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

Emma Stone returned as a sneaky three-time host. Because of the whole “Five Timers Club” concept, each hosting gig closer to that magic number takes on additional weight, and it’s easy to overlook someone until he or she is knocking on the door. Stone’s a funny, bright comic performer and the fact that she last hosted five years ago can make you forget just how well she fits in on the show. Tonight, Stone carried more than the usual number of sketches with aplomb, shifting gears to play herself, a theater kid, a country singer, a singing cleaning lady of indeterminate national origin, a mom, herself again, the ditziest of blonde pinup ladies, and Mary, mother of God, and she shone in all of them. Stone just feels right among the cast, a mysterious talent that eludes some of the most accomplished comics and actors who’ve tried. Someone should be minting her Five Timers key in preparation.

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Weekend Update update

As the show (and the country) settles in for the next four, let’s call them “interesting” years, there’s a lot of pressure on political comics. For one thing, being critical of Donald Trump means taking a lot of abuse from Trump’s, let’s call them “vocal” fans. But Michael Che and Colin Jost are also competing with the likes of the Bees, the Colberts, the Olivers, the Meyers, and the Noahs to find the “correct” angle on what this ongoing, tumultuous, and, for a lot of people, frightening political transition means. The stakes are higher than they’ve been in a long time for political satire, which means that bad takes stand out.

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While SNL, freed from having to come up with one Clinton joke for every Trump, is out there swinging, there were some misses. On Trump’s recent, wildly reckless and policy-flaunting call to the President of Taiwan, Michael Che jokes that Trump doesn’t even know the difference between Taiwan and China (the massive nuclear and economic power crying international incident over the call). Che’s joke—about accepting an unknown number from the area when he owes China so much money—is funny enough, as is the stinger that he can probably only differentiate between them because his foreign-manufactured clothing line is split between the two countries. But a Google search of Trump’s old tweets shows him fully aware of the U.S. policy toward Taiwan, and Che’s joke rests on Trump’s contested assertion that Taiwan called him, and not the other way around. (Something Taiwan’s government is denying as of SNL airtime, and something it’s difficult to believe is actually part of a discussion of U.S. foreign policy and not a high school love triangle.)

None of this is to brag about this reviewer being glued to his Twitter feed in horror since the election (because who would), but to say that, like the cold open tonight, the jokes aren’t well-grounded or nuanced enough. Is that asking a lot for Update? I don’t think so. Legendary former SNL writer and political comedy guru Jim Downey has long railed against the show’s propensity to go for a laugh that, carelessly or deliberately, misses the point of what’s really going on. If SNL and Update are to be relevant and not just glibly amusing, the writers have to put in the work. Like a certain recurring sketch puts it repeatedly tonight, “Now more than ever.”

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Leslie Jones did her thing, once again giving her take on relationships in her signature manner. I’ve come to truly appreciate Jones’ manner, and here she was as goofy and comfortable as she’s ever been, talking about men needing to get over their penis hangups and learn how to please a woman. Jones cracks herself up here, and lets her palm linger on longtime love object Jost’s cheek with a playfulness that’s funny and sweet, even as she tells guys to go get a mirror and check out their junk in order to get comfortable with their sexuality. There’s a brash, honest ribaldry to Jones’ persona on Update that’s always worked for me, and it worked tonight as well as it ever has.

Speaking of SNL alums, Tina Fey is on record as hating what the writers call the “sneaker-upper” that makes up the other correspondent piece tonight, as Vanessa Bayer’s always-delightful Jennifer Aniston (or, more accurately, Rachel from Friends) got ambushed by the real Aniston. (Bayer’s co-star in the upcoming Office Christmas Party, which gets multiple shout-outs tonight.) The thought is that a sneaker-upper is what wrestling aficionados call a “cheap pop,” a guaranteed audience reaction for no substantive reason. But damned if Bayer and Aniston don’t make the dueling Rachels irresistibly funny, with Bayer unsuccessfully attempting to drop the impression, and Aniston’s chirpy outrage reinforcing just how outstandingly detailed Bayer’s impression is. Add in the conceit that Bayer’s Rachel keeps cutting to nonexistent next scenes whenever she says “a sentence that sounds complete,” and the whole thing worked far better than any sneaker-upper in recent memory. I’m not sure exactly how many scenes Bayer and Aniston have together in said movie, but they have such exquisite comic timing here, that they should consider taking their act on the road.

