Emily Blunt (Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC)

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

Sometimes a very good actor raises up Saturday Night Live by sheer strength of talent. Emily Blunt is a very good actor, and she’s shown she can play comedy just fine, but she didn’t elevate much of what she was given to play tonight. And this listless episode could have used some elevating.

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Blunt was a gamer, allowing herself to be packed into a bulky robot costume (complete with modulated robot voice), and a bulky hamster costume (complete with buck hamster teeth), but this was just a low-energy show almost across the board. Blunt got the musical monologue treatment, which might not be fair, considering Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “going to win an Emmy” musical introduction last week, but her cast-aided version of “Get Happy” (also echoing Miranda’s call for an escape from the soul-sucking presidential campaign) never found either a consistent rhythm or a sense of joy. The joke about providing cheer-up gifts to the audience could have livened things up (there were puppies, for crying out loud), but the presentation was flat. There were a number of missed camera cues and sluggish pacing all night that really dragged some sketches down, starting when Blunt calls out Mikey Day, but Pete Davidson’s in the audience for the bit. There was nothing wrong with Blunt’s presence—she certainly didn’t seem above the gig, and was up for anything. (See: hamsters, robots, hookers, broadly accented British jerks—she actually had a lampshade on her head at one point.) In the goodnights she enthusiastically claimed she’d never forget her week on SNL, but, sadly, I have a feeling most people will.

Weekend Update update

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After last week’s bare-knuckled Donald Trump-bashing, this was something of a step back, both in volume and quality of jokes about the Republican candidate for president and his continuing misadventures in misanthropy. Colin Jost and Michael Che did take their turns coming after Trump for the recent (and growing) allegations of sexual harassment and assault right out of the gate (after the second joke of the night about soon-to-be-forgotten human meme Ken Bone). Jost hit first, affecting fairness by saying we ought to hear Trump out before playing the candidate’s recent campaign speech where he jokes that one of his accusers isn’t attractive enough to be subject to his advances. Jost’s “She wasn’t your first choice? The problem is you weren’t her choice, period” gets at the heart of the matter nicely. And Che’s dismantling of Trump supporters’ claim that the many woman accusing Trump of unwanted sexual advances are just looking for attention lands, too. His sarcastic, “Yeah, that’s every little girl’s dream” hits on the inevitable but still depressing fact that all of these women have been subject to abuse—from the internet to news shows to campaign speeches—all too predictably horrible.

There were a few more decent lines. Jost’s joke about Trump’s behavior possible dragging down Republican down-ticket candidates doubled down by bringing in Trump’s long history of housing discrimination. (“This will be the first time Trump’s ever gotten white people evicted from a building.”) And Che’s joke about Trump fans’ seeming imperviousness to facts takes a nice, dark turn in his comparison to his fandom of Michael Jackson, despite that song he did with Eddie Murphy. (“It was almost as bad as what he did to those kids.”) But, considering that last week saw the Update writers and anchors looking energized for a real fight, much of their material tonight saw them reverting to their admittedly much-improved wiseass remove.

Anytime Kate McKinnon wants to bring back Olya Povlatsky’s okay with me, the unluckiest woman in all of the Russias always allowing McKinnon to do her thing. Beaming at the audience as she relates the daily horror that is her life, poor Olya can’t help but come off—as many of McKinnon’s characters do—as more admirable than pitiable. Even when, as here, she reveals that her computer password is the scream of horror she lets out every morning upon waking (she changes the “o”s to zeros for security), and that her nuclear preparedness involves running into a field, screaming “Come to me bomb, send me back to hell!,” Olya’s down but not out, always finding the energy to flirt with Jost. It’s pretty adorable.

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Same goes for Vanessa Bayer’s Laura Parsons, perpetual Disney tween star (newest film: The Dolphin Diaries), and all-too-chipper junior newsreader. I’ve said it before, but Bayer never seems happier than when she gets to channel her inner theater kid. And how Laura’s incongruously worldly understanding of the week’s horrible events unnerves Che is always funny, especially now that Che’s more comfortable behind the desk. (“He said he liked her butthole!,” she beams—the third Ken Bone joke of the night.)

Best/worst sketch of the night

This may be my enduring love for the show talking, but the Great British Bake Off sketch was a bummer. For one thing, while the visual presentation of hosts Mary Berry, Paul Hollywood, Mel Giedroyc, and Sue Perkins was pretty spot-on (Melissa Villaseñor’s Perkins had me doing a double-take), there wasn’t much effort to flesh them out as characters. (For one thing, Mel and Sue are lovable goofballs, not the abashed straight women they’re presented as here.) Instead, the whole thing was an excuse for Blunt and Cecily Strong to be loud and offputting as a pair of Big Brother reject chavs who mock everyone and are generally gross and awful. Plopping a pair of boorish ding-dongs in the middle of the sunny and oh-so-chummy GBBO could work, I suppose, but this is just an exercise in garishness. (Blunt and Strong take to their characters with great enthusiasm, though, I’ll give ‘em that.)

