Taran Killam, Ariana Grande (NBC)

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [pop/former child] star!”

I’ll admit it—the announcement that Ariana Grande was pulling double duty as host and musical guest tonight did not fill me with a double dose of enthusiasm or optimism. Drake did fine. Justin Timberlake made a second career of it. And if the 22-year-old Grande didn’t make me clamor for more, she was certainly a competent, game, and show-biz-polished presence. (Apart from one supposedly accidental “Oh shit” when she flubbed a line in her—what else—musical monologue. Lorne would like to see you in his office, Ms. Grande.) Of course, it helped that the show was constructed almost entirely around things that she could do well. In addition to the monologue (where she sang about what shape her first grown-up scandal will be), there was some light crooning in the mermaid sketch, a ten-to-one Sound Of Music number (although the adult cast did most of the singing), a music video with the female cast members, and a reprise of the Bruno Mars sketch where her intern has to sing all the online live streams of singers in her range like Shakira, Celine Dion, Rihanna, Britney Spears, and Whitney Houston. Throw in an appearance in the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards sketch and the episode bordered on too-innocuous at times, but Grande certainly carried off her dual chores for the night better than expected. Credit where it’s due.

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Weekend Update update

Update’s been the high point for a lot of episodes this season, and was the high point tonight, with Che and Jost confident and loose, and a pair of correspondents who kept the energy rolling. With the usual caveats in place—this election season is teeing up so many seemingly unmissable softballs that Update should be whacking political comedy into the Studio 8H cheap seats—the anchors were great tonight. I like Che and Jost together more each week, and here they bounced off each other perfectly, joshing and landing some solid lines. Jost’s best: “Trump is turning into that guy who says that every single one of his ex-girlfriends is crazy. Dude, it’s you.” Che had a great run on the recent protests and violence at Trump rallies, opting out of going himself to “some goofy Nazi prom” and saying, of that little old lady caught giving an enthusiastic Nazi salute in a Trump t-shirt, “Can we just talk about how adorable this little old racist lady is? She shouldn’t be at a rally, she should be home teaching her parrot the n-word.” Plus, his bit baiting the audience about Women’s History Month was delivered with great timing. (“Let me just remind you… to finish baking that cake.”)

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While I thought last week was the last we needed of Cecily Strong’s Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started A Conversation With At A Party (apologies to colleague LaToya Ferguson, who disagrees), Strong turned tonight’s Drunkest Contestant On The Bachelor into a wire-to-wire delight. You can’t make me watch The Bachelor, so I have no idea about verisimilitude here, but Strong’s characterization was, well, strong as hell—it’s not everyone who can play drunk, and Strong was entirely present throughout as she alternately hit on, reprimanded, then hit on Colin Jost. (Jost’s “If Leslie Jones hears about this, we’re both dead” was a fine bit of acting on his part, too.) Strong’s just a good actress, her body language was outstanding, and her sign-off line nailed the character’s sad fate perfectly: “I’ll be on TV again because I’m a wide-awake nightmare.”

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And then there’s Riblet. I suppose some people don’t like Riblet just as I’m over Strong’s Girl You Wish, etc. But those people are wrong—Bobby Moynihan’s performance as Michael Che’s boastful, resentful high school friend is a hilarious creation that Moynihan destroys every time. Here as usual, he scolds Che for his supposed superiority about his job (sorry, “jorb”), taking over the desk to deliver a few Update jokes with accent-less aplomb. The idea that he’s getting help from the booth is a hilarious new wrinkle that Che sells with very funny incredulity (“How do you know Don?,” “Why are you helping him?), and the wrap-up, with Riblet throwing to a second remote Riblet to deliver the concluding “Che’s momma” burn extended the bit further. Viva, Riblet.

Best/worst sketch of the night

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“This Is Not A Feminist Song” may not be a feminist song, but it is part of this cast’s best tradition, here seeing all the female cast members and Grande begin a stirring, inspirational music video celebrating the power of sisterhood, only to realize pretty quickly that they’re not up the task. These all-woman musical numbers have been one of the most consistently great bits in recent years, and this one, while no, “Back Home Ballers” is still very funny (and catchy). Everyone does a fine job acting out their sheepishness while the song goes on, and, if the gang doesn’t make the towering feminist statement they were going for, their solidarity as a bunch of talented goofballs with great comic chemistry has a power all its own.

The mermaid sketch coasted to a solid second place on the slimy back of Kate McKinnon’s creation, a sea creature who, she confesses to aghast sailor Beck Bennett, is working with “about 35 per cent woman, 65 per cent blobfish,” unlike the fetching creatures who rescued his shipmates. As the repellant facts about the blob-maid’s anatomy kept rolling out, Bennett’s reactions were on the obvious side, but McKinnon—always so great at finding the matter-of-fact humanity in such broad characters, kept landing line after line with her delivery. The way she kept referring to the horrified sailor with an unoffended, “man” just sold it. (And take a bow, person who came up with the name “Shud.”)

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

The Tidal sketch, with Grande singing all those parts, used to be a Pandora sketch when Bruno Mars did it—time flies, but at least it gave Jay Pharoah a chance to break out his Jay Z (the Tidal head was doing sort of an Undercover Boss thing). Mars did it better—Grande’s got a lovely voice, but Mars is a better showman—but Grande put her all into the impressions. Mostly, she sounded like Ariana Grande singing songs by other people rather than the other people themselves, but it was the sort of squeaky-clean showcase that was right up her alley. (See: requisite “Oh, I’m not a fan of Ariana Grande joke,” wait for polite laughter.)