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Best/worst sketch of the night

This was a solid show all around, but the “The Hunt For Hil” filmed piece was the weakest of a strong bunch, Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney’s reality monster-hunter show never quite finding a reason to exist other than “Hey, Hillary’s been spotting hiking a lot.” Still, it was filmed with all appropriate verisimilitude, and witness Bayer’s statement, “It looked like it wanted some time to itself so I immediately started running after it” made me laugh, and Kenan’s turn as an inexplicably blind tree shaman was a loopier turn than I was expecting. Still waiting for Bennett and Mooney to get back to the weird wonder of their earlier film work, though.

The “posters come to life” sketch was nearly sunk by Pete Davidson’s brain-freeze (watching him desperately searching the cue cards for his lines at one point became distressing), but Kenan and McKinnon’s exasperated reactions to pinup girl Stone’s inability to get with the program of helping Davidson learn math were funny, and Stone took her commitment to paying an inexplicably hot dog-obsessed model to some consistently amusing heights.

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The cleaning lady sketch saw Leslie Jones, Cecily Strong, and Stone presenting their increasingly inappropriate Santa songs to a conference room full of bewildered execs. All three nailed it, but it was the little touches around the edges that sold the sketch, with Moffat’s kids (on a supervised visitation) revealed at one point, Sasheer Zamata calling Bayer out for not knowing any of the ladies’ names (calling one “Miss Thang” is a dead giveaway), and boss Bennett inexplicably calling for more songs long after everyone else has checked out.

Going dark horse, I’m picking the Fisher Price Well commercial for best of the night, a slyly pointed and emotional plea on behalf of all depressed, contemplative little kids out there more at home with their thoughts than with roughhousing. There’s an appropriately lovely delicacy to the short’s depiction of the little guy, the narrator’s description of him as “just kind of waiting for adulthood” both chiding and celebrating those kids more at home in their own heads (and with Stone’s protective mother’s fierce protection) than shooting each other with toy guns like those neighborhood bullies who “lead unexamined lives.” Naturally, this is coming from someone who stared into his share of plastic wells (metaphorically speaking), but in a world where such kids often get drowned out by derision, the summation “He’ll grow up to have a wildly passionate and successful creative life, but not just yet” is awfully heartening—even as the bit acknowledges that being around such a sensitive little bastard is sometimes trying. (Bobby Moynihan makes the dad’s quiet bafflement over his son’s ways very funny.) Plus, Stone’s mom berating the little brat who calls her little well-starer weird (“Everything is for you! And this one thing is for him!”) is laceratingly hilarious.

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

The Woodbridge High School student theater showcase returned and at this point I have to admit I’m always looking forward to those half-informed, self-righteous lads and lasses. The joke, as ever, is that kids in high school sometimes lack the talent and perspective to articulate their laudable idealism, and, as ever, the biggest laughs come from beleaguered parents Kenan Thompson and Vanessa Bayer. Here, too, there’s politics without trotting out political figures, the kids’ fears about a new Holocaust, the protests at Standing Rock, and homophobia emerging as sincere, if decidedly prosaic expressions of unease. When student Aidy Bryant’s appeal for understanding for people with AIDS seems to suggest that having AIDS is something everyone should experience, Thompson’s aside, “Yeah, she sort of overshot the runway at the end there” was delivered with expert parental forbearance, and his warning to Bayer (“They can never know you said that”) when she compliments one of the kids’ skits is wonderfully lived-in, too. I used to get on Thompson for not having a minor key in his performances, but he’s as good at underplaying here as anyone on the show.

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And Kate McKinnon brought back Debette Goldry, the aged Hollywood trouper who punctures another roundtable discussion of contemporary actress’ issues with her horrifying tales of old Hollywood sexism, abuse, and outright life-threatening negligence. It’s a great setup for a bit, allowing actresses like (as themselves) Jones, Stone, and Aniston to voice genuine show business inequities while teeing up McKinnon for big, booming laughs into the cheap seats. Except poor Debette’s revelations aren’t even that cheap. Sure, she had pancake batter poured into her face pre-Botox, but her story of how, as an actress, she was technically paid out of the props budget (and sat on a table in front of a piece of tape that said “woman”) stretches the continuum of sexism back into the golden age and beyond. The joke isn’t that actresses now have it so much better, so they shouldn’t complain—even though Debette’s life was filled with arsenic pills and smoothing doses of opium brought by an ornery monkey—it’s that it’s sucked to be a woman in show biz for as long as anyone can remember.

