Chris Hemsworth, Kate McKinnon (NBC)

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

In the genre of “Marvel superhero stars brought in to host,” Chris Hemsworth can’t compare to season 40 opener Chris Pratt, but that’s not really his fault. Star-Lord Pratt, after all, is a proven comic actor, while Thor Hemsworth is a big, strapping slice of Aussie beef. Sure, his work as Thor has been shot through with an entertaining vein of twinkly comedy, but he’s simply not as at home hosting SNL as Pratt was. That being said, Pratt’s material wasn’t particularly strong in his hosting gig, so let’s call it a wash. Throughout his stint as host, Hemsworth goofed around amiably and did what was asked, although he never cut loose (or was encouraged to), instead proving a pleasant, workmanlike presence in all his sketches. He played straight man in almost every sketch tonight, and while he was good at it, it didn’t make for scintillating hosting. With that in mind, there’s not every larger-than-life superhero action star who could maintain straight man integrity playing opposite a chicken, so point: Hemsworth on that one.

Weekend Update update

The thing is that the Update crew is trying. The incessant complaints (from me, among many, many others) that anchors Colin Jost and Michael Che lack chemistry is once again addressed tonight, with the segment opening on them bantering for a moment, and then returning later to swap jokes. The problem is that, while the effort to introduce some comic interplay is appreciated, it still smacks of effort. When Jost, supposedly taking Che’s joke about a recent study on penis size, makes a mistake and breaks, Che’s off-screen laughter should be loose and endearing. Instead, it suffers from the inherent problem the Che/Jost team labors under each week—these two comics do not project the feeling that they are operating from a unified comic position. Former Update anchor teams—whether Tina and Jimmy, Tina and Amy, Amy and Seth—even though made up of comedians with different sensibilities, seemed to be coming from the same place. A unified front. Here, Che and Jost are very different comedians who seem to have no common point of reference and they glance off of each other unaffected by the other’s jokes, no matter how assiduously the writers’ attempts to force them together.

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This lack of performing chemistry would matter less if the material were better, but the episode continued the season-long trend of being pleasantly innocuous for the most part. Che’s opening salvo addressing the recent, scandalous Justice Department report on the apartheid-like regime of the Ferguson police department gathered a bit of steam (“93 per cent of people arrested in Ferguson were black? It’s only 92 per cent in Nigeria”), and the back and forth jokes about potential Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson’s ill-advised and quickly walked-back comments about gays built up some unaccustomed political momentum, but Update hasn’t been angry in a long time, and it didn’t start tonight. There’s another election season ramping up, something that’s been the engine for the best Update material in SNL’s history, but there’s little indication that this Update has it in its makeup to make meaningful use of it.

The correspondent pieces didn’t liven things up appreciably tonight, either, with Leslie Jones’ takes on making it through the winter in New York relying more than ever on Jones’ not-inconsiderable charisma and energy rather than any particular insight. I like Jones’ presence on the show, her unabashedly sexy, earthy brashness in these pieces a unique and welcome voice. But too often, as here, it’s an engaging voice without much to say. The same goes for Cecily Strong’s recurring The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started A Conversation With At A Party, a bit whose initial appeal was its unpredictability, but who, like so, so many SNL characters before her, becomes less amusing through familiarity. The joke is on ingnorantly entitled self-righteousness, and Strong’s characterization has commitment behind it, but, like TGYWYHSACWAAP herself, the bit hasn’t much left to say about its subject.

