(Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC)

“I’m not an actor, I’m an [Oscar-winning, sometimes God-playing movie] star!”

Octavia Spencer, both in her brief monologue and the goodnights, seemed absolutely delighted to be hosting SNL, and bundle of delight that she is, her positive energy buoyed the show. Which is good, since the back half of this episode was pretty waterlogged. Spencer, fresh off this week’s Oscar nomination (“Can you believe… I didn’t win?,” she joked in the monologue, teasing a La La Land-Moonlight kerfuffle gag), can be a prime goofball when she wants to, but, as it turns out, live TV might not be her thing. Everyone reads cue cards on SNL—especially since the show’s legendarily fluid nature means constant last-minute changes—but some hosts (and cast members) are simply more at ease making the process look seamless. Spencer was fine in some uneven sketches, but there’s a tension that comes with a host (or, again, cast member) who you have to worry about.

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Spencer has presence to burn—she turned a wordless look in the “Youngblood” filmed piece into the funniest moment of the night, and made fine use of those googly-eyed glasses she sported in the ten-to one sketch. But she just never seemed comfortable, which made watching her SNL uncomfortable.

Weekend Update update

Two weeks off meant a backlog of Donald Trump’s baffling bullshit to poke at, and Michael Che and Colin Jost took full advantage, delivering a solid round of body blows. Che led things off with an extended riff on Trump’s most recent (as in today’s) Twitter rant, which careened from a Nixon-level accusation that former President Obama is bugging his luxury hotel headquarters to a petty putdown of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s departure from Celebrity Apprentice, all in the space of 30 minutes. (He then played golf all afternoon.) Honestly, comedians have it rough when each day’s ludicrous/horrifying reality seemingly leaves room for little more than Jim Halpert looks at camera, but Che brings a seen-it-all quality to his jokes that‘s paradoxically enlivening. With his mordant demeanor and barely restrained smirk, Che presents the latest bananas Trump news with a knowing shrug that seems to convey the idea “we’re all in this together, and we’re all fucked, and I told you so.” Halfway sticking up for Trump-adjacent figures like Kellyanne Conway and Trump himself, Che’s jokes find a richer tone. While SNL has largely abandoned its off-the-mark portrayal of Conway as reluctant Trump-supporter, Che’s joke about how shitty it must be to do “customer service for Donald Trump” nods at the very human turmoil involved. (Kate McKinnon’s Conway kept popping up throughout the episode, silently tweeting while putting her feet on the furniture.) Similarly, talking directly to Trump—who is, of course, watching—Che urges him to chill out on the Apprentice stuff, since he’s “the executive producer of the free world.” Of course, Che does show that his ratings are terrible. (Cut to: sub-40 per cent approval rating.)

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Jost, too, finds a groove, his whitebread demeanor, as usual, incorporated into the jokes. In the visit by Trump sons Eric and Donald Jr., it’s revealed that the three all hang out, which tracks. And, after a joke about the benefits brought to America by the descendants of immigrants, Jost’s joke about his Irish ancestors only coming to this country “because God took their potatoes away” concludes with Che apparently ad-libbing, “At least they had a choice.” Jost is always going to fight his prep school boyishness as a political comedian, so leaning into it is a fine strategy. Still, his joke about the alarming and unprecedented fact that the A.V. Club’s home base of Chicago hasn’t had any snow to speak of this winter that, perhaps, “all the snowflakes were shot before they hit the ground” waded queasily into Trump’s racially coded talking points about violence in the city. “Worried about this one,” intoned Jost, referring to the times this season he’s been called out online.

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The Trump boys made their appearance in the persons of Mikey Day (Donald Jr.) and Alex Moffat (Eric), which might be the roles the two featured players were born to play. The conceit the show has settled on is that Don is the slick bro of the pair who does all the talking, while Eric is the Brick Tamland-esque manboy who needs Cheerios and juice and can’t help blurting out the fact that, clearly, Donald Trump is still profiting off of his corporate dealings. The running joke about Day and Moffat being similar on the show is put to fine use as the attached-at-the-hip Trumps, with Moffat, especially, bringing his character’s childlike guilelessness a solid physical component. (He can’t think of what to do with his hands once his brother mentions hands.) Not being overly familiar with the Trump boys’ mannerisms—apart from all the exotic animal slaughter—it’s not clear how deeply the parody goes other than “pampered, duplicitous trust fund babies.” One can imagine the actual Trump sons giggling at the buffoonery, even as the bit’s jabs about their father’s sketchy conflicts of interest sail past.

Laura Parsons returned, which is fine with me. Vanessa Bayer loves playing this sort of chipper show biz kid character almost as much as I enjoy watching her, and the joke that the peppy child star knows much more about the news she’s reporting than foil Che is led to believe always lands, especially in Bayer’s beaming, enthusiastic delivery. Here, Laura tackles: Moonlight (she hasn’t seen it, but knows about “seaside hand jobs”); Trump’s withdrawal of protections for trans students (Laura’s against the government’s obsession with lifting up skirts “to check for ding-dongs”); the “prank show” that was Kim Jong-nam’s assassination (“The prank was murder!”); and elder abuse at nursing homes (“You might wanna Google it before Nana gets raped!”) If there’s another level to Laura other than Bayer’s virtuosity, it’s that kids can handle the news just fine.

