Anyone who looked at the “Saturday Night Live” March calendar a few weeks ago and formed some opinions as to how the month’s two offerings — a show starring returning host Jonah Hill and one featuring pop singer as both host and musical act — would play out probably had the same general idea: Hill would be great in his fourth time as host, and Grande would be trotted out only when the show absolutely required someone to sing something both funny and well. What a surprise then that Hill’s episode ended up being one of the worst of the entire season, with Hill unable (or unwilling) to bring out his signature “SNL” character in order to puff up an otherwise dismal show, and that Grande managed to turn in a fizzy, fun showing that capitalized on her strengths (singing) and introduced non-fans to her other talents (impersonations, laughing at herself).
But Grande also played with expectations a bit, opening up her monologue with a song (expected) that poked fun at her desire to have a “real adult scandal” to rocket her career to the next level; a wish seemingly purposely met by her uttering an “oh, shit” about halfway through. Oopsie! (And, also, we get it, and good on ya, Ariana.)
Later, Grande showed off her canny impression chops, both song and acted out, and led the cast’s female stars in yet another gut-busting music video marked by high production value and a catchy hook. Sure, Grande’s first crack at hosting played up her singing ability at every possible chance, but it also saw her gamely stepping into a high percentage of sketches and charmingly laughing when Larry David fumbled (and then unfumbled) her name while announcing her musical interludes. Guess we’re all Grande fans now.
The Two Best Sketches: “Kids Choice Awards” and “Mermaids”
Grande displayed an ease with laughing at herself early on (remember, a song about needing an adult scandal?), and the show’s first live sketch post-monologue took that to logical extremes, framed up around an “orange carpet pre-show” for Nickelodeon’s Kids Choice Awards, an event Grande has appeared on ad nauseum in the past. Vanessa Bayer and Taran Killam are perfectly cast as hyperactive hosts whose energy wanes into hysteria as the show goes on, with Grande playing a ditzy backstage reporter with something approaching actual restraint. The gag here is a good one — countdown misunderstandings and mishaps and whip the beleaguered on-camera crew into an absolute frenzy over the course of just a couple of minutes — and the three-man cast plays it to the hilt. When that damn countdown clock starts blinking “12:00,” just try to hold back your laughter.
Although the episode was punctuated with plenty of solid sketch offerings that hinged on Grande’s impressive impression (had to) abilities, the repetition and reliance on them did ultimately wear. In a sea of similar sketches, the off-kilter “Mermaids” stuck out because it took some risks and dared to be absolutely bizarre and even a little bit unsettling. You can practically hear the original pitch rolling off the screen — “a mermaid, but she’s half-blobfish” — but, man, does the cast milk it. As our unlikely mer-hero, Kate McKinnon is both unrecognizable in some pretty impressive makeup and wholly herself while in character. Beck Bennett looks like he’s about to cry the entire time, while everyone else is playing it 100 percent straight. Points for creativity, and a big boost for those horrible flipper hands.
The Worst Sketch: “Tidal”
If you’ve ever seen Grande appear as a guest on a late night talk show, you’re likely aware of her trademark impressions of other singers, from Britney Spears to Whitney Houston, which she often trots out as a bit of a parlor trick (but a damn fine one). There was little question that “SNL” would have to find a place for them in the show, and while shoving them inside a Tidal sketch probably sounded like a good way to kill two birds with one stone, the whole thing never quite clicked. As a vehicle to show off Grande’s chops, it works, but as its own sketch, it’s a flop. Directionless to the very end, the final gag involves yet another cast member unveiling a signature impression (Jay Pharoah’s incredible take on Jay-Z), but it’s not enough to make a necessary idea become a good one.
Best Male Performer: Michael Che
Face it: At some point this season, Colin Jost and Michael Che’s “Weekend Update” finally started working, with Jost clicking into his nerd persona and Che managing to make his eye-rolling anti-newscaster feel not just natural, but also necessary. These two are finally starting to play off each other in a satisfying way, and a recent uptick in more timely political news has seemingly reinvigorated the both of them. Che has been particularly strong over the past few weeks, and his already hilarious talking-head news-delivery was pushed over the top by an appearance by Bobby Moynihan’s Riblet St. James, a character that just totally does not work and somehow totally does, allowing Che to interact with a real live wire while huffing and puffing his way through the entire interaction. How good was it? Good enough for Che to steal the entire show — at least as it applies to the dudes.
Honorable mention: Larry David, who is just a regular member of the cast now
Best Female Performer: Ariana Grande
Sure, it’s easy to forget that Grande comes from an acting background — the same silly, fun background that fellow former Nick kid Kenan Thompson also matriculated from — but good luck forgetting that after this showing. Again, Grande’s strengths, of course, lay in her singing, but she’s also an aces mimic and a very strong impersonator. The key? Good nature. Even her turn as Jennifer Lawrence on “Celebrity Family Feud” was both daringly revelatory and totally without malice. Impersonating someone is easy when you turn it into a cutting jab, but Grande managed to embody Lawrence’s “everygirl” persona without actually making fun of the Oscar winner. That’s not easy.
Honorable mention: Kate McKinnon
Sketch Most Likely to Go Viral:
Best Impression: Ariana Grande as Jennifer Lawrence in “Celebrity Family Feud”
She’s just like us, guys. She likes snacks.
Character Most Likely to Become a Franchise: The Drunkest Contestant on “The Bachelor”
Essentially a new spin on her classic Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party character, Strong crams about 20 different classic “Bachelor” turns of phrase into one two-minute banger. If you’ve seen even one episode of the reality (sure) dating show, Strong’s work proves itself to be entirely relatable, but we’re guessing she might have more to mine as this season wraps up and inevitably segues into one of those horrifying “Bachelor Nation” seasons.
Colin Jost Tie-Watch: Still Wearing It
Did you even notice that the still we used to illustrate our point was taken from a show that took place weeks ago? How could you, because he’s still wearing his same tie. You do you, Jost. We’re looking forward to checking out your sartorial choices come Season 42.
“Saturday Night Live” returns on April 2 with host Peter Dinklage and musical guest Gwen Stefani.