Adam Driver, Kenan Thompson
Screenshot: Saturday Night Live

And Kanye West scoopity-poops all over the place.

“I’m not an actor, I’m an [actor, definitely an actor] star!”

Adam Driver is an odd choice to kick off Saturday Night Live’s 44th season, right? I love Driver as an actor, he’s undoubtedly bankable since that whole Star Wars thing seems to have caught on, and he is the sort of funny that makes one pay attention. Driver’s got presence, and an intensity that threatens to turn a comic premise into a showcase. And Driver got that showcase in at least in one sketch of this scattered and otherwise pretty ordinary premiere, storming through the career day sketch as one Abraham H. Parnassus. Absent for a solid half-hour from the live show prior to the bit, Driver came out covered in old man makeup and tore the place down, his aged oil baron embarrassing his slacker son (Pete Davidson) with Mr. Burns-esque tales of his exploits.

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SNL’s done variations on this bit any number of times, but Driver made the tepid premise boil over in performance, raging with restrained, old-timey menace as he regaled the kids with the long and horrible tale of how he bested his oil magnate nemesis H.R. Pickens. (“Who is H.R. Pickens?,” asks one rapt student. “Exactly!,” Parnassus snaps.) There’s even a little twist of an ending that punctuates the scene as expertly as Driver spears the dead crow he’s brought for emphasis.

Otherwise, it didn’t look like SNL knew exactly how to utilize the second-time host any better than his first outing. Only appearing in four live sketches other than the monologue (Adam Driver really doesn’t like small talk), Driver’s other chance to really shine was underplaying as a father desperate to learn how to play Fortnite to better bond with his son. Even there, his dad-incompetent amiability played second fiddle to some funny physical comedy from Mikey Day as the dad’s unfortunate video game avatar and the respectful but frustrated teens (Kyle Mooney, Pete Davidson) trying to talk him through how to stop walking backward and slamming into walls.

It’s not that Driver was a bad choice out of the gate, it’s that SNL booked a singular talent for its first episode and didn’t find a way to use him well, even with a summer to think about it.

Weekend Update update

Fresh off their serviceable hosting gig at the Emmys, Michael Che and Colin Jost (returning as SNL head writers alongside Kent Sublette) did their thing. Cheeky, snarky, just different enough from each other’s sensibility to provide some energizing push-pull. Considering how the Brett Kavanaugh cold open (see below) lived more in performance than anything else, the pair gave the subject of Kavanaugh’s widely discussed hearing plenty of attention. Taking shots at some of the underlying issues surrounding the hearing provided a fuller comic palette for the show to work with, which is a good thing, even if SNL’s treatment of the issue reveals a disconnect with how truly impactful it was. (Maybe a female head writer or two might remedy that. Just a thought.)

Jost opened by calling the hearing a case of “she said-he yelled,” which, okay, even if the red-faced spectacle Kavanaugh made of himself remains the least compelling (if easiest-to-parody) aspect of it. Joking about sexual assault isn’t easy, but joking around sexual assault while still choosing to address it makes for some dull, forgettable comedy. Still, Jost pointing out that “bragging about how much you like drinking and how strong you were at the time” edged up to the point nicely. And Che played the comic outrage card well in a couple of sharp jokes about the GOP just choosing another candidate “from your Illuminati lizard meetings,” and Republicans being “so pro-life they didn’t even have a plan B for this.”

On the correspondent front, Leslie Jones interrupted things as Serena Williams, equally angry about Serena’s confrontation with an umpire and the fact that she got in shape for the impression only to see it cut for not being timely any more. I see no reason to stop Kate McKinnon from doing her Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, here responding with signature octogenarian pugnaciousness to the Kavanaugh hearings. Gyrating after one of her patented “Ginsburns” (like offering performatively concerned GOP Senator Jeff Flake a pair of her panties to further cover his ass), and alternating between mocking Kavanaugh (his infamous college calendars represent “a portrait of the artist as a young d-bag”), and her own diminutive stature (her calendar includes “break glass ceiling” and “do 100 laps in a bird bath”), McKinnon’s Ginsburg is a reliable hoot.

