“Saturday Night Live” 41: Space Pants, Alien Encounters and Other Highlights (and Lowlights)

Ariana.jpg

Assigning a value judgment like “good” or “great” or “best ever” or “worst in five years” to a season of Saturday Night Live is inevitably a fool’s errand. Each season is best understood through the lens of key sketches, breakout moments and overall trends. Below, I’ve listed a few of each from this post-anniversary season of America’s most astonishingly resilient TV show.

And while you’re in an SNL mood, check out my Indiewire investigation into the show’s record of diversity in its hosting choices.

Most Surprisingly Excellent Host

Some of this season’s standout hosts were no-brainers. I predicted Amy Schumer would host an episode months before the season started, and to the surprise of no one, she fit into the gig like a glove. Tracy Morgan’s return to Studio 8H following his near-fatal car accident was notable both because it was great to see Morgan in such healthy spirits and because his performance was outstanding. The pairing of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, while not as earthshattering as their Golden Globes stint, yielded predictably strong returns.

But sometimes SNL pulls a neat trick: You scratch your head when it announces an upcoming host and then eat your words when you see the episode in question. I scoffed at the prospect of Ariana Grande pulling double duty on the March 12 episode — until I watched it. Grande came out swinging with a charming musical monologue, proved a capable utility sketch player, wowed the crowd with a series of pop star impressions and even got through her vocally demanding musical performances without missing a note. Granted, Grande got her start on Broadway and in TV shows for kids, so she brought some chops I should have seen coming. But for whatever reason, I didn’t see this coming: Top to bottom, Grande’s episode was among the season’s strongest.

Best New Cast Member

“This is easy!” you think to yourself, dear reader. SNL only added one new cast member this season: New Jersey native Jon Rudnitsky, 26. He wins this award in a walk!

Rudnitsky.jpg

Not so fast.Can you name one memorable thing Rudnitsky did all season? I watched and scrutinized every episode, and I’ve come up with a total of three things:

  • Delivered a subpar impression of Anderson Cooper in a debate sketch last fall.
  • Introduced an unexpected musical element to his lone Weekend Update feature of the season, performing the bit he auditioned with: a solo rendition of the famous romantic dance sequence from Dirty Dancing.
  • Missed his cue for the “Space Pants” sketch during the Peter Dinklage episode, leaving Bobby Moynihan, Kenan Thompson and Pete Davidson scrambling to fill the dead air.

Those…are not the accomplishments of a breakout talent on SNL, especially in comparison to season 40 newbies Pete Davidson and Leslie Jones, both of whom made vivid impressions right out of the gate. I don’t blame Rudnitsky for faltering — getting airtime on SNL is a tough task, especially when you’re the only new face in a crowd of relative cast veterans. But there’s no doubt this was not an encouraging run.

And yet! An unofficial cast member this season outshined Rudnitsky in every respect. Larry David made cameo appearances in five episodes and hosted one of his own. He burst onto the scene with a spot-on Bernie Sanders impression, then subtly found his way into other corners of the show — shouting “Trump’s a racist!” and inadvertently earning a cash prize in a bit during the presumptive GOP nominee’s ill-advised episode (more on that later); flubbing his introduction of Grande’s first musical performance; even donning a hairpiece for last night’s musical finale. Given that David’s only prior history of the show was serving as a fledgling writer during one season in the 80s, only to quit upon failing to consistently get his sketches on the air, his out-of-nowhere comeback was one of the great unexpected narratives of SNL season 41. The cantankerous comedy titan frequently stuck to the crotchety persona for which he’s rightly lauded, but he earns this award for occasionally penetrating that persona: giggling through rehearsals for the delightful “Kevin Roberts” sketch; performing a vigorous tango as Sanders opposite Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton last night; graciously sticking around after each cold open appearance for the rest of each show. Midway through the season, I was rooting for the show to name David a full-time cast member or at least an at-large member. Though I don’t think it will happen, I’m still rooting for it.

Biggest Disappointment

Dying is easy, comedy is hard, they say. But for SNL this season, comedy came easy. It was politics that proved an insurmountable obstacle. Taran Killam’s much-heralded Donald Trump impression lasted only three appearances before he was replaced — for reasons that remain unclear — by former cast member Darrell Hammond. The unprecedented wackiness of the primary election cycle gave SNL no leverage to mine comedy from the proceedings, leaving the show largely to perform slightly exaggerated imitations of actual events rather than digging deep to expose a unique perspective or fresh angle. Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton gained technical precision throughout the season, but the show’s writing staff seemed to run out of steam on new ways to imagine the character’s inner life.

Those are forgivable, if disappointing, missteps and challenges. But the biggest mistake of all was the decision to hire Donald Trump as host of the November 7 episode. On paper, maybe it made some sense: Trump hosted once before in 2004, and his appearance brought high ratings and the highest concentration of media buzz for any SNL-related occurrence all season. But in practice, it’s an understatement to say the show did itself no favors by showcasing the polarizing reality-star-turned-politician in the midst of his stunningly successful campaign. Trump’s delivery was wooden, his timing lackadaisical and his affect off-putting throughout the episode. Much of the cast seemed disgusted by his presence on set, and the bottom-of-the-barrel sketch material suggests the writers felt the same way.

Trump.jpg

Worse still, the stench from Trump’s visit lingered for much of the fall, as Weekend Update hosts Colin Jost and Michael Che couldn’t get much traction from calling out Trump’s hateful attitudes and reprehensible positions given that they’re part of a show that implicitly endorsed his existence with a hosting gig just weeks earlier. Watching the show gradually awaken to the potential horrors of a Trump presidency was all the more disheartening with the knowledge that people involved with the show ignored the evidence of those potential horrors when hiring him in November. Hammond’s Trump impression never transcended the ickiness of the show’s prior relationship with the host, and it remains to be seen if things will change for the better in the run of Season 42 episodes leading up to the presidential election.

