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Saturday Night Live: “Martin Freeman/Charli XCX”

Martin Freeman, Kate McKinnon (NBC)
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“I’m not an actor, I’m a [movie/TV] star!”

Martin Freeman’s signature role is that of the put-upon, sensibly baffled straight man. Whether reacting to Sherlock Holmes’ peremptory brilliance, wearing hobbit feet and swapping riddles with CGI creatures, modeling a baseball cap/radio set (or “Hat FM”), or reacting to a two-headed Sam Rockwell, Freeman’s function as the voice of befuddled reason has served him (and the viewing public) very well for a long time. In his first SNL hosting gig, Freeman’s gift for staring, unblinking, into all manner of silliness worked out just fine, with the star anchoring his sketches with an assured deadpan professionalism. It’s a unique gift to play the one, lone voice of reason for laughs without seeming like a drag, but Freeman’s prickly, exasperated complicity in the situations he finds himself in keeps him compelling. While he trotted out his Fargo accent for the Ten-To-Oneland mattress store sketch, Freeman wasn’t asked to essay any impressions or characters out of his wheelhouse, but that just saw him excelling at the sort of understated underplaying he does best.

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Weekend Update update

Easily the best Update of the season, this week saw Colin Jost and Michael Che evincing an easiness with their material that stood in stark contrast to the stiff, chemistry-less air of this SNL centerpiece in recent memory. It’s an act of false hope to look to Update for hard-hitting political commentary these days, but Che’s line that the recent torture report (including details of CIA torturers jamming stuff up Guantanamo detainees’ butts in the name of freedom) being described by Dick Cheney as “a bunch of hooey that barely got me hard” was the sort of broadside to cause guffaws of shocked recognition. A lot has been made about the toothlessness of the political material on Update under Jost’s leadership, but that’s the sort of solid, multi-layered, perfectly delivered joke the segment could use more of. In addition, this was the first Update of the year where Jost and Che seemed at ease with the material and their place behind the desk—none of the other jokes were as biting or as good, but their deliveries were more confident, which went a long way.

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On the correspondent front, Sasheer Zamata’s piece on the lack of emoji for black people was funny, as she and Che interpreted the necessarily tortuous combinations of images (including the dark moon which is the only one able to approximate a black face) with a knowing edge. Zamata—still struggling to find a voice on the show—was as confident here as she’s ever been. Cecily Strong introduced another funny Update character, the One Dimensional Female Character From a Male-Driven Comedy, who embodied the “take off her glasses and she’s suddenly hot” clichés nicely. (“I’m not going to Aruba with Dave, I’m staying right here with you at the record store.”) And Vanessa Bayer’s return as perpetual bar mitzvah boy Jacob (a bit I somehow never tire of) gave Che his best opportunity yet to develop some warmth onscreen as he, like Seth Meyers before him, attempted to get Bayer’s panic-grinning Jacob to stray from his prepared remarks. There’s something so endearing about Bayer’s creation that it can’t help but make the object of his terrified admiration (Che in this case) seem completely sympathetic as he tries to break through and relate to the little guy. Sometimes a one-note character strikes the right note—that’s Jacob.

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Best/Worst sketch of the night

There wasn’t a bummer of a sketch tonight, with everything displaying an admirable competence. The one that registered least was “Sump’n Claus,” which, judging by its position on the show, was intended to be the next, big musical digital short. Unfortunately, unlike the very funny “Back Home Ballers” from a few weeks’ back, this one wasn’t built on a solid enough comic premise, with Kenan’s—sigh—pimp-like Santa stepping in to give envelopes of cash to those people whose vindictive dickishness got them on Santa’s naughty list (including a lady who slashed her ex’s tires, Justin Bieber, Paula Deen, and Donald Sterling). Handsomely mounted, catchy, and forgettable.

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While no sketch stood out as especially memorable, there was a welcome adventurousness overall. Leaving aside the incessant celebrity references for the most part, this seemed, more than any other show this season, a writers’ episode. With Freeman acting as the impeccably centered fixed point of most sketches, the show was a succession of thoughtfully constructed single pieces. Despite Taran Killam’s indifferent Charlie Rose, the political cold open actually went somewhere for a change, with Bobby Moynihan and Kyle Mooney’s obliviously evil real life government psychologists (James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, for history’s sake) happily taking credit not only for the aforementioned torture program, but also for Time Warner Cable’s customer service (and Bill Cowher commercials), one-man shows, self checkout lanes, autocorrect, and that “Kars4Kids” jingle. (The joke about them inventing the policy of taking your laptop out of its case at the airport may have been cribbed from the Key & Peele finale, but that’s for the comedy courts to decide.)

Leslie Jones and Freeman paired up nicely as the improbable wedding couple, their ill-advised quickie union objected to on a variety of well-founded grounds by seemingly everyone in attendance. Eschewing the predictable “huge black American lady and polite, petite Brit” stereotype in favor of a construction where both people are really, really bad news was a nice surprise, allowing both Jones and Freeman to let slip their various inadequacies throughout the sketch to humorous effect. The revelation that they’d had sex 50 times in the five days they’d known each other (and that Freeman’s broken penis resembled “a late-stage Jenga tower”) vied with Kate McKinnon’s announcement that, even though she was just walking by the church, every hair on her body stood up and said “Evelyn get in there” to object, as the sketch built in comic absurdity.

