“I’m not an actor, I’m a [movie] star!”
Saturday Night Live starts its 42nd season by calling upon Australian actress Margot Robbie, fresh off her high-profile supporting role in Suicide Squad. Also Jane to Alexander Skarsgård’s Tarzan this summer, Robbie has the sort of medium-heat best suited to an SNL premiere. With two new head writers (Sarah Schneider and Chris Kelly), three new featured players (Mikey Day, Alex Moffat, and Melissa Villaseñor), and the loss of stalwarts Taran Killam and Jay Pharoah, season 42, as ever, kicks off with SNL in a period of adjustment. Season premieres aren’t necessarily the time to bring in a comic dynamo whose persona is as much a part of the episode as all the other elements—instead, a choice like Robbie allows for the sizable cast to gel around her and show what they can do.
Having not seen much of Robbie’s previous work, I’ll say that she acquits herself fine in the role/roles she’s given tonight. In the suspiciously Scooby-Doo-esque “Hunch Bunch” sketch, her outsider Becka-Ashley is the motivator of the sketch, spouting crude assessments of the gang’s investigation and eventually simply shooting the caretaker that’s been fake-haunting the place. There, the brevity, crudity, and inconsistency of the sketch worked against her, though. (It can’t decide if Becka-Ashley is a psycho or just clueless.) Not conspicuously funny, she’s nonetheless a solid, professional supporting player in sketches, and the monologue sees SNL surround her with a gimmick (her monologue is fact-checked), and most of the rest of the cast in turn. It serves the dual purpose of reintroducing the cast (newly graduated main cast member Leslie Jones gets the most riotous greeting), and carrying a non-comedian along without too much fuss.
Weekend Update update
Along with the season’s newest not-quite cast member (we’ll get there) the next few months promise to be a huge opportunity for anchors Michael Che and Colin Jost to make hay out of what has been the ripest political campaign season in American history. (Perhaps incapable of seeing all the lunacy sail by during the hiatus, Che and Jost did a couple of convention special Updates on MSNBC, to moderate success.) Here, they continue the increasingly winning formula from last season, Jost and Che trading off above-average jokes seasoned with their hard-won chemistry.
It’s Che who’s benefitted the most as the pair has loosened up and found its rhythm, each Update seeing him carving out mini-showcases for his harder-edged standup material. Addressing the NFL protest controversy, Che hits from several angles, starting out soft (“The anthem’s so boring, people are looking around saying, ‘I wonder what the backup quarterback for the 49ers is doing’”), and then coming in hard against those who say it’s not an appropriate time for protest. (“It’s a protest, it’s supposed to be inconvenient.”) He also, in making a Phylicia Rashad-Bill Cosby analogy to why white men love the national anthem, drops the sentence, “I don’t know what he did to y’all but the nigger made me rich,” that made the audience audibly uncomfortable. Which is something Update should do more often, especially in a political climate where race has become so central.
Jost, too, has honed his sneaky inoffensiveness into a different sort of edge. He and Che have made their opposite energies work for them—after Che goes all in on a joke ending in “unarmed boobies,” his confrontational “Thoughts?” to the seemingly flustered Jost gets a big laugh. And Jost has become a very assured joke-teller, holding the camera after a punch line with a smirky confidence that waits for a laugh if one’s not immediately forthcoming. It all comes together when Jost jokes about the recently bedridden Clinton’s pick of “I Feel Good” for her entrance music (“James Brown died of pneumonia!”), and Che throws in the aside, “If she actually had black friends, she would have known that.”
Cecily Strong’s appearance as Che’s loud (bordering on incoherent) neighbor Cathy Anne is the sort of big, broad character that’s either going to return never, or a dozen times. I’m fine with this once, unfortunately, as Strong’s commitment to the bit can’t make gabbling undecided voter Cathy Anne interesting enough to warrant a return. The reveal that she can’t actually vote as she’s in a “fugitive-type situation” made me laugh, though.
Best/worst sketch of the night
That cold open was just all-around solid. See below, but Kate McKinnon’s face after ceding her rebuttal time to see what Trump will say next is some highly gratifying comedy.
For the first short film of the season, “The Librarian” does everything you want. Establishing a premise (horny high school boys lusting after new librarian Robbie), gradually subverting it (the beyond cliché use of Yello’s “Oh Yeah” gives way to the boys’ gradual realization that their lust object has some unsettling physical characteristics), then veering off into absurdist dark comedy. Their voices still slowed to the song’s “sooo beautiful” cadence, the guys react in horror (“Straight-up murder?!”) as the librarian reveals a bald head, Deliverance teeth, and, eventually, acid blood, lizard tongue, and, in the punch line, some sort of head-exploding breast powers. New co-head writers Schneider and Kelly were behind some of the best and most popular shorts in the past few years, and “The Librarian”—while no “Back Home Ballers” or “The Beygency”—suggests that the pair will continue to welcome ambitious film weirdness.