Pete Davidson was all over the place tonight (including a filmed piece where a jealous Kyle Mooney attempts to ape Pete’s sudden popularity), thanks in part to his busy summer of getting engaged to Ariana Grande. Here, Davidson was his usual self-effacing self, saying he understands people’s confusion that the biggest pop star in the country would be with “that guy everyone thinks is in desperate need of more blood.” He joked about the fact that he’s received death threats (as informed by his doorman announcing, “Yo man, somebody tryin’ to kill you.”), and that nobody thinks their coming marriage will last. (“If we break up—we won’t—we will.”) Having recently taken on a more vocal role in defending his place of employment from famously grumpy old men, it’ll be interesting to see how Davidson’s former slacker persona continues to transform.

Best/worst sketch of the night

The cold open will get all the press, but I’ll take more actor- and character-driven sketches like Driver’s career day anytime.

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A few years ago, Lorne Michaels made a deal to cut down on commercials during SNL by making deals for some in-show product placement. Sometimes, it’s cleverly integrated and knowingly inoffensive. And there are other times when the blatancy of the enterprise makes enjoying a sketch next to impossible. The coffee shop sketch worked as much as it did thanks to Driver and Cecily Strong’s performances as a couple of newly married jerks who take the whole “we’ve switched your coffee for this other coffee” commercial setup about as badly as two people could. Driver’s blustering, malaprop-happy tough guy and Strong’s self-impressed status-seeker are a fine match, so affronted at the deception that they reveal some startlingly funny blind spots in their understanding of the world. Finding out that their coffee actually comes from a certain burger chain (who already got enough free advertisement on the show, thanks), saw Driver apparently assuming that means it’s made of “burger juice,” while Strong’s attempts to work up some anger-vomit were just right.

But, c’mon, Lorne. If you’re going to do this sort of thing, please find a more graceful way than having one of the characters in the sketch say admiringly, “I guess I’ll be going to [aforementioned fast food concern] more often!” And, hey, maybe drop the sponsor’s price point, logo, and slogan a few fewer times in a four-minute sketch. Just trying to help.

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

The Honorable RBG, career day. Not that I’d ever complain about SNL not running something into the ground, but it’s a little surprising they didn’t have Driver reprise Kylo Ren, considering how well that went last time he hosted.

“It was my understanding there would be no math”—Political comedy report

While it was confirmed last week that Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump will return in some capacity this season (Yay?), season 44 took advantage of the most recent farcical shitshow to emanate from the Trump administration (and Lorne Michaels’ celebrity “you owe me” list) to start the show with a cold open about the Brett Kavanaugh hearing. You know, the one where a potential Supreme Court justice who’s lied under oath multiple times, hinted that he’d excuse any Trump legal charges from that whole treason thing, and that he’d work to overturn Roe v. Wade and the Affordable Care Act was accused of sexual assault by several women. Yeah, that one. Anyway, after various cast members piled on the wigs (and in Kate McKinnon’s case, some truly outstanding Lindsey Graham jowls) as the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the under-wraps Kavanaugh casting turned out to be Matt Damon, which worked out quite well for all concerned.