And we’ll always have Riblet.

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

The cold open’s become not only a guaranteed debate/campaign spot, but often a too-brisk tour of the various remaining candidates. Tonight, we got Ben Carson endorsing Trump and Bernie Sanders being Bernie Sanders, both of which had their moments but weren’t served well by the superficial structure. Still, SNL continues to go after Trump, which might be unavoidable at this point, but there were some harsh lines here, with Darrell Hammond’s Trump telling off his supporters for attacking Carson with “Guys, what did I say—not this one!” and “This is one of the good ones.” SNL is just embracing the “Trump is a goddamned racist” take on the Republican frontrunner now (see Update for more proof), which is, again, unavoidable. But, like the Bernie bit, it’s not digging much deeper. As for Bernie, the idea that Larry David is apparently happy to play this Sanders thing out as long as it tickles him to do so is endearing, even if his Bernie is merging more with his own persona the more he does it. (This time, David even throws in a reference to the Seinfeld with Kramer’s bottle redemption scheme when talking about Sanders’ victory in Michigan.) It’s fun—the cutback where Sanders is already in his jammies made me laugh—but there’s, again, not a lot of meat on the bones.

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Speaking of Bernie, the Hillary Clinton commercial with Clinton, desperate to appeal to Sanders’ coveted millennials, gradually morphing into Sanders was cute stuff. Kate McKinnon is game for anything, and her transformation saw her doing her thing while scoring points against the Democratic frontrunner’s perceived willingness to change herself for political gain (“I’m whoever you want me to be and I approve this message.”) Plus, the Bernie-Hillary envies Sanders’ ability to grumpily wave off things he doesn’t want to talk about.

I am hip to the musics of today

Larry David messed up introducing the 22-year-old Grande for her first musical number—and then just bailed. (He’s Larry David. Eh, what are you gonna do? He got it right the second time.) And while I’m not quite as dismissive of the former child star—spending three-quarters of her life in show business has left her with a more than competent singing voice—her carefully crafted pop isn’t really in my wheelhouse. However, if they ever do a movie with flashbacks to a high school age Salma Hayek, Grande’s the obvious choice (although, in the Tidal sketch, she corrects the impression that she’s Latina, explaining her ethnicity as “very, very Italian.”)

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

The Family Feud sketch, as ever, is a hit-or-miss affair of good-to-abysmal quick-hit celebrity impressions. (Anchored to reliable effect by Kenan Thompson’s affably goofy Steve Harvey.) On the miss side, Kyle Mooney’s Woody Allen wasn’t the worst of the lot, but since it was Mooney’s only role of the night and since it was so mediocre, he gets the bottom slot for this one. (On the good side: Grande’s Jennifer Lawrence was surprisingly solid, Jay Pharoah got to break out his Idris Elba, Kate McKinnon’s Tilda Swinton is always weird and wonderful, and Beck Bennett threw himself into his Javier Bardem with likable enthusiasm. The directors, not so much, with Taran Killam getting a lot of time to show off a lousy Quentin Tarantino and Bobby Moynihan’s Kevin Smith visually impressive and vocally not even trying. If that was, indeed, Jon Rudnitsky under the Martin Scorsese makeup, he was fine.)

In a show that bordered on bland, no one jumped out and took over, but SNL is Kate McKinnon’s show to lose these days, so her Hillary and Shud keep her on top of the heap for another week.

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

The Sound Of Music sketch suffered from the fact that Grande’s not much of an actress (and some slack pacing), but the idea that her Maria has finally had it up to here with that whole “How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria” song provided a few funny lines, the best of which being Maria’s mocking, “So you guys just made up that four-part harmony with light choreography on the spot?” Plus, give it up for another musical triumph for most of the female cast tonight—Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon, especially gave their singing nuns some oomph. Kind of ordinary for the Ten-To-Oneland spot, but, on an inoffensively pleasant SNL, at least the joke that “will-o-the-wisp” functions as a group of Austrian nuns’ “n-word” was weird enough.

Stray observations

  • “I’d like to apologize to everyone else for making your Facebook feeds so so annoying. I’m great but I’m not five-posts-a-day great.”
  • “I’ve got supporters of all ages—18-year-olds, 19-year-olds. That’s it.”
  • “Donald Trump’s got lots of black friends—Omarosa, Dennis Rodman.” “The list goes on.” “Mike Tyson.” “The list ends.”
  • Not that America needs more Ben Carson in this race, but if this marks the end of Jay Pharoah’s delightfully strange Carson on SNL, that’s a shame.
  • In an episode that made me laugh out loud a fair amount, my biggest one came in the monologue when Kenan, comforting fellow Nickelodeon nominee, admits that after 13 years on SNL, all anyone asks is if he and Kel still keep in touch. When Grande asks, “Do you still stay in touch? His furious “A little bit!” was just outstanding.
  • Che, on the old white guy who sucker-punched a black protester at a Trump rally: “This guy’s been dreaming about punching a black guy since the first time he heard jazz on the radio.”
  • Thompson’s Steve Harvey, on the “annoyingly relatable” Jennifer Lawrence: “You say you’re a regular person more than any regular person I know.”
  • McKinnon’s Tilda Swinton won a MAFTA, which is a BAFTA they give on the moon.
  • Note: It’s 4 a.m. (actually 3 a.m., but screw you, Daylight Savings Time) and there are still no videos or pics up at the NBC site. I’ll fill some in in the morning. Again, I know DST is at fault… somehow.

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