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

Cameron Diaz was a gamer tonight, if nothing else. From wearing dreads and grabbing her crotch while reciting a lustful poem about her UPS guy, to having a live lemur paw her hair and face, to letting Beck Bennett (as the returning baby CEO) blow right into her mouth, Diaz was up for whatever was asked of her, which was her best quality as host tonight. Diaz has had a movie career that never strayed far from the median—honestly, her best role was in the first Charlie’s Angels movie, where her exuberant goofiness was especially winning. Otherwise, Diaz—whether playing semen-streaked straight woman for the Farrellys or attempting congress with an automobile at the behest of Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy—has proven herself willing to do pretty much anything in service of her gig (not a bad quality for an SNL host). That she wasn’t especially memorable in any sketch tonight wasn’t crippling—like in most of her films, Diaz was an able part of an ensemble.

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Weekend Update update

So, marginal improvement? Part of the consistent and justified disappointment with Update comes from viewers expecting it to be a sort of mini-Daily Show (or Colbert Report, or Last Week Tonight With John Oliver). For precious snatches of time over its history, Update has been that, but, under the double-headed aegis of Colin Jost (as co-anchor and head writer), WU continues to be a mushy delivery service for correspondent bits. Tonight, the segment continued this season’s noncommittal approach to events (Ferguson, Bill Cosby, the new immigration executive order) which could have been the inspiration for scathing, insightful, or even mildly-roused jokes with lines that were—fine. There was a tickle of Michael Che’s Daily Show fire in his joke about Missouri Governor Jay Nixon’s preemptive National Guard deployment ahead of the grand jury decision on Darren Wilson (“Spoiler alert: I guess we know what the verdict is”)—enough so that it seemed he was about to launch into a nice, angry rant—before he subsided into his sidekick role. Oddly, Jost fared better, applying his prep school wiseass-ery to jokes that struck around the periphery of issues without having to engage in them directly. (On President Obama’s immigration order: “For more on the immigration issue, bring it up to your grandfather at Thanksgiving.”) As with the cold open tonight, SNL addressed something potentially incendiary by nibbling at its edges. Funny enough in each case, but innocuous to the point of irrelevance. I get that no one wants SNL to be a self-satisfied political satire, preaching to an applause-happy audience that agrees with it. But being self-satisfied about not much at all just renders the show (especially Update) a nonentity.

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As far as the aforementioned correspondent pieces went, I’m never sad to see Kate McKinnon’s German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The joke—she’s in love with Obama, socially awkward, and so very, very German (“Guten abend. What shakes?”)—might not be the height of political sophistication, but McKinnon is always hilarious in the role, her signature crazy eyes signaling her comic exasperation, both at the state of the world and her personal life. What takes the stink off of a potentially sexist portrayal is that Merkel, for all her spinster’s jungle fever for our president, always seems the voice of reason.

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Taran Killam got his one real chance to shine in the other segment, his Charles Manson spouting menacing nonsense (“Jesus Christ wears a mask, but you’re naked, little mouse!”) and desperately trying to keep Jost from screwing up his recent marriage to his new bride by telling her he’s not actually in prison for tax evasion. Funny enough, but not up to the gold standard:

Best/Worst sketch of the night

The cold open, while not taking any stance on President Obama’s controversial executive action on immigration, benefitted greatly from the performances. The Schoolhouse Rock parody has been done to death (The Simpsons did it best), but Kenan Thompson’s abused bill being hurled down the Capitol steps by Jay Pharoah’s Obama was funnier every time it happened (“Oh, my legs­—they were made of paper!”), and Bobby Moynihan is never better than when (as the chain-smoking executive action) puncturing the flow of a sketch with an aside (“I’m an executive order and I pretty much just happen.”)

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The “Back Home Ballers” music video (a clever and catchy homage to holiday sponging) gave every female cast member (and Diaz) a good showcase here—it was no “(Do It On My) Twin Bed,” but it was close—and I imagine it will achieve serious, and deserved, virality by morning. Everyone was funny, but props to Aidy Bryant (“Your Li’l Baby Aidy”)’s awkward retreat from her mom’s friend Jean.

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The duds were: Diaz’s monologue (seriously, SNL—let’s just try a one-year moratorium on “host interrupted by audience questions” and musical number monologues and see what happens), and the requisite Annie sketch which provided Leslie Jones with another opportunity to go broad (and blow another line). Jones has energy to spare, but she needs discipline as a performer—and I question whether, undeniably welcome diversity aside, what SNL needs is a female Kenan Thompson.

Okay, here’s the thing with Kenan. He doesn’t do nuance, and neither he nor the show seems interested in cultivating any. Which is fine—except that that makes almost every Kenan role play exactly the same. He’s not an impressionist, so his Steve Harvey, Charles Barkley, Al Sharpton, and every other character strike the same vocal notes. It’s deadening. Thompson’s the only cast member still on board from Diaz’s last hosting gig in 2005, and while SNL seems content to grant him indefinite tenure, the show is stagnant with him on it. He had some funny moments tonight—he usually does—but they were funny in the same way a Kenan Thompson bit is always funny. “Bug out your eyes and pitch it to the cheap seats” is a valid comic style—in moderation. But Kenan’s got no other gear. It worked tonight in the cold open, and it worked in the funny experimental high school theater sketch, commiserating comically with equally baffled parent Vanessa Bayer (“They built a pyramid out of those boxes and they didn’t even use it!”). But a steady diet of that sort of thing is tiring. (See also: the sub-“Brian Fellow’s Safari Planet” nature show, where he got to yell about his torn-off nuts again and again.)