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Blunt and Mikey Day were malfunctioning catering robots at one point. Those were some moderately impressive clunky robot suits? It was amusing watching McKinnon try not to break as Blunt’s robot kept repeating the word “quesadilla” in her face? Leslie Jones’ no-nonsense IT person calling Day’s robot “dude” made me laugh once. That’s all I’ve got. A lot of expense and effort for minimal returns.

The short film festival sketch gets points for accuracy, with the cast and crew of the roughly 30-second short Qua? being comprised of the entire audience in attendance, with the exception of Vanessa Bayer’s lone attendee. Left to ask every question in the Q&A, Bayer makes the most of it, desperately trying to be polite as she asks every question she can think of about the vague, experimental movie. I’ve been to some short film festivals. Some of them are challenging, and full of pleasant surprises, and sometimes you’re left with a whole lot of Qua? The fact that no one onstage acknowledges Bayer’s question about why there are whole lot of symbolic “3”s all through the movie, and that it turns out Blunt is actually playing herself as the star of Qua? raised some chuckles.

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The short “Sink,” with Blunt voicing an absurdly ornate bathroom basin having an existential crisis, benefits from the actress’ earnest performance (“I feel so seen”). It’s the sort of moody, weird little idea that gives SNL texture—even if it seems like something the makers of Qua? decided not to bring to the Ann Arbor Short Film Festival.

“CHONK” made me laugh in its simplicity—and the way Cecily Strong’s clothing store voice-over spokesperson kept booming “CHONK” over and over. The joke’s about women with “unique bodies” needing their non-runway-model clothes pointed out with a special clothing line that claims to celebrate them while stressing how different they are from “normal women.” (CHONK’s men’s division—consisting of baggy flannel and jeans—is just called Normal Clothes.) After making the satirical point, the sketch took a nice, weird turn when model Aidy Bryant cuts off the CHONK girls’ line by snapping “No!” and trying to usher her daughter out, purshued by “CHONK”s all the way. CHONK!

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

Olya, Laura.

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

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The cold open was the second presidential debate, naturally. Like the first debate sketch last week, this one hit all the beats, which, to be fair considering this election, were funny enough. (Baldwin mimicking Trump’s fucking creepy onstage stalking of Clinton played out to a big laugh, although the real HRC didn’t appear rattled.) Kate McKinnon and Alec Baldwin are comfortably in the groove by this point, which is both a good and bad thing. SNL always walks a line with political impressions. The best ones find a hook and play around with it, but, unless the hook is especially strong (Ferrell’s W., Chase’s Ford, Carvey’s Bush, Fey’s Palin), there’s a sense of diminishing returns. (And sometimes even then.) McKinnon and Baldwin are great, actually, even if there’s nothing new about the show’s take on the characters. Sure, Trump’s reliably baffling outbursts and revelations give Baldwin some new jokes to make each week, but, while the impression’s solid, the take remains on the surface. Biggest laugh came when Michael Che’s town meeting questioner introduced himself and Trump reacted to have to answer a black man’s question with an immediate “Oh no.”

Same goes for McKinnon, who finds big laughs in the same Hillary jokes—she’s stiff and rehearsed, she’s swaggeringly confident at this point. Funny, but predictable. McKinnon’s best moment came when she reacted to Trump’s (actual, real-life) strategy of bringing Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, and Kathy Shelton to the debate by pretending to have a breakdown before greeting them with a been-here-before “Hi, girls.” (That at least one of those women wasn’t a mistress but has accused Clinton’s husband of rape is glossed over in favor of the laugh.) Cecily Strong’s Martha Raddatz and Alex Moffat’s Anderson Cooper had some fun with the moderators’ utter weariness with all this nonsense, doing a shot to steel themselves and introducing Clinton as president. (“Can we say this yet?” “It’s probably fine.”)

SNL continues to make Trump spouse Melania an equally prominent in-show character, doubling Cecily Strong’s impression tonight. (While, presumably, Alec Baldwin removes his makeup and splits, as per arrangement with pal Lorne.) There was another “Melania Moments,” which are turning out to be more effective the more they focus on Mrs. Trump as the half-captive trophy wife. Here, she discovers that the chambermaid in her luxurious apartment looks just like her and muses on a Prince And The Pauper day out where she can see a bus, or a hill, or “feel the texture of sand,” while the maid “could stay here and lie under Donald.” As a running bit, the meditative would-be character study of Melania Trump looks to have legs.

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“Melanianade,” too posits that Mrs. Trump and the other women in Trump’s life are just as fed up with him as his opponents are. Sure to be the talk of the episode, their lament takes the form of an exquisitely recreated version of Beyoncé’s “Sorry,” with Melania, Omarosa, Kellyanne Conway, and daughters Ivanka and Tiffany all singing about how they’re finally done with the Donald. Strong, Sasheer Zamata, Kate McKinnon, Blunt, and Vanessa Bayer are all impeccable, and, as is usually the case, the verisimilitude of the piece is lovingly maintained. There aren’t huge laughs, though, as the original’s dreamy pace doesn’t lend itself to many gags—the closest comes when Beck Bennett’s Mike Pence joins in their chorus of disillusionment (and sexy poses). And the fact that all the defiant women bail on their rebellion with one word from Baldwin’s Trump is a melancholy capper.