Best/worst sketch of the night

After a decent start, things after Update got pretty slack. Ideally, the back half of an SNL is where things get conceptually adventurous. The celebrity impressions (more on those below) and the recurring bits are taken care of, and the writers’ more offbeat pieces come out. But sometimes, those pieces are underbaked and flat, which is what happened tonight. While the Spencer Gifts sketch was the true ten-to-one bit, both it and the preceding chocolate guy sketch were the sort of ten-to-one sketches that give rise to that position’s clichéd reputation as dumping ground. The best joke in the sketch is that boss Octavia Spencer is revealed to be playing herself, head of dirty t-shirt and blacklight poster peddlers, Spencer Gifts. The second-best joke is those novelty glasses she wears throughout, whose unblinking googly eyes make Spencer uses to unnerve her fearful employees to very funny effect. But, like a disappointing number of sketches tonight, the pace here was sluggish, there was no ending, and the bit just never found the runway.

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I got into an argument with a colleague about the whole chocolate guy sketch, where Beck Bennett’s fired coworker (he brought a gun to work) attempts to wheedle back into the workplace with an old-timey getup and a cart full of chocolates. While I admit to missing out on some now-beloved bits in the past (it took me a while to really appreciate Kevin Roberts for the goofy little classic it is), I’m feeling pretty secure on this one. Bennett never finds a character here, neither his effortful patter as his chocolatier or his bursts of tough-guy peevishness well-realized enough to be funny. Spencer’s boss character finally blurts out, in response to Bennett complaining he hasn’t had a chance to explain himself, “Bitch, you’ve been talking the whole time,” which is funny more as audience-surrogate catharsis. Prove me wrong, chocolate guy. Prove me wrong!

Maybe worse, although in a similar way, was the bar sketch, where Cecily Strong’s white lady brings along the black woman (Spencer) she’s glommed onto because of her white guilt at forgetting about Black History Month. There are nods at social satire, attempts at absurdity (Spencer asks the waiter for a 2-liter bottle of off-brand diet soda and some very specific bathroom help), and Sasheer Zamata’s line, “Let’s have some drinks and try to figure out all that’s happening with you” is a decent summation of things. But the show ended with three flabby sketches in a row, with this one leading the way.

I would say “four in a row,” but there was more to like about the “Sticky Bun” sketch before that. For one thing, Bennett always does fine work in the niche “enthusiastic middle manager desperately attempting to keep things positive” arena, here teaming with co-manager Cecily Strong to shepherd a trio of odd trainees (Spencer, Day, Melissa Villaseñor) through the airport chain restaurant’s orientation. The premise of the sketch calls for said trainees to be entertainingly weird in their incompetence (otherwise the joke is just, “fast food employees are stupid”), something the sketch delivers well enough. The fact that all three greet the actress playing their customer with the specifically odd phrase, “Will you eat?” combines with Day’s inability to ask non-intrusive questions, and Spencer’s panicked, “Go away, we’re closed!” for solid laughs. Not a ground-breaker, but competent and amusing. (Feel free to use that pull-quote, by the way, SNL.)

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Even earlier in the show (the first live sketch after the monologue, in fact), the arbitration sketch wasn’t anything special, hinging as it did on the premise “black people sure have funny names that sound like prescription drugs.” Not offensive so much as tired, the joke is that Spencer’s litigant former employee saw the names of her friends and family (Lyrica, Celexa, Femara, Eliquis, etc) all stolen by big pharma. Here, Spencer’s inability to wrench free of the cue cards combined with Leslie Jones’ signature similar issues kept the dialogue stilted and stalling. Plus, it’s not a very good joke to begin with.

A great, character-based filmed piece, on the other hand, is “Youngblood,” a parody of those “streetwise black guy teaches life lessons through chess” parables where, it turns out, Kenan Thompson’s park-playing mentor doesn’t actually know how to play chess. The joke comes through all the stronger for how well-crafted the film is, with Pete Davidson’s tough kid expertly underplaying as he whips successive, sudden checkmates on his flustered would-be mentor while Thompson vainly attempts to keep the hustle going. Spencer, watching in amusement from the sidelines, does stellar work—here’s where she simply holds Kenan’s gaze for so long that it’s just hilarious—with the solid payoff being that Kenan’s only hustling for enough money to afford her chess lessons. Just a perfect little gem of a movie.

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

We got Laura Parsons. Which, again, is always okay with me.

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

Alec Baldwin—after getting in a Trump impressionist feud online this week—wasn’t in attendance, leaving the cold open to Kate McKinnon’s Jeff Sessions. Newly recused from investigating the unspooling Trump-Russia collusion/treason/clusterfuck, and with plenty of baggage already about his heavily documented history of racism, the Attorney General here was cast as… Forrest Gump, for some reason. McKinnon once again makes Sessions’ mush-mouthed drawl and Keebler elf demeanor a treat, even as her Sessions walks through the whole “box of chocolates” thing with a succession of bus-bench seatmates.