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

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Beck Bennett should have graduated to main cast by now, his all-around utility and stellar weirdness alongside Kyle Mooney proving his worthiness show after show. And while SNL has shown uncharacteristic restraint in not trotting out his baby CEO every week, it’s still his funniest bit, the predictability of the sketch (this time a dinner party alongside wife Diaz) rendered irrelevant by the enduringly funny specificity of his physical performance. He’s always going to toddle uncertainly (with that unnervingly unpredictable baby urgency), put weird things in his mouth, and simultaneously attempt to hurl things while keeping them firmly in his baby fists, and it’s never not going to be funny—as long as the show only trots him out there a few times a year. As the requisite baffled observer, Sahseer Zamata got off a few good lines, underplaying nicely.

The substitute teacher sketch, with Vanessa Bayer’s earnest-yet-weird poetry teacher attempting to break through to her uninterested middle schoolers never found its feet, with even Bayer’s odd little vocalizations sounding more premeditated than usual. Diaz, again, was game, but her increasingly inappropriate paean to her UPS guy’s shorts didn’t build any momentum. (I do agree with Kenan Thompsons’ student, though, in his Friends poem—while Monica and Rachel are the “hot ones,” everyone knows that Phoebe’s where it’s at. Especially if you’re a freak.)

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I am hip to the musics of today

Despite his top billing, I’m going to go ahead and suggest that Mark Ronson had less to do with anyone’s enjoyment of the music performances tonight than did the always fun Bruno Mars. In the first number, Mars’ synchronized-yet-exuberant dancing and singing alongside his backup people reminded me of Morris Day And The Time. Of course, that’s a compliment. In the second, it’s Mystikal and the guys doing all the work, while, again, Ronson is the cool guy in the shades of to one side. Again—pretty enjoyable though. (Plus, pretty sure, Mystkal dropped both an ‘f’ and an ‘s’ bomb in there. Fun.)

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

After a strong (or at least strongly pushed) start to the season, Pete Davidson didn’t have much to do again tonight. On the other end, the roles were pretty evenly distributed, with the female cast members shining the most, collectively. As has been the case all season, each show finds this cast neither being given nor seizing many opportunities to stand out. It’s more apparent when someone (Davidson tonight) recedes, than to find someone who stands out. Kate McKinnon shone as Merkel and in the “Night Murmurs” 10-to-1 sketch, but there’s a sense that no one is popping in the way that the show needs. SNL breeds big, audience-pleasing performers (sometimes to the show’s detriment), but for the second year in a row, hasn’t found any.

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“What the hell is that thing?”—The 10-To-1 Land Report

As ever, SNL benefits from letting Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett do their thing for five minutes. Their continuing examination of inarticulate stoner high schoolers with access to video equipment yields oddball laughs once again here, as Mooney’s stunted tough guy attempts to confront Bennett’s bully, only for them to end up weeping in the principal’s office after their reluctant fisticuffs produce the requisite high school non-fight. Mooney’s swallowed words and shifty eyes remain the soul of adolescent awkwardness/bravado, especially when inter-spliced with inexplicable, presumably public domain car crash footage to pump up his quest for vengeance.

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The actual 10-to-1 Land party line commercial was a worthy successor to the retired porn star sketch, with Diaz, McKinnon, and Cecily Strong starting out at the typical, dead-eyed late-night sexy pitch gals, only for each of their come-ons to devolve into delightfully loopy weirdness. Striking a series of ever more awkwardly “sexy” poses, the three gradually revealed tantalizingly insane hints about what they expect their phone suitors to do for them and, in McKinnon’s case, what she did to get herself into her predicament. (It involves the Pepsi challenge gone very, very wrong.)

Stray observations:

  • The interstitial tribute to Mike Nichols (apart from general admiration), probably had to do with the fact that Nichols directed Gilda Live on Broadway.
  • Some of the benefits of being a back home baller: Free Wi-Fi, cheese on chips, pajamas that cost $10.
  • “We finish each others’…” “Spider penis!”
  • “You know this is my first time seeing a play and I think I’m done.”
  • “Which one’s your daughter?” “I’d rather not say.”
  • “At least he didn’t eat it.” “Oh, I’m so sick of hearin’ that.”
  • “He kept whispering: ‘Please don’t embarrass me in front of the entire school… I am just a pawn of conformity. And you listen to the best music.’”
  • “PS: Another thing about that package, as soon as you get that package it has to go into the fridge.”
  • SNL Vintage report: Man, I imagine viewers tonight were as nonplussed to witness what was essentially a Paul Simon musical showcase as were viewers in 1976. As ever, however, seeing and hearing George Harrison was an unexpected pleasure.

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