I am hip to the musics of today

Bruno Mars has been a host and musical guest (and both, simultaneously) before, so his relaxed, energetic smoothness in his two numbers here was no surprise. Starting out the first song backstage and performing the first verse while he and his backup singers and dangers were essentially in the audience was a unique look that brought some electricity. More of that isn’t a bad idea.

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

Let’s talk about the new kids. Melissa Villaseñor didn’t get much of a chance to do the impressions she was clearly brought in for, and when she did, it was better visually than vocally. (That’s the GBBO sketch above, and not her fault.)

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Mikey Day and Alex Moffat (along with Villaseñor) have gotten a bigger push than three new supporting players generally get so far this young season. (Day’s been a writer on the show, which may explain his presence, at least.) There’s never a set formula for how new cast members establish themselves, and, as anyone who’s read a single SNL bio knows, fortunes can change in a week, often without any clear reasons as to why. So the fact that Day and Moffat got so much screen time tonight doesn’t necessarily mean anything definitive. But, based on their performances here and in the last two weeks, there’s not a lot to suggest that they’re ready to fill the space left by departing stars Taran Killam and Jay Pharoah—or to fill the space at center stage that’s existed for the last few seasons. There’s a lot of talent in this cast, but not enough star power. McKinnon’s got it. (It’s been her episode to lose, more often than not in the past few seasons). And others have hit big—intermittently. But the current SNL has a lot of space for charismatic performers to assert themselves, and Day and Moffat just aren’t giving off that vibe yet.

In the leadoff (?) call girl sketch, the two played a couple of douchey, slick-coiffed brothers (I kept waiting for the reveal that they were Eric and Donald Trump Jr.) who’ve made the very poor choice to hire escorts Blunt and Leslie Jones. The joke is that each woman has a long, disturbingly specific list of rules (Jones only roleplays as Stewie from Family Guy, Blunt is prone to grotesque rashes and has urgent and unpredictable need for large quantities of milk), and the guys have what could be plum straight man roles. But, in such a big spot, they’re both very bland. There’s always the real and present chance that both Day and Moffat will break out huge and leave me looking silly down the line, but, in their first three episodes, I’m getting more of a Brooks Wheelan vibe—pleasant, mildly amusing white guys that fade from the memory the minute they’re offscreen.

Kate McKinnon didn’t lose, so she’s on top again.

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

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One of my oft-cited favorite ten-to-one sketches saw SNL crafting an enormous pair of monstrous bird claws, so I’m going to go ahead and applaud the commitment to that hamster sketch. A giant SpongeBob, hamster wheel, and drip bottles (full of hamster-booze, presumably)? Bravo. And McKinnon and Bennett really threw themselves into their characters as their unhappily married alcoholic hamsters played Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with newly purchased pair Blunt and Moffat. (That McKinnon’s character is revealed to have eaten their babies marries the worlds of play and sketch in a way theater nerds and sketch comedy nerds can really appreciate.) Not great, but weird, with everyone throwing themselves into the absurdity. That’s a ten-to-one sketch.

Stray observations

  • “Welcome to the second, and worst ever, presidential debate.”
  • Clinton, on what she admires most about her opponent. “His generosity… just last Friday he handed me this election.”
  • Baldwin is clearly relishing Trump lines like “She’s committed so many crimes, she’s basically a black,” and his response to a question about children, “I love them so much I marry them.”
  • “As you can tell from my accent, I am smarter than you.”
  • “Everyone’s getting a puppy! They’re your responsibility for the rest of your life!”
  • Olya, on the only line people with her accent get to say in Hollywood movies: “You have 24 hours.”
  • “I used to be in sales, but now I mostly work on pulling in that sock through the side of the cage.”
  • One big mistake in the direction tonight—in the call girl sketch, one of Blunt’s rules is that she’ll only use a tiny bit of her tongue, but we stay on the long shot until she pops her tongue back in her mouth, spoiling the joke. (Leslie also steps on her first line.)
  • And that fast food sketch drags on longer than that pink limo the show built, the progress to each eccentric character, and the reveal once the tinted windows roll down both taking forever. Along with Pete Davidson’s hazy cue card-reading, the rhythm of the sketch was wiped out.
  • Speaking of product placement (SNL’s new ad-slashing format does it, so I don’t have to!), we got a certain fast food establishment, a certain, gas-guzzling macro-vehicle company, and another auto manufacturer that also, in the logic of the show, makes very fragile robots. What did I miss?
  • And, speaking of the new format, I get that it’s a work-in-progress. But the fact that a whole lot of the actual commercials are now stuffed in after Update means that the last half-hour is in danger of becoming the garbage dump critics have sometimes accused it of being. Not that they’re can’t be good sketches amidst all the commercials, but that last 30-plus minutes had a lot of commercials, is all I’m saying.

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