Best/Worst sketch of the night

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The first sketch of the night was also the best, with Kate McKinnon introducing what’s sure to be her ubiquitous and welcome Hillary Clinton going into the as ever sure to be exhausting 2016 election cycle. McKinnon’s less an impressionist than a comic character actress, but her signature commitment here produces a Hillary I’m looking forward to seeing on SNL every week. Amy Poehler’s Clinton wasn’t technically accurate as an impression either, but there, too, the actress’ ability to find something of the actual Hillary’s soul went a long way toward selling the character. (Her maniacal laugh before responding to Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin with “Yeah, I guess if I could change one thing, it’d be that I should have wanted it more!” is an all-time Poehler highlight.) Here, McKinnon similarly climbs inside the presumptive Democratic nominee, her usual piercing stare in service of her depiction of Clinton as the driven yet cagey career politician she is. In Bossypants, Fey wrote admiringly about how Seth Meyers’ first Clinton/Palin sketch satirized both women without turning their political differences into a broad catfight, instead bringing each woman’s personal and political qualities into starkly comic relief. Here, while the cold open isn’t as sharply satirical, in McKinnon’s performance, it’s similarly smart and astute, laying out the framework for what the show’s take on Clinton in the long, long months ahead will be. While Clinton’s statement, “I wasn’t born yesterday. I was born 67 years ago and I have been planning to be president ever since” doesn’t look especially hilarious on paper, in McKinnon’s smiling, steely delivery, it finds a way into Clinton that’s both insightful and funny. Like her Ellen Degeneres, McKinnon’s Clinton also can’t help but let her buried resentments slip out, referring to herself not as a candidate “but as a relatable woman on a couch,” and additionally trying to humanize herself by describing a picture of herself as ”just a fun beach babe counting what her first 50 thousand moves as president will be.”

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

The ex-porn stars is, like Cecily Strong’s other showcase part tonight, a recurring bit whose once-delirious enjoyment gets less funny the more its greeted with canned cheers of recognition. That being said, it’s still pretty amusing, Strong and Vanessa Bayer’s blankly aspirational obtuseness mangling phrases in expected but not-unpleasant ways, while Hemsworth (as the surgically re-donged Don Juan De Dark Hole errantly scooters through the scene with his catchphrase “Did someone say, ‘what’s that smell?’” at opportune moments). As ever, the ladies’ anecdotes are as funny as they are horrifying (“One time I got banged back in time and a caveman banged me back to the future and I was like, ’I guess I can save 15 per cent or more by switching to Geico—thanks, lizard!’”), and their vapid, monotonous litany of sales pitches (“It’s like Febreeze, but in fancy jars”) encompassing every late night infomercial ever. (I always think of Liz Lemon’s reminiscence of her co-star that one time she filmed a phone sex line commercial, “She cried all day.”)

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I am hip to the musics of today.

Who’s up for some forgettably pleasant country rock!? (Tonight’s musical guest was The Zac Brown Band.)

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

Her name is McKinnon, Kate McKinnon. She’s been front and center for over a year now, but tonight was the first episode to essentially announce that Kate McKinnon is, as Bill Murray put it once upon a time, “the big potato in the stew” that is the current SNL. The episode-long Australian riffing offered her the chance to bust out the over-the-top Aussie accent she debuted in the funny movie retrospective sketch alongside Bill Hader and Louis C.K. a few years ago, and it’s as goofily funny now as it was then. McKinnon can go subtle, but she’s at her best simply going for it, and the Australian idiom provides her with an appropriately broad platform to do just that. As Hemsworth’s mum in the monologue (“You guys ruined my body, so it’s the least you can do!”), and a blissfully unaware Iggy Azalea (“Oh my God, you’re so mad at me!”), McKinnon’s wild-eyed yet precise energy drove every sketch she was in. Even the so-so soap opera sketch saw her—at times fighting back giggles—imbuing her character with life, something the best sketch performers have at their disposal. Throw in the fact that she’s planted her Hilary Clinton flag, and McKinnon can pretty much lay claim to the MVNRFPTP position for the next few (four? eight?) years if she wants it.

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Cecily Strong had a big show, too, but since two of her sketches involved her recycling old characters to diminished effect, she remains firmly in second place. Her performance in the Disney Channel sketch fared better as her teacher, not fooled by the unconvincing switcheroo between Taran Killam and Hemsworth’s “twins,” going on with inappropriate specificity about how Hemsworth’s middle schooler’s physical perfections are preferable in every way.

