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‘Saturday Night Live’ Review: Even the Return of Julia Louis-Dreyfus Can’t Push the Show to New Highs

'Saturday Night Live' Review: Even the Return of Julia Louis-Dreyfus Can't Push the Show to New Highs

There’s been a story circulating all week from a New York Times interview that former “Saturday Night Live” star and bonafide comedic treasure Julia Louis-Dreyfus was not too fond of the sexism that ran rampant during her stint on the show in the ’80s. Both Louis-Dreyfus and “SNL” have changed since then, and the star’s return to Studio 8H (her third crack at hosting since leaving the cast) seemed like the perfect time to do something really different and splashy and new, an excellent opportunity to show off just how far they’ve come.

But while things may have changed since Louis-Dreyfus’ cast member days (this episode was filled with a number of sketches that showed off the cast’s stellar female talents and their impressive ranges), not much has changed during what has become a surprisingly uneven season of the sketch comedy series. The show is still struggling to do political humor (again the show opts to open with a debate segment, and even its cut-for-time political sketch is still just another commercial for a candidate) and its sense of timing and flow feel strangely out of sync, stymied by sketches that run too long and then right into each other.

READ MORE: ‘Saturday Night Live’ Review: Russell Crowe Hosts a Show That Finds Fun Only in Pre-Recorded Material

With about three more episodes to go before “SNL” breaks for the summer, fatigue seems high and ideas seem increasingly shallow. When “SNL” returns in the fall, we’ll be nearing the blessed end of our protracted presidential election cycle, and hopefully the show will come back with a fresh outlook on how to crack the biggest thing in the news and culture in a unique way. Until then, let’s hold out for a few more highlights and the last gasps of Season 41.

The Two Best Sketches: “God Is a Boob Man” and “New Mercedes”

Despite a lack of bite and originality when it comes to most political and political-leaning issues this season, “SNL” has occasionally unleashed its teeth on big issues, including a commercial earlier in the season that tackled gun control with verve and an actual point of view. Something similar is at play with “God Is a Boob Man,” dressed up as a trailer for a movie about a baker who refuses to make a cake for a gay couple. The commercial gleefully pokes holes into a number of arguments that, taken out of context, are truly, deliriously out of touch. Vanessa Bayer never cracks (and, yes, that this is another pre-recorded bit that surpasses the rest of the live show is curious) and delivers her lines with a plain-faced determination that’s both very funny and totally terrifying. 

Earlier in the show, Louis-Dreyfus got to unleash her own searingly deadpan chops during a commercial for an environmentally conscious Mercedes that was almost too real. Filled with batteries (actual batteries, like double A batteries) and gussied up with Louis-Dreyfus’ “Veep”-style commitment to selling stupidity, it was a solid sketch build on a funny idea, a formula that should be the baseline for every “SNL” offering.

The Worst Sketch: “Huge Jewelry”

How is this not just Cecily Strong and Vanessa Bayer’s “Porn Stars” commercials reworked just a smidge, with less emphasis on mispronouncing things and a bigger interest in the product at hand?

Best Male Performer: Beck Bennett

Beck Bennett can make even laying in a field, high on drugs, while tiny soccer-playing children run around you look totally hilarious.

Honorable Mention: Taran Killam

Best Female Performer: Kate McKinnon

McKinnon was everywhere last night, from opening the show as Hillary Clinton to matching dead-eyed wits with Louis-Dreyfus as a horny alien needing to save her species by boning dudes at a singles event (related: Why wasn’t this sketch funnier? The idea alone is gold). Even though not all of her sketches landed (hi, “Huge Jewelry”), no one else got to show off quite as much range as McKinnon did last night. And why not? She is the star of show, after all.

Honorable Mention: Vanessa Bayer

Sketch Most Likely to Go Viral: “Brooklyn Democratic Debate Cold Open”

On one hand, having Louis-Dreyfus appear in a political sketch that doesn’t capitalize on all the great work she does on the very funny “Veep” is probably punishable with jail time in some countries, but on the other, Elaine Benes! While we would have loved to see more of the “Seinfeld” family show up for this wacky mash-up of the Larry David-verse (Jerry? Where are you? Jerry!), getting David and Louis-Dreyfus together to open the show is good enough, at least to set the internet on fire for a certain subset of “Seinfeld” fans. And, hey, if this is canon, looks like Elaine and the gang really did make it out of jail after all.

Best Impression: Kenan Thompson as Charles Barkley and Jay Pharoah as Shaquille O’Neal

Both Thompson and Pharoah are very skilled at a wide range of impressions, and putting them together for this old chestnut all but guarantees a quality product. It’s one of the show’s most reliable pairings and sketches, and it couldn’t have been more welcome on a night in need of some actual direction and drive.

Character Most Likely to Become a Franchise: Aidy Bryant as Animal Annie

In short, we need more Aidy Bryant in our lives. Bryant excels at using her sweet face and charming demeanor as a vehicle for some surprisingly twisted humor. Although Animal Annie is a bit predictable – she’s so sweet, but man, is her life screwed up – Bryant’s delivery sells it, and with a few more appearances, Annie could become a new signature character for Bryant’s repertoire. 

Colin Jost Tie-Watch: Still Wearing It

Have you ever noticed that Michael Che’s tie (which is new each week) is also really, really nice?

Grade: C+

“Saturday Night Live” returns on May 7 with host Brie Larson and musical guest Alicia Keys. Subscribe to Indiewire’s TV Newsletter to stay up to date on the full season. 

READ MORE: ‘Saturday Night Live’ Review: First-Time Host Peter Dinklage Continues Season’s Streak of Strong Debuts

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