Damon, sporting just a hint of gin blossoms and a mobile, sniffing rage-mask as Kavanaugh, brought the appropriate fratboy ire to the sketch’s version of the judge, whose recent testimony about his fitness for the highest court in the land saw him variously spitting conspiracy theories, partisan threats, mockery of a U.S. senator, outright lies about the nature of his youthful indiscretions, and tearful recollections of said youthful indiscretions. Damon was very good, inhabiting Kavanaugh’s borderline unhinged contempt at the proceedings and those who refuse to just give him a lifetime seat already. Don’t you know he went to Yale!? Picking up the already ridiculous details and putting them in the mouth of a fine comic actor like Damon is a solid strategy, and Damon made great use of Kavanaugh’s repeated shoutouts to his old drinking and lifting bros Squee, Donkey Dong Doug, Handsy Hank, Gang Bang Greg. (All names recalling pal Ben Affleck’s appearance in the old Sully and Denise sketch.) Aidy Bryant was the other star of the piece, channeling Rachel Mitchell, the hired gun “female prosecutor” (as she’s invariably referred to) the all-male GOP committee members brought in to shield them from being seen questioning Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who brought the accusation of sexual assault against Brett Kavanaugh. Enduring the Republicans’ slights (one calls her Miss Frizzle) and the fact that they keep interrupting her in order to hear themselves and Kavanaugh talk, Bryant’s Mitchell, seeing herself being shunted aside, can’t believe she flew Southwest just for this.

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I’d say Damon’s Kavanaugh is a more welcome presence than Baldwin’s Trump but for a couple of things. One, while we’re stuck with Donald Trump at least until Robert Mueller is dramatically revealed sitting in Trump’s Oval Office chair smoking a cigar in the dark, here’s hoping that Brett Kavanaugh slinks onto the trash heap of history after the current FBI investigation wraps up before next week’s SNL. (Host Awkwafina, musical guest Travis Scott.) More importantly, though, Saturday Night Live’s contentment to pick the easiest jokes on any subject is especially ill-suited to what, for a whole lot of people, was one of the most illuminating and wrenching events in recent memory. As Michael Che put it on tonight’s Update, a man credibly accused of multiple sexual assaults is on the brink of making decisions concerning the very people he makes feel unsafe. Add to that the fact that Republican (male) lawmakers attempted to rush through said candidate’s appointment after learning about the allegations against him, and that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony (and the Republicans’ vitriol about it) opened up wounds in literally millions of women all over the country who saw this whole process as a wrenchingly symbolic representation of their own experiences, and there’s a lot more to work with comedically. What we got was funny and well-observed—for what we got. Damon’s appearance and performance (which, again, was great) will get the headlines and, one assumes, inflame Donald Trump into a little Twitter tantrum or two.

But what we got was also dismayingly pedestrian, settling for impersonation, exaggeration, and stunt casting. (It was nice to see Rachel Dratch, popping up as Kavanaugh questioner Senator Amy Klobuchar.) I’d apologize for repeating myself if I weren’t talking about Saturday Night Live repeating itself: If SNL is going to choose to do political comedy and chooses to do it halfway, then that’s a choice. Like Baldwin’s Trump sketches, SNL seizes on a big moment but only shakes loose the easiest fruit. It’s not surprising, really, but it is still disappointing.

And since we’re talking about it.

The ten-to-one sketch addressed the fact that there are Nazis feeling emboldened by Donald Trump’s rise to march in the streets. Except, you know, not really. The sketch was a harmless little thing about a “neo-Confederate” meeting (complete with jarringly prominent Confederate flag and “alt-right” symbols) discovering that their ideal all-white communal living idea already exists in a faraway place called Vermont. Driver’s transplanted northerner keeps interrupting the leaders’ rant to explain that Vermont is really, really white, Aidy Bryant’s chipper racist mom books a nice B&B for their next retreat, and that’s the sketch. I suppose there’s some subtext in there about racists overlooking how white America’s hold on everything isn’t really slipping as much as Fox News would like them to believe, but that’s also, perhaps, me reading more into it than is there. There’s a little bite to Driver calming the suspicious racists down by explaining that he’s from Boston, but, again, if you’re going to raise a loaded issue, I’m going to judge you on what jokes you make from it, and this was some watery stuff. (By the way, Vermont’s only black female lawmaker recently resigned her office because of incessant racist abuse.) Just saying, if you’re going to take on a tough subject, then do something memorable with it. This sketch won’t be remembered next week.

