mother-to-be Larson’s inevitable fate as an identically coiffed, tchotchke-obsessed, sexless drone. Giving all the female cast members a chance to shine, the slow creep of glassy-eyed terror as the klatch extolled the transformative power of the ubiquitous mom haircut (“a soft waterfall in the front, knives in the back”), bathroom soaps shaped like flip-flops, Marshalls Home Goods, cap sleeves, hilarious kitchen magnets, and giant glass urns with a single candle in them (that you never light, ever). The Stepford Wives theme only got funnier and spookier thanks to the uniformly strong performances. (Leslie Jones fumbled a line, but her discomfort in live sketches has become sort of endearing, I guess?) Vanessa Bayer’s explanation of how all bathrooms are the ocean (all kitchens are farms) built up an eerie comic momentum, and Kate McKinnon, as ever, makes crazy-eyed intensity deeply funny. The “Happy Mothers’ Day” capper on the end was just right, too—happy Mother’s Day, Mom. Your hair looks great.

The Game Of Thrones sketch was on the nose, but amusingly so, taking the show to task for the whole “John Snow is totally dead, we’re not kidding” thing and the series’ penchant for dragging such plotlines out (“We only get 10 hours of this a year, people, and we’ve spent two in this room”). I imagine I wasn’t the only person who found Kenan Thompson’s fed up “Pick up the pace, woman!” to Kate McKinnon’s dithering Melisandre especially cathartic. Again, obvious—and no doubt lost on the dozen or so who still don’t watch Game Of Thrones—but funny stuff.

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And Beck Bennett and Kyle Moody got another of their “millennials are not that great” pieces on, this time as pretentiously rebellious band and filmmaking collective Discreet Annihilation (alongside Larson). Like all such pieces, it’s more about punching down at spoiled young types whose entitlement and attitude cannot make up for their lack of talent or work ethic. I like what they do, and this was fine, but the Bennett-Mooney formula is starting to run together in my mind from week to week.

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

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We got Laura Powers and Kate McKinnon’s poor Ms. Rafferty (see below), but the biggest news was the return of the Church Lady, with the show rather jarringly starting off with Phil Hartman’s customary, honey-voiced introduction. Honestly, I felt a jolt, thinking that I had the time wrong and this was an SNL Vintage, especially once Carvey showed up in Church Lady garb, looking for all the world like it was 1987. Sure, she last showed up in 2011, but the fact that Carvey is now actually as old as I always assumed the Church Lady was supposed to be caused some cognitive dissonance. And if the old girl’s appearance tonight—here interviewing Taran Killam’s Ted Cruz and Darrell Hammond’s Trump with her timelessly passive-aggressive, holier-than-you-could-ever-be smugness—wasn’t electrifying, it was certainly welcome. The show did a lot of Ted Cruz bashing tonight, and Killam’s portrayal of the failed Republican hopeful was so smarmily self-righteous it even made the Church Lady think he was being a bit preachy and superior with the God stuff. Deciding to turn to evil, Killam gave Cruz an unsettlingly effective maniacal laugh, even before he showed up later in full demon garb. And Hammond (now on permanent Trump duty) was fine as ever, with shots at Trump’s clueless conservative pandering seeing him misname books of the bible (“Corinthians, Part Deux,” etc) and trotting out his wife, daughter, and a Kate McKinnon’s random hot model because “she has such great energy”. Lorne Michaels can call on most any former cast member at this point, and if I can’t say I was sitting around thinking “I hope we get a new Church Lady,” it wasn’t unwelcome, even if C.L.’s catchphrase didn’t get the audience response it used to. (Plus, Carvey delivered it to Trump instead of mugging into the camera, for some reason.)

The other returning piece doesn’t have as long a pedigree, as Kate McKinnon returned as the earthy, perpetually put-upon Ms. Rafferty, whose second brush with the supernatural proved no more impressive. Last time she was abducted by aliens, this time it’s angels after a near-death experience. I’m surprised this one fell so flat for me—Ryan Gosling had the giggles all night when he hosted but never more justifiably than in his version of the sketch, where McKinnon’s slouchy, chain-smoking survivor told of her comparably disappointing experience with the otherworldly with a resigned matter-of-factness that was deeply hilarious. McKinnon did the same yeoman’s work here—she’s always great playing tough broads whose constant trampling at the hands of God, the world, or, here, an incompetent angel named Keith, only makes them stronger (and grosser). The sketch followed the same beats (and Cecily Strong’s more blissfully fortunate survivor again got her boob jogged about), but to diminished returns. Maybe it’s the repetition of the phrase “straight Donald Duckin’ it” in reference to McKinnon’s inevitable de-pantsing, or perhaps the premise didn’t have as much gas in it as it seemed the first time out. Not terrible, but already tired.