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

Sometimes SNL latches onto a very funny but inaccurate impression and just won’t shake it off, a trap that Kate McKinnon’s always-entertaining Kellyanne Conway is stuck in. The writers tonight return to the concept of Trump’s spokesperson/former campaign manager being an essentially decent person stuck in the position of justifying Donald Trump’s obvious lies, dangerous buffoonery, and most inflammatory, racist, sexist, and all-around awful statements while she chokes back a mouthful of shame-vomit. Only the real Conway has never evinced anything but stone-cold dedication to not only echoing but amplifying Trump’s every action, while going out of her way to taunt anyone who dares object. (Like this week, when she accused a 17-year-old girl asking about how she, as a woman, justifies working for Trump of being “mean” and just “trying to make news.” Just as one example.)

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Still, Kate McKinnon’s frozen stare as Alec Baldwin’s Trump blows off his security briefings (which he’s actually doing) to make unsecured calls to world leaders (ditto) and retweet high school students and people with egg avatars (yup, as the other characters stress directly to the camera) is undeniably funny as a stand-in for, well, a whole lot of people. Saturday Night Live’s take on Trump is going to be important going forward (for the show itself if nothing else), and the ongoing conception of him as easily distracted, petulantly self-obsessed, and irresponsible is limited, but by all appearances more grounded in reality that Conway’s. And the sketch does shade in the impression with the reactions of intelligence agents Alex Moffat and Kenan Thompson, who lets out an involuntary shriek when someone mentions it’s less than two months until Trump takes office. (“Sorry, I just hadn’t heard that put in weeks before,” he apologizes.) And the broadness of Baldwin’s Trump is undercut by Conway’s pointed explanation that his tweets are meant to “distract the media from his business conflicts and all the very scary people in his cabinet.” And the show’s delayed reveal of Trump advisor and white supremacist Steve Bannon as the actual Grim Reaper carried a certain chilling weight as well. The fact that the actual Trump took to Twitter to register his displeasure with Baldwin’s impersonation during the show suggests both that SNL’s version of Trump is a lot more on-target than some would like to believe, and that the show needs to dig deeper as this administration’s nature reveals itself going forward.

I am hip to the musics of today

Shawn Mendes is a sincerely emotional Canadian lad who sings songs as earnest and slightly dull as that description makes them sound.

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

Another strong team effort from nearly everyone this week, but it’s hard not to be predictable and put the spotlight on Kate McKinnon. Her Conway may be off-target, but her performance is sublime, Debette Goldry is always pure gold, her Clinton’s always welcome (even if she’s just spotted in the underbrush like Bigfoot), and she always finds a way to make even small roles pop. In the dream sketch, her video game avatar come to life stretches her chosen accent around the helpful advice, “I’m made o’ math!” and makes it funny. (Plus, she eats a fine, contemptuous hot dog.) And in the candle song, she, Stone and Bryant all managed to convey the Judds-like vibe of their paean to regifting without breaking their placid Christmas song sincerity, which made the whole thing that much funnier.

Mikey Day, Alex Moffat, Melissa Villaseñor—you’re paying your dues, which is fine. But you’re not adding much as yet. It’s still (relatively) early.

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

The nativity sketch rested on Stone’s performance as an annoyed Mary, increasingly testy that Mooney’s Joseph keeps letting wise men into the manger, even though she just gave birth, she’s puffy, and there’s sheep-poop everywhere. Right at home in the final spot (in a good way), the sketch pivots around this low-key premise, and the punch line, with the late-arriving angel of the Lord asking “Are you okay? You look tired” landing with the right note of conceptual grace.

Stray observations

  • “What part of your body is your toot?” “I’ll give you two guesses, and they’re both right.”
  • Big night for the llama! Not only was he in the customary backstage hallway (along with the two showgirls and Lincoln), but he got to be in the manger sketch. Goin’ places, that llama.
  • The candle song is credited to “French Tip Records 1994.”
  • The fact that Kenan’s first line after Davidson’s excruciating meltdown is “Tellin’ a joke is all timing” is unfortunate in the context.
  • Che on the proposed smoking ban in project housing: “It’s like being in prison. Except you didn’t do anything wrong, and you can smoke in prison.” That Che steers the joe into a point about the law being intended to speed up gentrification was an unexpected and smart turn.
  • Both Che and Jost did as many jokes mocking the heavy-handed government and law enforcement reaction to the Standing Rock protests as they did about Trump. I’m not sure how Native Americans feel about being compared to Milton from Office Space, but Che’s line about what goes through a cop’s mind as he sprays freezing water on native American’s trying to keep the government from befouling their land on Thanksgiving (“Are we the bad guys?”) is solid.
  • “That was not Mandarin—I heard them say ‘dog’ in Spanish a few times.”
  • “That was their Black Lives Matter scene?” “I’m pretty sure they all just wanted to kiss each other and then made something about it.”

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