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While there was no Sherlock parody, Freeman’s presence resulted in a Hobbit/Office mashup, with Bilbo taking an office job selling paper at Wernham Hogg, alongside Killam’s Gollum and a very David Brent-like Gandalf. Nothing especially funny was done with the concept, but Freeman’s dogged forbearance in the face of the nonsense (and the occasional giant spider attack in the parking lot), if nothing else, reignited my internal Tim Canterbury/Jim Halpert debate. (That resignedly exasperated comic tone was Freeman’s biggest contribution to the morning show sketch, with his handyman guest’s question, “Keith Urban is winterizing too? Why?” ringing out loud and clear.)

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

The episode was remarkably free from rehashed bits, allowing Freeman and the cast to flesh out some character-based original material. It was nice. And, as I’ve said, any time Jacob wants to come back is fine with me.

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I am hip to the musics of today.

Charli XCX sings like Martha Davis from The Motels and looks like Katy Perry, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Lucy Lawless somehow had a baby. Her “sexy” dance moves looked like a Tracy Ullman character, while her “naughty” lyrics were kind of adorable. Look, I don’t like making fun of the SNL musical guests especially, but they’re, more often than not, such an obvious, irrelevant afterthought that, apart from tradition, it’s a wonder why they’re still part of the show at all. Sure, you’ll get a Prince or a Beck (or someone with more than one name who’s still relevant) every once in a while, but the days when the musical act was a vital part of SNL are long gone.

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

After his strong initial push, Pete Davidson has been relegated to the background for the last few episodes. Apart from appearing as the newly atheist teen conspicuously not saying the prayers in the amusing church advertisement sketch, he was conspicuously invisible tonight.

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MVNRFPTP has to go to Taran Killam, who, apart from that pallid Charlie Rose, got to play Gollum, a comically robotic Alan Rickman, the suspiciously flamboyant half of the married anchor team in the “Right Side Of The Bed” talk show sketch, and, in a standout bit of character work, the clueless assembly line worker in the Heinz factory sketch opposite Freeman. In that one, he and Freeman played off each other impeccably—it reminded me of the bit from Monty Python And The Holy Grail, when Michael Palin’s lord kept laying out very simple instructions for guarding his son, only for Eric Idle’s dimwitted guard to parrot back his orders with cheerfully incorrect obliviousness. (There’s no reason not to watch the whole thing, but the relevant reference can be found starting at 1:54.)

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

This is the one where Freeman got to trot out his Fargo accent as the Midwestern waterbed store proprietor enslaved in desperate politeness to his recently hypnotized wife’s seductively insane advertising/performing ambitions. Aidy Bryant, as ever, plays brashly, sexily crazy with aplomb, her emergence through the mouth of the giant cutout of her own face vying with the giant mockup of herself perched on the roof of her husband’s store for most disturbing evidence of her insanity.

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Stray observations:

  • “There’s no ‘I’ in torture.” “There are eyes sometimes, though!”
  • “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” “There’s 19!”
  • “You’re welcome kids! Or cars. We’re not really sure how that charity works.”
  • “You’re not losing a roommate, you’re gaining a roommate.”
  • “Whoa—it’s just a little table in there!”
  • “Question—what’s a lever?”
  • “Is he here to kill us?” “That’s a hard maybe.”
  • “She also kept mentioning the Doritos clown, which I don’t think is a thing.”
  • The “Vintage SNL” experiment was preempted by a rerun of Peter Pan Live this week. I do not know who was happy about that plan.
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A lot’s been made about the two sketches that were cut from last week’s episode. Of the two, the VH-1 sketch benefits most from a sheer comedy perspective. It’s a funny idea, unfettered by topicality and bouncing along on its own silly enthusiasm.

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But the cut Ferguson sketch is getting the most press and posthumous praise, which is both warranted (it’s miles better than the woeful, depressing Al Sharpton cold open), and irrelevant. SNL is what it chooses to present live—the recent release of dress rehearsal sketches smacks of damage control. And while the cut sketch here wasn’t bad, it was hardly a revelation of some sort of subversive undercurrent on the show. Its recognition that the ongoing protests over the killings of unarmed black men in America makes inanely chipper morning show anchors uncomfortable at least seems to originate from observation of the outside world (as opposed to the fact that Kenan Thompson has a substandard Al Sharpton in his back pocket), but even if it had been included in the show proper, it wouldn’t attain the satirical classic status its exclusion suggests.

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Back in the day, writer Michael O’Donoghue famously leaked a rejected sketch (the legendary “Silverman’s Bunker”) to the press as an act of defiance in order to make the case that SNL was stifling bolder, more controversial material. That was under producer Dick Ebersol and not Lorne Michaels, and O’Donoghue, while certainly right in that case, overestimated his genius as ever. But the contrast is instructive. The choice last week to feature a star-coddling cold open that addressed the most controversial issue of the week in the most irrelevant terms possible over an above-average sketch on the same topic is a reflection on Lorne, Colin Jost, and whatever creative junta makes the final decisions at SNL these days. The fact that the show is allowing its passed-over sketches to see the light of day only reinforces that, by trying to suggest that there’s just too much great material to make it on-air each week, this season of SNL is both running on creative fumes and stuck with leadership whose comedy judgment is pedestrian. Last week’s show might have been better with these sketches included—but it wouldn’t have been any more relevant.

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