I was prepared to make Vanessa Bayer least valuable for the night before she got her customarily amusing spot alongside Cecily Strong in the ex-porn stars sketch to end the night, so Pete Davidson takes bottom bunk tonight. (His bewildered Bruce Banner in the Avengers sketch got a laugh, though. “I think I ate a guy.” “Yeah—you ate a bunch o’ guys!”) Aidy Bryant was even scarcer.

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

While the ex-porn stars got their customary last sketch of the night position, the real ten-to-oneland sketch of the night came ten minutes earlier, with Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney getting what I’ve maintained SNL should give them every week—five minutes and a camera to screw around with. Their effort tonight, a reality show called So You Think You Can Live With Brian?, is of a piece with their singular output, putting a camera at the disposal of people who don’t have any business with one and waiting for viewers to squirm at the awkward results. Here, the joke is that the innocuous interactions of a trio of roommates are whipped into unwarranted drama through the intermediary of the camera, with Mooney, Bennett, and Hemsworth selling their deadpan conflicts through talking head interviews and escalatingly silly immunity challenges. The Mooney/Bennet style is, as they say, “not for everyone,” but it’s certainly for me, and something SNL needs—offbeat, conceptual sketches unmoored from crowd-pleasing big laughs. While this wasn’t their most well-realized bit ever, its unique flavor brings something different to the show, something necessarily weird.

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After neither Mooney nor Bennett were promoted from the ranks of featured players this season, their position on SNL seemed in jeopardy, a precariousness only reinforced by their customary exile to ten-to-oneland. It’d be one thing if their adventurous sensibilities could be seen infiltrating the rest of the show, but that’s not the case, with each—Mooney especially—being uneasily shoehorned into the more mainstream sketches and only let out to play in earnest in these little, three-minute sandboxes. As the end of the season looms into view, there’s the sense that both will be cut loose—which would be a shame.

Stray observations:

  • “When I went in for the audition, they said ‘we’re looking for a Thor type, not the actual Thor!’ And then they gave me a check for eight million dollars.”
  • Right after Hemsworth’s fake Amex commercial all about him being a natural physical specimen for Hollywood, NBC ran Mindy Kaling’s Amex commercial about being an atypical physical type in Hollywood.
  • The Empire sketch benefits from decent Lucious and Cookie impressions from Kenan Thompson and Sasheer Zamata, but the joke—about Fox inserting Hemsworth’s blandly pleasant Chip to appeal to white America—doesn’t make much comic sense. Empire’s a hit already, and its ratings are growing—no thanks to Chip.
  • In this generation’s nod to “I Married A Monkey,” Hemsworth ably played straight man to a fluffy hen in the “S.S. Orion” spaceship sketch. He did it well, the sight of the strapping Hemsworth proclaiming his love for his chicken captain had me giggling throughout, even (or perhaps especially) since chickens don’t have much screen presence.
  • Hemsworth’s jock bro Thor has an Australian accent.
  • “Paxil—maybe this is what it does.”
  • “Michael, did you know that, for every 10 people, there are 20 people?”
  • “HMOs? Um, how about just calling them gay people?”
  • “So can I just draw a cartoon of Muhammad real quick?”
  • Aidy Bryant’s student, comparing Killam’s butt to “twin” Hemsworth’s: “And yours is like, well I go to the bathroom out of this thing, so…”
  • “Brian wasn’t in the room when I went into the shower and now he is? I have to get to the bottom of this.”
  • “What’s that thing where you press it and it sprays out?” “Prostate!”
  • “It’s that thing that holds all the liquid.” “Mouth!”
  • Other fragrances from “Douche and Go Bye Bye” (Dolce and Gabbana): Disappearance, Old Person, Mistress At A Funeral, and Housewarming Porno.

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