“What do you call that act?” “The Californians!”—Recurring sketch report
I’ve said I’d always welcome Kenan Thompson’s David Ortiz any time, and it was great to seem him again tonight, even if the show can’t think of anything new to do with him. He comes in, smilingly tells Jost off for trying to show off his Spanish (“We already have to deal with Tim Kaine, man”), rattles off a list of Dominican dishes, then plugs his post-retirement endorsement plans. Recurring characters on Update are all formula, but this ones getting thin, even though Kenan’s ebullience as Big Papi always makes me—an admitted David Ortiz fanboy—smile a big, dumb smile. As the real Big Papi walks off into the sunset (hopefully with another ring—I can hope, dammit), it’s likely that Thompson will hang up the carefully carved facial hair and over-the-top accent as well. Probably for the best.
And moderately pleasant to know that there’ll always be Family Feud.
“It was my understanding there would be no math”—Political comedy report
The biggest news this week was that SNL was bringing in ringer Alec Baldwin to play Donald Trump. No doubt as a bid for the Larry David-style Bernie notoriety bump the show got last year, it makes sense, although I can’t help wondering what the meeting with former The Donald/announcer Darrell Hammond was like. (It looks like Hammond is going to get plenty of Bill Clinton time as a consolation prize.) But, making his debut in the inevitable debate cold open, Baldwin was super. Not as technically sound as Hammond’s Trump, Baldwin’s version benefits from the actor’s charisma and commitment to channeling the Republican candidate’s signature blustering, barely coherent oratorial style as he squared off with Kate McKinnon’s ever-alive Hillary Clinton. As with most SNL debate sketches, there’s more referencing than satirizing going on, but, considering the sort of election season Trump has provided them, the writers might be excused for doing so much straight-up transcribing. Alongside Trump’s constant interrupting, sniffling, and almost complete lack of preparedness or concrete political ideas, Baldwin got the most laughs by (barely) exaggerating Trump’s constitutional unwillingness to admit error, bulldozing his way right over any inconvenient facts on his way to smugly blinkered braggadocio. On his ad hominem attack on comedian Rosie O’Donnell during the debate, Baldwin’s Trump captures the bafflingly bananas decision with a rapid-fire, “Right at the end, it was my own idea, I did it.”
While the fallout from Trump’s cozy treatment in his hosting gig last season is going to haunt SNL (especially as the candidate’s inflammatory rhetoric becomes more onerous as election day looms), the show’s writers, again, don’t have to do much to show how not on The Donald’s side they are. Talking about political satire on SNL is always an exercise in lowered expectations, but McKinnon’s Clinton remains a solid swing at clear-eyed comic deconstruction. Like Clinton herself, McKinnon’s version benefitted greatly from Trump’s in-character trash fire of a performance in the debate, leaving McKinnon free to bask beamingly in her triumph. Also like the debate, the use of split-screen on the candidates worked in Clinton’s favor, here seeing McKinnon deploying gratefully joyful shock and amusement at each landmine Baldwin’s Trump saw, then stepped on anyway. Still, the show is at its best when it seems like it’s not being “tough on both sides” for its own sake, but is simply not soft-pedaling criticism when it’s warranted, and the jokes about Clinton’s pre-rehearsed zingers and difficulty relating to voters got big laughs. (Referring to her “human father” might be a holdover from Jason Sudeikis’ Mitt Romney, but it’s still fine shorthand for the manufactured remove marking most career politicians.)
Still, in a season that’s going to have a lot of Clinton-Trump sketches, there’s a lot that’s encouraging here, even if Trump’s future debate performances aren’t awful enough to let McKinnon’s Hillary deliver tonight’s shoulder shimmies and her gleeful ”I think I’m gonna be President!” to moderator Lester Holt’s “What do you think about that?”
I am hip to the musics of today
The Weeknd returned to SNL for the second time, shorn of his signature Jean-Michel Basquait locks. Kenan called him a Weeknd imposter in promos for the episode, but, thankfully, there’s no lame Samson joke to be made, as his smooth and energetic R&B remains strong.
Most/Least Valuable (Not Ready For Prime Time) Player
In a show still waiting for performers to truly assert themselves, it’s still Kate McKinnon who comes closest to making her presence indispensable here. Hillary, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, and Hollywood trouper Debette Goldry gave McKinnon all the parts she needed to, once again, position her as the one carrying the ball this season.