The 80s frat party film circled around the Kavanaugh hearings, employing onscreen text to show how the partying guys and gals of a hard-drinking fraternity later pay (or don’t) for their youthful behavior. Here, too, however, there’s not much bite. A pair of coke-sniffing young women are revealed to work for Fox News and MSNBC, a guy later loses his medical license because of his debauchery, and there seems to have been a murder that no one admits to knowing anything about in the future. But, handsomely mounted as it is, the film elicits a shrug once the premise plays out without saying anything other than “college stuff comes back to haunt you sometimes.”

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I am hip to the musics of today

Kanye West. So . . .

Booked late in the game to replace Ariana Grande for reasons unaddressed in all the Pete-and-Ariana-related material tonight, Kanye—who announced earlier in the day via Twitter that he wishes to be known as Ye . . . although he was called Kanye West all night . . .

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Let’s start over.

The artist formerly and possibly currently known as Kanye West did three numbers. In the first, he and Lil Pump dressed as water bottles (Perrier and Fiji, respectively) suggesting nothing so much as Justin Timberlake’s Omeletteville sketch, and did an abrupt version of “I Love It,” during which Lil Pump appeared to do the very uncensored lyrics while Kanye smiled in apparent bliss. In the second, he and Teyana Taylor performed a song reportedly cut from Taylor’s latest album that was a whole lot more tuneful than “I Love It,” although one suspects Taylor’s censor-baiting see-through shirt and lip-sync troubles get more ink. For his third number, Kanye shooed everyone off the stage during the goodnights (after an extended vamping session from the band) to perform the funky “Ghost Town” alongside 070 Shake, Kid Cudi, and Ty Dolla $ign. Kanye wore his Donald Trump hat (pointing to it for emphasis at the lyric “I’m not gonna please everybody”), and eventually ordered the cast back up on the stage before the show (running long) cut off for the morning.

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So . . .

I may be the least qualified person at the A.V. Club to contextualize what Kanye West’s whole deal is (performance art? genuine instability? fame-induced galaxy brain?) at this point, but, from his recent comments about slavery, his preferred SNL host, and the men he chose to team up with on his newest album, there’s a lot going on here. Musically, the three pieces tonight were all over the place, while, from a spectacle standpoint, they were riveting in an “I need to watch this because it’s all anyone is going to talk about tomorrow even if I’m exhausted by thinking about Kanye West” way. For context, our friends at The Root have some thoughts.

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

Following the traditional SNL playbook, Mikey Day, Alex Moffat, and Melissa Villaseñor were deemed to have put in enough time to get promoted to the main cast, while Heidi Gardner and Chris Redd stay on the featured player JV squad. The one new addition this season is Ego Nwodim, who—also true to standard SNL dues-paying rituals—was relegated to mostly non-speaking roles her first time out.

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As busy as Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney were tonight, it’s the formidable trio of Kate McKinnon, Aidy Bryant, and Cecily Strong who put in the most character work.

(And Luke Null, we hardly knew ye. But we’ll always have that one decent sketch you got—that never got on their air.)

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

Vermont Nazis. Yawn.

Stray observations

  • For a solid introduction to new featured player, UCB vet, and podcast fixture Ego Nwodim, this episode of Paul F. Tompkins’ Spontaneanation shows off Nwodim’s improv skills.
  • The biggest laugh in the Kavanaugh sketch was the running gag of the Alyssa Milano cardboard cutout stealthily appearing behind people.
  • “I don’t know the meaning of the word stop!” got a few gasps.
  • According to an interrupted aside in Driver’s monologue, Ewoks exist in Traverse City, Michigan.
  • The Kyle Mooney short film was funny (I love that all in-house cast member disputes are settled in ritual combat). But what happened to the Kyle-Leslie love story? I need this.
  • “Hey . . . hey . . . hey . . .”—Michael Che introducing the story about Bill Cosby going to prison.
  • And we’re back! Season 44, people. I’m Dennis and I’ll be your reviewer. Let’s do this.

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