Most Valuable Cast Member

Kenan Thompson has been quietly winning this award for the last few seasons, holding the greener cast members together with the comforting wisdom of his decade-plus in the cast. (Rumor has it he’s considered leaving the show at various points this season, but nothing in the finale suggested he’s ready to exit.) Colin Jost and Michael Che finally clicked into place as a Weekend Update team, after a season of floundering. Kate McKinnon is the closest thing to a Kristen Wiig-like force of nature, carrying sketches on her back through sheer force of will and bracing comic energy. Leslie Jones quickly established herself as a fresh voice within a few brief appearances on Weekend Update, but she had slightly less to do this year. Don’t cry for her, though — she’ll make a big splash this summer as one of the four new Ghostbusters, alongside McKinnon, Wiig and Melissa McCarthy.

For my money, Vanessa Bayer was the year’s most consistently strong SNL player. Whether she was anchoring a creepy Super Bowl-themed taped piece, starring opposite Ryan Gosling in a surprisingly intense Santa short, plunging into new depths of bright-eyed profanity with her fantastic Weekend Update character Laura Parsons or performing a Jennifer Aniston impression so killer it returned a few weeks later in a political cold open also featuring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Larry David, Bayer was reliably superb. Whatever her post-SNL career, and whenever it commences, she can point to her performance this year as a substantial highlight reel.

Most Surprisingly Bad Episode

Any SNL fan with a modicum of foresight saw the Trump disaster coming from miles away. Russell Crowe, a talented dramatic actor with few comedic credits, didn’t inspire much enthusiasm before he hosted, and his one-dimensional performance did nothing to boost his comedy bona fides. Miley Cyrus was so thoroughly overexposed in the weeks leading up to her stint hosting the season premiere that her episode was an anticipated miss in a season with plenty of hits.

No one could have predicted what turned out to be the worst non-Trump episode of season 41: the Jonah Hill-Future show on March 5. Hill hosted three times previously, seemed to get along well with cast and crew, and did an amiable enough job that he was asked back twice. But the fourth episode hosted by the two-time Oscar winner was a goner from the monologue, in which Hill performed the Drake verse of “Jumpman” alongside Future in brutally unfunny fashion, and it only went downhill, with nonsensical sketch concepts and halfhearted delivery. Hill is only one episode away from entering the elite Five-Timers Club. For our sake, let’s hope he does a little more to earn that prestigious title on his next trip.

Best Break

The last of the three words in the show’s title is by far the most critical to understanding its appeal. This category wouldn’t exist if the show were primarily taped ahead of time. Lorne Michaels famously discourages any deviation from the established script, but the high-wire nature of many SNL sketches occasionally lends itself to spontaneous outbursts of laughter.

Breaks sometimes have a distancing effect on the viewer, serving as a reminder of the sketch’s artificiality, as other traditional instances of breaking the fourth wall tend to do. But once in a while, a cast member breaking amplifies the comedic power of a sketch. It happened twice this season. First, Kate McKinnon cracked up Cecily Strong, Aidy Bryant, Bobby Moynihan and especially host Ryan Gosling with her disaffected description of her unusual alien encounter.

That sketch proved so successful that another version of it, with the same characters and a similar premise, appeared a few months later, and had a similar kryptonian effect on Bryant and Moynihan’s performances.

The other key instance of a break came during the finale, when the normally stoic Vanessa Bayer burst into tears of joy at the sight of Fred Armisen’s Regine gesticulating across a couch and into a plate of guacamole. Viewers develop relationships with the show’s cast members over time — to see Bayer laugh is to be reminded not only of her fallibility but of her impressive non-breaking hot streak up to that point. In both cases, these breaks heightened the absurdity of the characters inciting laughter rather than puncturing the illusion.

Best Musical Performance

Music is an afterthought in most of the online commentary about SNL, but the show remains eerily prescient when choosing performers on the verge of breaking big on the national stage. Chance the Rapper made history by being the first and only independent artist ever to perform on the show, and he made the most of his unprecedented opportunity, delivering exuberant renditions of “Somewhere in Paradise” and “Sunday Candy.” Then he returned four months later to deliver the standout moment during Kanye West’s first live spin of his awe-inspiring gospel epic “Ultralight Beam.” All of that excellence happened before Chance wowed music lovers nationwide with his mixtape Coloring Book, available now exclusively on Apple Music and soon on other streaming services. It’s safe to say his SNL appearances, while not the only factor that account for his rapid rise, marked a significant step in his journey to mainstream superstardom and critical acclaim.

Honorable mentions go to Demi Lovato, who demonstrated her recently expanded vocal range with a powerhouse vocal on “Stone Cold”; Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band because, you know, “BRUUUUUUUCE!”; and Margo Price, a diminutive but commanding traditional country crooner who was among the season’s most obscure featured performers.

Dishonorable mentions go to Cyrus, who performed two of the most bewildering tracks from her album-length collaboration with the Flaming Lips; Drake, whose tentative “One Dance” couldn’t live up to his charismatic comedic performance elsewhere that night; and Nick Jonas, who could not figure out where to put his hands during “Champagne Problems.”

Most Dispiriting Media Narrative

The dominant cultural conversation around SNL this season was around its failure to produce withering satirical indictments of the many crimes of this whirlwind presidential election. And it’s not an unfair criticism to make. But to argue that a season of SNL lives or dies on the quality of its political satire is to ignore the show’s inherent variety. The show welcomes and encourages a multitude of comedic approaches to make its points and, more fundamentally, to generate laughs. None of my favorite sketches of this season were political. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t plenty to recommend — quite the contrary. Here are six randomly sketches I loved:

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s