But don’t count out McKinnon’s fellow Ghostbuster Leslie Jones, who—after the sort of summer that would make the average performer sheepish—came out swinging. Sure, the Mr. Robot parody with Jones hiring Pete Davidson’s Elliot to find out who hacked her ancient laptop and leaked her personal info and nudes pivots on the idea that Jones accidentally released them herself, but it’s still empowering for Jones to make her indomitability the center of the joke. (As she did at the Emmys last month.) Jones is still better as herself than in sketches (although she was solid as the sportscaster in the news sketch), but the crowd pops for her, and Jones pops on SNL.
Kenan was his usual workhorse. (In Robbie’s monologue, he fact-checks his claim that he didn’t sleep at all last night, admitting to the camera, “This is my 14th season, I slept like a baby.”) While his Big Papi was lovable as ever, and his Steve Harvey hosted a Trump vs. Clinton Family Feud with his signature bubbly mockery (“You that nasty kind of adorable,” he beams at potty-mouth Clintonista Sarah Silverman). But his news reporter, increasingly furious at the inexplicable marriage of Robbie’s hot Kennedy relative and unemployed, nerdy puppeteer Mikey Day was his best performance. Each time he discovers another fact in, as he puts it, “this world that no longer makes sense,” Thompson’s reporter finds just the right note of incredulousness, tinged with fury. (“You drive this smokeshow around in a Kia Sportage?!”)
The new people all got some small but choice parts, although, as ever, time will tell. The embattled Villaseñor, brought on for her impressionist (and not social media) skills trotted out a decent Sarah Silverman for Family Feud. Silverman’s persona has easy “handles” (as the departed Jay Pharoah calls it when a subject has distinct mannerisms to hang an impression on), but Villaseñor did a fine job. Alex Moffat did a nice bit of underplaying in the news sketch, his sinkhole expert seamlessly joining in on the debate about a couple’s disparate attractiveness levels instead of talking about sinkholes. And Mikey Day ably popped up in small parts throughout. Good luck to you.
While I don’t want to start out this season by noting that SNL doesn’t have much luck in finding roles for Sasheer Zamata, well, she has one small, indifferent impression (as Lupita Nyong’o) in the next-to-last sketch. Here’s hoping it’s not another long year for Zamata.
“What the hell is that thing?”—The Ten-To-Oneland Report
That was Mr. Robot, which was more a showcase for Leslie Jones than a fully formed sketch in its own right. Mikey Day got to do a fair Christian Slater, being visible to—and hit on by—Jones. (“I ain’t ‘fraid o’ no ghosts” is her inevitable come-on line.) Pete Davidson can’t do Rami Malek, but he had the right look of panicked discomfort throughout, and the fact that Beck Bennett’s narrator finally devolved into “bleep-bloop” noises at least provided a hint of the weirdness a ten-to-one sketch should have.
- Unlike fellow guest star Larry David, Alec Baldwin didn’t stick around for the goodnights. Good to be Lorne’s pal.
- The announced cutback in commercials wasn’t particularly noticeable tonight. Supposedly, there will be two fewer ad breaks per episode, making the structuring of the show that much more crucial. Something to watch for going forward.
- Che’s n-bomb is one thing, but the “Hunch Bunch” sketch features both a coming/cumming joke and the phrase “pussy-ass bitch.” It’ll be interesting to see what outcry, if any, there is to what seems like boundary-testing by SNL.
- Robbie’s best laugh came from the fact that she names a nonexistent starring role (in The Milliner’s Daughter) to see if people will clap anyway. They do.
- McKinnon’s very funny as the old Hollywood player who horrifies her younger colleagues with tales of matter-of-fact studio system mistreatment. Mandated uppers and downers, trading sex for roles, being forced into a sham marriage with a gay chimp (“we became the best of friends”), McKinnon has a knack for playing tough broads who maintain some dignity amidst comically horrifying indignity. Still, in a sketch about a New York Film Festival panel on gender inequality in the entertainment industry, having the whole thing be about how things aren’t so bad now doesn’t cut particularly deep.
- Robbie, as Keira Knightley, complains she’s only offered roles such as: “mother, girlfriend, beautiful mother, beautiful girlfriend.”
- And the detail that McKinnon’s Debette Goldry was only ever paid in brooches is outstanding.
- New guys Moffat and Day scored a big laugh as Trump sons Eric and Donald Jr, rising up creepily behind sister Ivanka during Family Feud and then sinking away out of sight again.
- Family Feud went on too long (a fact commented upon in-sketch by Larry David’s returning Bernie Sanders). Still, Beck Bennett’s sinister Vladimir Putin was spot-on, freaking out Kenan’s Steve Harvey. “I had a nightmare about you last night.” “I know.”
- Che: “The debate was like watching a divorced couple fight over a kid that hates them. It’s like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie if Brad Pitt only wanted to keep the white kids.”
- The “Melania Moments” (with Mrs. Trump musing disconnectedly about the life of normal humans) looks both like a quick plug-in for timing’s sake and an attempt to launch a new Deep Thoughts.