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Still, it’s clear that, like the rest of us, SNL’s writers have been paying horrified attention to the specifics of the Trump administration, as McKinnon’s Sessions, recounting the trouble he’s in for lying to Congress about being in contact with Russia during the election, rattles off the names of fellow tainted figures like Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Jared Kushner, JD Gordon, and resigned national security adviser Michael Flynn. Like Jost’s later joke about the supposed “presidential” nature of Trump’s recent State of the Union speech, the show has Sessions mock the fact that “It was real words in a row for a whole hour.” Plus, McKinnon also references the letter from Coretta Scott King denouncing Sessions as a racist, leading to Spencer (playing her character from The Help) serving him a helping of her infamous poo pie. McKinnon’s great in the role—she really is a remarkably precise physical comedian—but there’s something stale about the whole Gump concept. The knock against Sessions has never been that he’s a sweet simpleton, but that his southern charm masks a longstanding racist and authoritarian streak. Plus, apart from the fact that they’re both “southern,” and that Minny and Forrest might conceivably have crossed paths, Gump was a long damned time ago, and there’s no compelling connective tissue here to strengthen the premise.

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Better—in fact the best of the night—was the movie trailer for TBD, the stirring true story of the lone, brave Republican who finally stood up to the raging, racist, divisive lunacy of Donald Trump and put “his values over party.” You know, as soon as one actually shows up. As impeccably made as most SNL movie parodies are, this one approximates the visual language of this type of inspirational real life flick, with the long-awaited reveal of just who this stirring, patriotic figure will be drawn out expertly—before the comic turn that literally every inspirational, patriotic word and deed of this figure will have to be added later. And, yes, for the second episode in a row, the A.V. Club gets a shout-out. (Apparently, our unnamed critic decides it’s “A touching tribute to whoever it ends up being about.” Sounds like A.A. Dowd to me.) But it’s Rolling Stone’s projected review, “It’s definitely not about Paul Ryan” that nails home the joke that the fact that the GOP seems content to ride the Trump train right to ruination is, well, a fucking joke.

The other short film “Girl At A Bar” was outstanding as well, a pitch-perfect dissection of how sexism trumps all. Cecily Strong’s feminist is hit on by a succession of men, all of whom chat her up by proving their enlightened street cred before turning immediately hostile as soon as they’re politely rejected. Beck Bennett’s first suitor lays in the tone, as he pivots on a dime from comparing “The Future Is Female” t-shirts to screaming, “Okay, bitch! I wear this shirt and you won’t even let me nut!? I followed all the rules!” That Aidy Bryant’s female pal looks to continue the trend in the punchline doesn’t undercut the point that, for a lot of guys, political commitment can’t obscure the culture’s baseline misogyny for long.

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I am hip to the musics of today

Father John Misty. Okay, here’s the thing—I liked his whole “eccentric, space cadet troubadour” vibe just fine, even as his whole shtick plays like a put-on where he never quite pulls the ripcord. He comes across like a Johnny Knoxville character opening for Flight of the Conchords. (For example, does he get points for rhyming “Taylor Swift” with “Oculus Rift.” I genuinely do not know.)

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

Melissa Villaseñor was brought on as a featured player on the strength of her impressions, a skill only intermittently on display so far this season. The voice-over sketch rectified that in a big way, with Villaseñor, Alex Moffat, and Spencer all tossing out their uniformly impressive impersonation chops as the likes of Hugh Grant and Bill Walton (Moffat), Viola Davis, Jodie Foster, and Oprah (Spencer, solid and specific), and, especially, Villaseñor as Jennifer Lopez, Kristen Wiig, Kathy Griffin, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, castmate Kate McKinnon, and Owen Wilson. Kenan Thompson, as the director, also wheels out a decent Tracy Morgan, while Beck Bennett pops in as a janitor with his not-overly accurate but funny Javier Bardem. There’s not much to the sketch, but, as a showcase (especially for the yet-to-break-out Villaseñor), it’s very good.

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

Spencer Gifts. Still—Spencer wheeling on people with those glasses on is never not funny.

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Stray observations

  • The episode teased a pair of alumni appearances that didn’t happen, which was strange. I was sure Sessions’ reference to that “senator from up north” was going to bring out Al Franken (whose question about Russian connections engendered Sessions’ perjury). And when Kenan revealed that there was a Tracy Morgan-voiced dog in Zoopolis, the pause seemed ripe for him to reunite with Spencer (after she gave him all those Tracy problems on 30 Rock). Ah well.
  • I would watch an episode of just Spencer telling stories about the 16 times she’s played various nurses in TV and movies. On her blood-spattered nurse from Halloween II: “Yeah, she got stabbed—bad.”
  • “There were three black movies at the Oscars this year. And that’s a lot for Americans.”
  • TBD will co-star “Bradley Whitford, probably.”
  • Che, after Jost shamefacedly puts his head down after telling a “pro-Bono” joke about a U2 lawsuit: “He insisted on telling that.”
  • Che, on an Alabama theater’s decision not to play the new Beauty And The Beast because there’s a gay character in it: “Alabama—Where gay characters have no place in a musical about bestiality.”

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