Decry the scheduling brains at “Saturday Night Live” all you want (and I’ve done that enough in the past two weeks to last a lifetime), but give credit where it’s due: The same people that put Donald Trump on stage last week for the whiplash-enducing dichotomy of “huge ratings” and “utter critical disdain” also lined up Elizabeth Banks for the following week, a palate cleanser if there ever was one, a universally enjoyed figure and one hell of a comedic actress.
In short, Trump was bad, but thank goodness someone had the foresight to bring in Banks to bat clean-up the following week.
Much like this season’s Amy Schumer-led episode, Banks as host worked because she slipped with such ease into the rest of the cast, effectively aping a regular cast member while still finding time to shine on her own. Banks’ presence was heavy throughout the show, lending it a girl power flavor (this is, after all, one of the driving forces behind the creation of the “Pitch Perfect” film franchise) which also counter-acted the kind of nonsense Trump himself often spews about the female sex. Trump may have been gone from the stage, but his specter will likely haunt Studio 8H for a long time to come.
But it wasn’t just Trump that Banks and company had to contend with – there was also the question of how the show would deal with the Paris tragedies that unfolding just a day before they were set to take the stage. “SNL” has covered tragedy before – the series’ first post-9/11 show is an absolute gold standard for how to handle this sort of delicate subject – but what would that do this time? As they did with scheduling Banks, they did the right thing.
The Two Best Sketches: “Uber for Jen” and “High School Theatre Show With Elizabeth Banks”
Last night’s show wisely stuck to familiar sketches and characters: A reminder of the good stuff the series is capable of putting out. Also, over the past few years, one of the very best things they’ve done is give a platform to the weirdo charms of Mike O’Brien. O’Brien has moved around in the lineup quite a bit, going from writer to writer/performer to occasional contributor of his own short films, and while his fans would surely love to see him much more, when we do it’s a fine reminder that there’s no one else quite like him. In O’Brien’s latest short film, he’s cast as a glassy-eyed Uber driver (maybe?) who ferries a charmingly game Banks around on the strangest ride of her life. As with all O’Brien joints (think “Monster Pals” or “Grow-a-Guy”), the short is both totally bizarre and oddly emotionally rich. No one pulls off a great last shot like O’Brien, and the final joke is a teensy one with big rewards.
This is the third installment of “High School Theatre Show” to appear on “SNL” over three seasons and, despite its repetitive formula, it continues to be one of the best recurring sketches the current crop of stars has offered up yet. Most importantly, it’s rooted in undeniable truths: Teenagers are awful, high school theater is horrifying and even the best of intentions can go hideously awry. The key to any good “High School Theatre Show” – past sketches have starred Reese Witherspoon and Cameron Diaz – is to open with a banger of a punchline, one that will endear old fans to what’s to come and instantly telegraph to newbies what’s going on here. Taran Killam’s plaintive cry of “THE EARTH” did just that, setting up this showcase for another entry for the ages.
The Worst Sketch: “Young Ben Carson”
In a night of solid sketches, even something as DOA as “Young Ben Carson” still held a kernel of hope. It’s a good idea! And Jay Pharoah is weirdly great as young Ben Carson! But this whole thing falls flat on its face and never gets back up. Despite having a seemingly golden base from which to work – having Ben Carson make deranged claims that are then backed up with on-screen notes about when Carson actually said them is chilling to the bone – the sketch never got an appropriate rhythm going. Perhaps it’s because Pharoah’s Carson, purposely mealy-mouthed and slow to talk, makes for a great impression but not for great comedy played against others. Still, this one might be in need of a rejiggering and a revisit later in the season.
Best Male Performer: Mike O’Brien
Beautiful Mike O’Brien Too Good For This World, Too Pure.
Honorable Mention: Kyle Mooney
Best Female Performer: Elizabeth Banks
At some point during Banks’ high-energy, high-concept monologue – perhaps when she screamed for “MORE STAR WIPES”? – it became clear that we were in for, if not a great show, at least a very, very good one. Banks came out absolutely swinging, able to poke fun at both herself and the kind of pageantry that goes into the creation of a show like “SNL” (and, really, the kind of pageantry that goes into the creation of any kind of massive entertainment production), and clearly having a great time while doing it. Banks is comfortable on the stage and the screen, and that’s something that translates to everyone else – cast, audience – pushing them to be comfortable, too. Relax a bit and, you know what, it’s much easier to laugh it up. Banks made that clear from the get-go, and even when the show stumbled on unformed bits (“Young Ben Carson,” “So Ghetto”), she stayed present and committed to the joke. You can’t ask for more.
Honorable Mention: Vanessa Bayer
Sketch Most Likely to Go Viral: “SNL Paris Opening”
Yesterday evening, my mom texted me, “How is SNL going to be funny at all tonight?” I didn’t know the answer at the time, but here it is. In the face of tragedy, “SNL” can still be funny. In fact, it’s imperative that “SNL” still be funny, but that can’t happen without acknowledgement and respect. Instead of putting together some splashy thing or pushing through a comedic cold open to get to some sort of monologue message or even – and thank goodness this didn’t happen – waiting to address the Paris tragedy during “Weekend Update,” “SNL” made its heart plain from the first moment of the show. Cecily Strong – who, hey, is fluent in French? – delivered a short, meaningful, emotion-laden message that set the tone in an essential way, while still making room for “SNL” to do what it needs to do: Deliver joy.
Best Impression: Jay Pharoah as Ben Carson
Pharoah wins this nearly by default, as last night’s episode eschewed impressions in favor of more original sketches, but while the Carson sketch wasn’t very good, Pharoah weirdly nailed the very weird presidential candidate in his portrayal of him. Any chance we can get more of this “SNL”? Or did we all forget that Pharoah is a skilled impressionist when he’s allowed to be? (Insert Kanye scream.)
Character Most Likely to Become a Franchise: Every Member of Infinity + 5
The female half of the current roster at “SNL” has made no bones about their adoration of clever music videos and catchy pop songs kitted out with hilarious lyrics, but they’ve so far refused to adopt an actual group name. From “(Do It On My) Twin Bed” to last week’s “Bad Girls,” most of the musical offerings come to us ostensibly from the actual ladies performing them – Lil Baby Aidy, anyone? – but now the all-girl pop group Infinity + 5 may offer an offshoot of that success, this time, as an actual brand. It’s like the Backstreet Boys if they were horny, but reflective, grown women.
“Saturday Night Live” returns November 21 with host Matthew McConaughey and musical guest Adele.