What a long, strange, undeniably nightmarish trip 2016 has been. And “Saturday Night Live” knows it. Continuing in the tradition of excellent holiday episodes, last night, “SNL” brought the Christmas cheer and political heft we needed to remain optimistic about its future. Not our future, of course – we know better — but at least the future of “Saturday Night Live.” Guest stars abounded, but were never over-used; God herself sent Chance the Rapper down from heaven to periodically bless us throughout the night, and Update was legitimately funny. A biting, unapologetic episode, not unlike Chappelle’s from earlier this year. Finally.
Host: Casey Affleck
Casey Affleck: Batman’s brother, Oscar nominee, and probable creep. Why was he tapped to host the Christmas episode? Apart from an awards season push for “Manchester By The Sea,” he doesn’t know either. And that’s part of what made him great. Self-effacing, low-key, and deadpan, Affleck was almost frustratingly likable. Throughout the night, he came across as relaxed and cheerful, showing off some impressive comedic timing we’d forgotten was there. Affleck held his own against high-profile guest stars, and (mercifully) only did one Boston accent.
Best Sketch of The Night: Jingle Barack
“Jingle Barack,” a 2016 update of DMX’s “Christmas in Hollis,” is brilliant. It’s “SNL” at its smartest, silliest, most incisive, most fun — and most of all, at its truest. “Jingle Barack” is faithful to the original, with sets and costumes lovingly recreated for Kenan Thompson, Chance the Rapper, and Leslie Jones. The lyrical content is incredible: It’s an open appreciation for President Barack Obama, everything he’s done for the country, for black people, for women, and even our hearts. It’s the most blatantly anti-Trump “SNL” has been yet. (Mocking him with a Baldwin performance isn’t quite the same as writing an entire political song that’s destined to go viral.) So, this year, stuff your stockings with legal joints. Sprinkle a few packs of birth control pills under the tree. Hell, cozy up to Vice President Joe Biden. This might be the very last Christmas we’re still able to feel joy, and “SNL” wants to celebrate the audacity of dope.
Worst Sketch of The Night: Christmas Miracle
Okay, Kate McKinnon can make everything funny – except, maybe, for Ms. Rafferty. This is an odd character to bring back, particularly when she doesn’t get to be the standout weirdo in the sketch. If everyone plays the straight man, and we’re gifted one lunatic, it can end up working. Remember that insane sketch with “Tony,” Bill Hader’s Vietnam flashback puppet? That reliably went off the rails, but we were into it, because it took time to build and didn’t give Tony any competition. In “Christmas Miracle,” while Strong and Affleck are describing a wholly different experience from McKinnon’s, everyone’s character is a little too fully-drawn. The audience can appreciate Ms. Rafferty’s bizarre story details, but not much else.
Sketch Most Likely to Go Viral: Dunkin Donuts
Have you ever visited New England? Known a Red Sox fan? Pulled over at an East Coast Dunkin Donuts during a road trip? If you answered “yes” to just one of these, SNL’s lone commercial parody of the night will reach you. It takes on the classic “Real Customer!” approach to marketing and makes it as authentic as possible. Because we all know the real DD customer isn’t Joe Businessman; it’s a scraggly guy in a Bruins hat, trying to fight strangers while smoking a cigarette in the entryway. That’s the Dunkin Donuts experience. By the way, did you know the Afflecks were from Boston?
Best Impression: Beck Bennett
The latest news about Russia’s involvement with the 2016 Presidential election meant two things: The United States is screwed, and Bennett’s perma-shirtless Putin would return to grace the 8H stage. Crawling out of a chimney at Trump Tower like some Siberian daymare, Putin Claus congratulates Trump on “their” victory before getting to work. Oof. Bennett’s Putin impression is usually entertaining, but something about last night’s was particularly on the nose. Have his facial contortions improved? Was it the accent? Have I developed Stockholm syndrome for all things Russian? Who knows? Well, erm, Russia probably does.
Best Parody: Hillary Actually
Oh, this goddamn scene from 2003’s “Love, Actually.” Will it never die? This year, however, it’s not a secret admirer confessing his love for you at your door: It’s Hillary Rodham Clinton, with a message for any member of the Electoral College. “SNL” obsessives may remember that the show attempted a different version of this sketch two years ago – with Pete Davidson romancing Amy Adams – but chose to cut it at dress. By switching to a pre-taped version, they’ve ironed out the timing kinks. They’ve also made it better. Definitely a runner-up for most likely to go viral, and the welcome return of McKinnon’s Clinton.
Best Female Performer: Vanessa Bayer
McKinnon was louder, and Strong’s accents are better, but Bayer was — subtly — the best female performer of the night. Her super-naughty elf is always so out-there, it becomes funny; her outrageously dorky ‘80s white person from “Jingle Barack” was nearly a scene-stealer, and we’re always happy to see her reunite with Armisen to play Political Figure Of The Moment’s best pals from growing up.
Best Male Performer: Beck Bennett
Honestly, put Bennett with comedy partner Kyle Mooney in literally anything and they’ll be perfect together. They just work in sync, and had myriad opportunities to do so last night. Bennett made several more appearances, however, which makes him (once again) the night’s stand-out male performer. His physical comedy as an openly sexual robot was impressive, as was his sinister Russian accent (but complete inability to sound like he’s been anywhere near Brooklyn). Bennett has come a long way from Guy In Those AT&T Commercials, and we’ll be fortunate to have him at “SNL” for a while.
Finally. “Saturday Night Live” takes a break for the holidays, and returns with host Felicity Jones and musical guest Sturgill Simpson on January 14th, 2017. Until then, catch up on previous reviews here. Happy New Year!