There are two surefire ways to know if you’re watching a Miley Cyrus-hosted “Saturday Night Live” (beyond, of course, the basic fact of her presence, which isn’t its own reliable barometer, as the millennial songstress tends to show up on occasion, hosting duties or not): 1) Miley Cyrus is present and talking a lot about how much she enjoys doing drugs, 2) the show is heavy on pre-recorded material and features an extended “Weekend Update” that generously dips into special guest territory (notably, not featuring Cyrus herself).
Last night’s season premiere of “SNL” was indubitably a Miley Cyrus-hosted “SNL,” for better or worse. The 41st season opener is hardly the glitziest episode the series has lined up – the coming weeks will features hosting turns by Tracy Morgan and Amy Schumer – but there’s something to be said for starting things off relatively slowly (and, boy, was this a slow start). Despite a slim selection of sketches and an overall lack of energy, there were a few highlights that hint at an interesting season to come (and a wise underutilization of Cyrus when it comes to sketches – she really is at her best when cast in supporting roles or tasked with filling out a large group – was a welcome way to wiggle around the host’s lack of comedic timing). Thank goodness for the election (well, relatively speaking).
The Two Best Sketches: “Abilify for Candidates” and “The Squad”
The presidential election may still be over a year away, but “SNL” is already doubling down on its politically-leaning offerings, including a special guest appearance from Hillary Clinton herself, the reemergence of Kate McKinnon’s always-evolving impression of the former Secretary of State and a brand-new version of Donald Trump from Taran Killam. Still, it’s hard to beat the charms of a well-done “SNL” commercial, and “Abilify for Candidates” marries the classic format with some trademark bite. The joke is an easy one – who the hell are these so-called candidates who actually seem to think they’ve got a place in the race – but it’s beefed up with some commercial magic, imagining a product that can be prescribed to these big dreamers in order to end their White House-inspired dementia. Bonus: Killam breaking out a glassy-eyed Rick Santorum impression just minutes after debuting his Trump.
Despite the age of the episode’s own host, a hearty fear of and disdain for Millennials was on full display in last night’s episode. Although the fake TV show “Millennials” cratered (something about social media?), a pre-recorded sketch that cast Aidy Bryant and Vanessa Bayer as the lone survivors of a Taylor Swift-created “The Walking Dead” situation was aces. “SNL” has taken on Swift before – or, more accurately, they’ve taken on the singer’s insanely dedicated fanbase and undeniable appeal before, with sketches like “Swifatmine” – but “The Squad” admirably captured a dirty dystopian vision in a new way, saving the Swift-reveal for its mid-way point. Expect a run on American flag beach towels at any minute.
The Worst Sketch: “50’s Dance”
Although the show hit a weirdly rocky point during its final minutes, as one sketch (featuring Leslie Jones as the world’s long-forgotten first female African-American late night host) tumbled into another (that imagined that Kyle Mooney was being forced to marry a genuinely appealing Cyrus), its real low point came early with “50’s Dance.” The sketch started out with some “Grease”-influenced promise, and even gave a somewhat sizable part to this season’s sole new performer – Jon Rudnitsky, who really pulls off the letterman jacket thing – before crashing into a Cyrus-sized black hole. As is rote and routine with a Cyrus-hosted show, the real joke here was the reveal that Cyrus is wild! And crazy! And likes drugs! There has to be another gag she can pull, right?
Best Male Performer: Taran Killam
In the post-Jason Sudeikis years, Taran Killam has stepped up as the show’s go-to male lead, pulling off high-profile impressions (like last night’s Donald Trump debut) and more low-key straight man bits in run-of-the-mill sketches (like “Millennials”) with ease. Killam’s Trump isn’t his greatest work, but it smacks of his reliable talent and ability to infuse oddness into small things (his pronunciation of “great” and his Trump resting face are enough to give last night’s cold open a pass forever). Killam is the star of “SNL” right now (just as he was last year, too), but he hasn’t allowed his position at the top of the call sheet to bleed over into mediocrity and safe bets. Trump may not have long to last in the presidential race, but Killam deserves all the time in the world to make this impression really pop.
Honorable mention: Kyle Mooney.
Best Female Performer: Kate McKinnon
And here’s a prime example of an impression that’s been allowed to breathe, grow, change and evolve to consistently better results. Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton impression isn’t the best, but it is her own, and when it’s placed against the real deal, it’s suddenly clear just how good it really is. McKinnon has been working out the kinks on her Hil since last season, and that much time spent in the presidential hopeful’s (sensible) shoes (and even more sensible pantsuits) appears to have given her the moxie to (gently, but firmly) butt heads with the actual Clinton live on air. The set-up of “Hillary Clinton Bar Talk” isn’t exceptional, but the banter between the dueling Hillarys is already an all-timer, with McKinnon gently chiding Clinton for some of her more inexplicable political stances, including her one-time support of the Keystone pipeline and an initial reticence to support gay marriage. We’d love to see these two go at it each week, but McKinnon has enough star power on her own not to need the boost.
Honorable mention: Leslie Jones.
Sketch Most Likely to Go Viral: “Hillary Clinton Bar Talk”
If it’s not already clogging every social media channel you subscribe to, feel free to watch “Hillary Clinton Bar Talk” one more time. Then watch it again. Okay, one more time. Post to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google Plus. Look, you just made it viral.
Best Impression: Aidy Bryant as Kim Davis
It was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her bit during Cyrus’ otherwise inexplicable monologue (yeah, we get it, Miley, you’ve done it your way, with drugs and also an admittedly very cool sartorial spin on an old-timey bathing cap), but Aidy Bryant’s take on embattled Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis was a tiny burst of brilliance in a sea of amusing impressions. Although the gag here is that we’ll never think about these people ever again, Bryant put such gusto into a throwaway joke that we almost, almost want to see it again.
Character Most Likely to Become a Franchise: Kyle Mooney’s Pope Francis
Although we doubt that Mooney will ever have the occasion to trot out his party-hearty pope ever again, the character smacked so much of the comedian’s purposely awful stand-up character Bruce Chandling that we’re willing to propose a franchise dedicated to Mooney taking the Chandling approach to other luminaries of the day. Now that Mike O’Brien has left the show (although he promises to occasionally deliver more of his excellent short films for “SNL” consumption), Mooney is in a prime place to snatch up the Lovable Weirdo place in the cast, and his work as Pope Francis is simply the latest example of that. A bizarre blend of the pope, Chandling and maybe even smacks of Bill Hader’s beloved Stefon, there’s nothing about this Pope Francis that is recognizable…and that’s the joy of it.
Live” returns on October 10, with host Amy Schumer and musical guest The Weeknd.