Taraji P. Henson, Taran Killam (NBC)
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“I’m not an actor, I’m a [movie/TV star]!”

In her monologue, Taraji P. Henson says of her first hosting gig, “It proves that after 20 years in show business, white people know who I am.” Which, being about as subtle a burn on SNL’s spotty racial history as it is, also reinforces how seasoned a professional Henson is, a level of experience that serves her well tonight. The monologue itself is—wait for it—another musical number, but Henson (backed by a full church choir) has the pipes, and her song sees her joyfully expressing how damned happy she is at her hard-won success. It’s a rousing performance, with the cast joining in in solidarity with their host to sing about how happy they are to have the jobs they have on the show. (Pete Davidson’s happy he doesn’t have to be “a well-adjusted college sophomore,” while Leslie Jones hilariously stops things cold by musing about how she could be in jail and probably shouldn’t even be on TV—“Seriously, I have done some stuff.”) Singing, dancing, and giggling throughout the monologue, Henson conveys confidence, which is good, as she had to rely on sheer professionalism to get through some indifferently written sketches later on.

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Weekend Update Update

Colin Jost and Michael Che are—dare I say it—finally settling into something like a rhythm. Sure, it’s taken them an unconscionably long time, but I’ve come to look forward to Update again, where, for more than a year, it’s been a source more of anxiety and annoyance than laughs. Part of that is that they’re not blowing jokes much any more, but they’ve also both begun to deliver the jokes with individuality. Jost still comes across like Seth Meyers’ little brother who’s class clown at his prep school, but he putting more snap in his lines, and looks more comfortable bantering with correspondents. (He and Che still haven’t got much chemistry, but one thing at a time.) Che’s improvement has been even more marked, as he’s given more political material to work with, and has continued to amplify the jokes with looser-sounding asides. Tonight, he had two edgier jokes than usual, and he landed them both well. After his line about police being glad the new Apple Watch doesn’t have a camera elicits a few gasps, he doubles down, saying offhandedly, “They hate pictures. It’s their least favorite thing to shoot.” And while the embarrassing Postal Service gaffe about misattributing a Maya Angelou quote on her commemorative stamp is well-worn comic territory by now, Che punctures the audience’s complacent laughs by confronting them with the fact that they don’t really know what Angelou looks like.

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This week’s correspondents are both repeaters, with Kate McKinnon’s lady who destroyed that priceless mural in Spain being least well-trod. There’s not much to do with the character except let McKinnon go nuts with an exaggerated accent and bug eyes—but that’s usually enough for me when it comes to Kate McKinnon. I did appreciate that her Don Knotts statue is the mad scientist from The Nightmare Beforre Christmas, and that her description of Jost’s “hollow, cavernous eyes” is no doubt in reference to the fact that Colin Jost has hollow, cavernous eyes.

As to Vanessa Bayer’s return as Jacob, the Bar Mitzvah Boy, I’ll just say that, while it’s understandable to try and spice up a recurring bit with new wrinkles, throwing Billy Crystal into the mix is not a recipe for freshness. Crystal’s single year on SNL guarantees him an open door (especially at anniversary specials, where he’s generally given screen time disproportionate to his impact on the show), but I always place a mental asterisk next to his name. Here, his ever-self-impressed style steamrollers the simple pleasures of a Jacob appearance. Jacob’s unvarying schtick is stale, but Bayer’s performance is always endearing and comfy—while it’s adorable how obviously hilarious the little guy thinks his podiatrist dad is, Crystal doesn’t commit to the bit and it goes flat.

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Best/worst sketch of the night