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

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As Jost said, it happened, and SNL continued to pick the fruit from this endless, dispiriting (but comedically bountiful) election season, with plenty of shots at Trump, Cruz, and Hillary Clinton on Update and in the Church Lady’s return. But the best sketch was “Quiz Whiz.” A 2018-set game show hosted by Cecily Strong (who kept up the running gag of reestablishing the time frame throughout), the show saw two contestants (Killam and Larson) trying and failing to remember who Ted Cruz was. If “Quiz Whiz” becomes a recurring sketch, and I hope it does, the premise offers a nice slant on the political jokes, projecting into the future (when both perspective is possible and we can see what effects our current dipshittery has had in the future). Here, all the Cruz jabs are appropriately mean-spirited, mocking the failed candidate’s late-game, Hail Mary transgender-bashing and his “whistling past the graveyard” decision to pick a running mate (“Wait, he didn’t win the nomination but he still chose a VP?”), and his 2018 status as political footnote. And the payoff that Larson’s contestant Heidi is actually Heidi Cruz was the final, satisfying twist of the knife in Cruz’s back, even as the actual ending, with host and guests singing a mandatory, North Korea-style loyalty anthem to President Trump and “his penis, big and true,” closed things out even stronger. It’s rare I actively hope for a sketch to come back, but “Quiz Whiz” seems like a perennial (especially with Strong reigning over the proceedings as host.)

I am hip to the musics of today

Alicia Keys was the musical guest, singing a pair of solid songs that were only enhanced by her striking stage presence. Standing in silhouette at her piano on the darkened stage for both was a visually interesting way to draw the eye.

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

In a how where the women shone, I’d call this one a tie between Kate McKinnon and Vanessa Bayer, with Cecily Strong right behind. For all the ongoing scrutiny SNL undergoes about the makeup of its cast, there’s a real meritocracy these days, and we’re living in a show where women’s talents and voices are clearly central. Bayer, McKinnon, Strong, Aidy Bryant, Leslie Jones—all dynamic, talented performers who can anchor a sketch, and an episode, and frequently do. (Sorry, Sasheer.) Most sketches tonight were clearly guided by a female perspective and/or led by a strong central performance by one of the woman cast members. Sure, the balance of power on SNL is a constantly shifting thing, and in need of course correction from time to time, but this group is running the joint like the Fey-Poehler-Rudolph-Wiig gang did.

Jay Pharoah briefly got to do his Tupac Shakur in a disaster of a sketch (see below). Jon Rudnitsky donned some goat horns and had one other line.

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

Well, that was a disaster. The already not-that-promising final filmed piece hawking holograms of old artists singing contemporary songs was—in my local feed at least—chopped gracelessly right down the center by a commercial (and started, abruptly, already in progress). I suppose it could just have been my local affiliate, although the in-progress start suggests that this was a timing issue on SNL’s end, something we’ve seen more than once this season. Regardless, none of the impressions in the sketch (what I saw of them) were memorable, and this smacked of a short filmed piece stuck in to plug a hole left by something going off the rails. Bummer.

Stray observations

  • “I thought right then and there, ‘Give this man the nuclear codes.’”—The Church Lady, recounting the time presumptive Republican nominee (for President of the United States) Donald Trump fired Gary Busey from Celebrity Apprentice for not selling enough pancakes.
  • “She wrote that!”—Kate McKinnon, after her mom makes a brie joke to Brie Larson during the monologue. It’s a cheap pop whenever SNL brings everyone’s mothers in for the Mother’s Day show, but I fall for it every time.
  • “I bet you’d like President Barbie better if she smiled more.” “Yes.” “You just don’t get it, do you?”
  • “‘Taco bowl’ sounds like what Trump would call a group of Mexicans in a hot tub.”
  • “I feel like I should know this, I’m transgender.” “I know, we all are. It’s 2018.”

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