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There was an inoffensive sameness to almost every sketch tonight, with retreads competing with half-realized premises (often without endings) for bland chuckles. For the first time I can recall, I’ll give the top spot to the cold open. It’s a gift to SNL—and us—that Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton will have a secure home on the show for as many months or years Hillary will be in political play (and if her candidacy/presidency lures Darrell Hammond’s Bill out of the announcer’s booth as it did tonight, that’s just gravy). That being said, having a great impressionist for a public figure is only as valuable as the quality of the writing—just ask Jay Pharoah, who does a technically more accurate Barack Obama impression than Jordan Peele, but whose Obama has run dry without a solidly conceived character behind it. McKinnon doesn’t sound anything like Clinton, really, but then again, neither did Will Ferrell sound remotely like George W. Bush. What made Ferrell’s Bush an all-time classic SNL character was that it was built on the bedrock of a fully-realized conception of who he was. There are the rough outlines of what the writers’ plan for McKinnon’s Hillary is to be going forward—maniacally ambitious, unable to relate to others on a human level—but she’s been done with more nuance in the past. However, it’s a great part for McKinnon, whose greatest strength has always been playing driven, crazy-eyed, forceful personalities. Her attempts to film a natural, casual cellphone campaign video are hilarious, beginning the first one with a Lex Luthor-esque, “Citizens! You will elect me! I am your leader!,” and seeing McKinnon contort her face in minute increments as Vanessa Bayer’s aide coaches her toward human expressions. (When instructed to try one without using her name or “I,” she begins another with a steely, “I, Hillary Rodham Clinton…”) The show’s Hillary might be a little hazy at this point, but in McKinnon’s hands, she’s got promise.

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A funny sketch with no reason to exist, the teacher/student affair courtroom bit gave Pete Davidson’s boyish goofiness an airing as the happy victim, recounting how sexy teacher Cecily Strong’s attentions made him exceptionally happy and popular. Davidson’s stoner teen affect is a good fit, and there’s nothing inherently objectionable about portraying such occurrences as male wish-fulfillment (felonies though they may be), but for it to be the premise of a centerpiece sketch should mean that someone came up with an original approach, rather than doing the same joke that’s been done every single time I’ve ever seen it. (“It’s only really a crime when it happens to girls.”) That being said, the list of worshipful nicknames Davidson’s classmates have bestowed upon him just keeps going, getting sillier and weirder as it goes (favorites: The Boy Who Lived, Afterschool Special, He Who Has Sex With Teachers), as is his deadpan response to the prosecutor’s question about how his classmate’s treated him when they found out: “I would describe it as the end of the movie Rudy. And I was Rudy.” Kenan’s judge, unable to contain his admiration for the boy, has a few funny, underplayed lines as well, but it’s a one-joke sketch without an original spin on the joke.

As for the worst, while none stood out as notably awful, see the Ten-To-Oneland entry below for details on the most pointless.

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The two timely TV sketches both disappointed, although neither was a disaster. It’s odd that the show didn’t do more with the Empire premise (although doing one last week may explain it), but seeing Henson’s Cookie terrify the muppets on Sesame Street was cute, what can I say. While it’s mildly unnerving to see the muppets taking part in such “grown up” jokes (although they are pretty mild—Elmo being turned into a coat notwithstanding), it’s been done before. (Scrubs’ was pretty great.) With all the cultural currency Empire’s carrying, though, having Henson hang out on Sesame Street is a lazy way to exploit it. (She does eat the hell out of that cookie.)

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Speaking of currency, the Game Of Thrones filmed bit makes sense, with GOT coming back tomorrow (tonight as I write this). And the (South) central premise, with Westeros having a heretofore-unmentioned all-black kingdom (directed by John Singleton) gave Henson, Pharoah, Thompson, Leslie Jones, Sasheer Zamata, and even Michael Che an opportunity to shine. (Che’s Laurence Fishburne-esque father figure is surprisingly strong.) But, apart from another appearance by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as a drive-by Kingslayer, this is a handsomely-mounted disappointment, without much fleshing out beyond its “wouldn’t it be funny if there were a black Game Of Thrones?” premise.

How To Dance With Janelle gives Zamata’s tween webcam dance enthusiast a mom this time out in Henson (her dad is Chris Rock), who hijacks Janelle’s webcast, which has just picked up its 1,000,000th follower. (He’s in prison.) The joke is the same as last time, with Zamata not realizing the effect her budding sexuality has on either her unwillingly platonic best pal Kyle Mooney or the viewing public. As a character piece, it’s pretty one-note, but, as one of the only sketches featuring SNL’s African American performers that doesn’t hinge on race, it’s at least something. And, here, Henson’s former almost-Fly-Girl mom really commits to her inappropriate dance moves.

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

We covered Jacob and the crazy art lady, so let’s next consider the perpetual disappointment that is Celebrity Game Night. This sketch should kill, as it provides six cast performers with the opportunity to do their favorite celebrity impressions, while Kate McKinnon’s giddily accurate Jane Lynch barely conceals her contempt for the gig and sprawls with lanky abandon all over the set. Instead, it’s always a fizzle. There are too many competing impressions for anyone to make a real impact on the sketch, and the game itself is too simpleminded to provide meaningful comic structure—although Lynch’s asides “It’s a game created by adults who were paid for their work”—allow McKinnon to convey the sense that Lynch is always one second away from just quitting in the middle of the show. The impressions tonight are the usual mixed bag, with Beck Bennett’s solid Nick Offerman making mustache jokes, Henson’s decent Wanda Sykes being appropriately scattered and brash, and Taran Killam’s Vin Diesel being gravelly and dim. (He sounds less like Diesel than on of the Riverbottom Nightmare Band from Emmett Otter’s Jugband Christmas, but it’s funny enough.) And speaking of good Jay Pharoah impressions with nothing behind them, his Common here continues the SNL trend of having Pharoah impeccably impersonate rappers the SNL writers aren’t that familiar with. Jay Pharoah is a masterful voice guy—the fact that SNL has him do the same underwritten parts is one of the biggest failings of his tenure on the show. (See also the Home 2 sketch.) Meanwhile, the quest for the next Celebrity Jeopardy continues.

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Cinema Classics is back, too. I’m always up for a movie parody sketch, and while CC has never been especially insightful, at least the premise is always good for some specificity in the parody. Tonight, its shameless A League Of Their Own knockoff Their Own League introduces Henson’s wannabe ballplayer into the rambunctious all-woman baseball team, leading to some awkward evasions (“We kind of already have the woman thing”), and one solid line in response to Henson’s request to play, “Okay, here’s the thing—while our husbands are away, we’re the racists.” Kenan Thompson’s host Reese De’What had some unpredictability to his odd tangents when he first appeared, but tonight Thompson’s delivery was a pre-programmed as it’s ever been. (Points for having an Eight Men Out image on the wall behind him, though—underrated baseball movie.)

I am hip to the musics of today.

Mumford & Sons was the musical guest. They’re a band people seem to attach their own preconceived notions to. I like them just fine—in college, I would have gone to see them.

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

It’s McKinnon’s trophy to lose this season, as she once again assumes center stage for more sketches than anyone else, and enlivens them all. As a performer, McKinnon’s accused of bringing a sameness (“crazy eyes”) to all her roles. I’d say she’s got more range than that, but her undeniable intense comic energy is always a much-needed jolt. Tonight, her Hillary, crazy art lady, and Jane Lynch were the most entertaining things to watch, and while the QVC sketch (I’ve been told the “three-way poncho” is a real thing?) didn’t have much of a point, her Liza Minnelli-esque, forgetful designer made it at least weirder than it looked like it was going to be.

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While the fact that, apart from McKinnon, this cast isn’t overburdened with attention-grabbing stars has its downsides, it does serve to restate the ensemble aspect of the show. Tonight, everyone got their turn, with only Bobby Moynihan lagging behind. I’m sure there’s a Drunk Uncle in his near future, though.

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

Sometimes, Ten-To-Oneland is where unique comic ideas get their one chance to shine. And sometimes, it’s the garbage dump for half-realized, ending-less premises SNL’s detractors mistakenly) claim it is. Tonight’s Power Rangers parody Connectotron is one of the latter, the joke being that Henson’s “sassy” ranger won’t agree to connect with her cohorts to fight a giant shark monster until one of them apologizes for bumping into her in the hall. Not to bring up the specter of Key & Peele again, but they took a similarly silly premise and used the racial undertones therein for sharp satire rather than easy, stereotypical yucks at the “funny black character.” At least SNL now owns a giant shark monster costume.

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Stray observations:

  • “Aren’t we such a fun, approachable dynasty?”
  • “You’re watching QVC, which means you’re a cat whose owners are at work. Hi, little guy!”
  • John Singleton’s name is spelled wrong at the end of the Game Of Thrones sketch, but correctly at the beginning.
  • “After the loss, Wisconsin fans rioted the only way white people know how—without consequences.”
  • “I’m gonna go drink a Coca Cola that still has cocaine in it!”
  • While the adult diapers commercial is the palest of retreads, if that was, indeed the same actor from the “Whoops, I Crapped My Pants” ad parody, I’ll give it some extra credit. (Unable to confirm at post time.)

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