The one-two punch of back-to-back hosting gigs by Ryan Gosling and Chris Hemsworth should serve as an excellent reminder of the possibilities that hosting “Saturday Night Live” can hold for even the most seemingly known and recognizable talents. Gosling’s debut last week was funny and silly and goofy and loose, a far cry from the actor’s somewhat-serious persona (has there been a more self-serious movie in recent popular memory than “Drive”? the answer is, “No, there has not, now take off that scorpion jacket, it’s been too long”) and a strong showing for the newly minted “SNL” host. He’ll likely be a smidge more polished next time — read: no more cracking — but he’s already charmed fans (and, it seems, the cast too) with his Jimmy Fallon-style giggle breaks. Add him to the roster of reliable new hosts.
Last season’s introduction of Marvel action star Chris Hemsworth was similarly revelatory, perhaps the most exciting debut of the entire season. Hemsworth has been funny before — “Thor” is, surprisingly, pretty amusing at points — but few people could have foreseen just how funny he was willing to get for the sketch comedy show. Every season, there’s a host that really just pops, one that fits right in with the cast, is game for anything and who emerges as a strong contender to join the hallowed Five-Timers Club. Last year, that host was Chris Hemsworth, so his sophomore outing has been one of the most anticipated shows of the season.
And it was fine. Perhaps that initial frisson of delight — “Chris Hemsworth is funny, you guys, he’s filming a love scene with a chicken and he just did an entire parody making fun of how good-looking he is!” — has worn off a bit. We knew to expect something great, and we got something good in return. Much of that can’t be blamed on Hemsworth, though, as the entire show was decidedly uneven, featuring an excellent first half that eventually devolved into a rangy second half rife with half-baked ideas that never got off the ground. The cast still seems to delight in Hemsworth, though, and if he comes back next season, perhaps they’ll have the kinks worked out.
Maybe we’ll even get a sequel to his chicken-loving “Spaceship” sequel (don’t tell me Captain Emily is dead, I have dreams).
The Two Best Sketches: “Star Wars Toy Commercial” and “Male Strippers”
“Or leave them in the box and never touch them!” It’s funny because it’s true. With a new “Star Wars” movie mere days from opening, fans of the series have spent the last couple of years gearing up to re-embrace their childhood obsession. Kids? Sure, I guess kids might also like a new movie, but this one is for the fans who have been there, well, probably too long. Does much of this strongly resemble things that happen in my own home with my own “Star Wars”-obsessed boyfriend? I can’t say, but I can tell you a thing or two about why it’s so hard to find original Leia dolls in good condition (it’s the hair, always the hair).
“Saturday Night Live’s” grand tradition of stripper gags — thinking of you, “Chippendales Auditions” — continues in this second-act sketch that handily served as the highlight of a messy final 40 minutes. The gag here is simple — that the dancers are more inclined to put on a show reminiscent of “Newsies” than of “Magic Mike XXL” — but everyone in the sketch gives it their full attention and care. Craftsmanship! If the repeated joke about hailing a cab — “Taxi!” — doesn’t become a new “SNL” catchphrase, well, that’s actually entirely understandable, but still, let’s make this thing trend.
The Worst Sketch: “Pirate Ship”
We’ve seen scarce little of this season’s sole new addition, Jon Rudnitsky, and how unfortunate that he got his meatiest role in a sketch that just didn’t go anywhere. There were uglier sketches last night — that new “Brother 2 Brother” didn’t do anyone any favors — and even offerings that seemed somehow more directionless — “Brunch” muddied its somewhat amusing idea with other touches that never coalesced — but “Pirate Ship” seemed like the show’s worst missed opportunity. This is a cast that loves to put on the razzle-dazzle and sing and dance, and while “Pirate Ship” offered that up, it was a mostly flat tune without much swing to it. If the biggest gag you’ve got involves someone going overboard, but not really going overboard!! ahhahaha!, you’re in troubled waters.
Best Male Performer: Chris Hemsworth
This sketch may have been cut from the full live show (thank goodness NBC often puts up similarly cut treats on their Hulu page, like little Easter eggs of what-may-have-been), but it exemplifies why Hemsworth is already such a good host: He just has fun. His good cheer, deep likablity and interest in doing whatever is required for a sketch shine through even in the silliest of material. He commits to the bit, and that’s something that both the cast and the audience recognize instantly.
Honorable Mention: Will Ferrell
Best Female Performer: Kate McKinnon
McKinnon had a trademark strong showing last night, thanks to two signature impressions (and, if we want to get deeper with it, we can also pretend that when she was talking to Hillary Clinton on the phone during the show’s monologue, she was actually talking to herself impersonating Clinton; just fall down the rabbit hole with me, okay?) and exceptional work even in sketches where she’s not the main event (her facial expressions in this sketch, while our runner-up Cecily Strong hams it up Broadway style, are proof of that). McKinnon is that rare combination of star and utility player, a talent that can be counted on do whatever is required and necessary given the material at hand. Don’t underestimate the value of that.
Honorable Mention: Cecily Strong
Sketch Most Likely to Go Viral: “George W. Bush Cold Open”
We’re not even in the election year yet, and “SNL” has already amped up its political material, classic cameos and new impersonations of major players, so it makes sense that Ferrell would come back on as G.W. Bush for a little dash of added fun. Oh, how we’ve missed those mispronunciations and self-satisfied facial expressions, and while we might have liked him to go a bit more ham on Jeb Bush, that “Broccoli!” joke will suffice. For now.
Best Impression: Kate McKinnon as Angela Merkel
McKinnon’s gifts as an impressionist are rooted in impression over impersonation, and she spends her time getting not into character, but the soul of her character. That’s a “Saturday Night Live” trademark, too, as some of the show’s most recognized and beloved celebrity impressions aren’t exactly accurate representations of the people they’re portraying (like Will Ferrell’s G.W. Bush or Dana Carvey as the elder Bush), instead opting to hone in on specific tics, expressions or even public perceptions to craft a new character. (Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin is about as close as the show has ever gotten to true impersonation, and that was kind of a lucky thing anyway.) Her Angela Merkel is charmingly weird and oddly disarming, punctuated by tiny jabs and moments of aching self-awareness (“Short N Boxy”).
Character Most Likely to Become a Franchise: Pete Polasky from “Time to Bleed”
Can we get a “Time to Bleed” and “Dyke & Fats” crossover the next time Hemsworth hosts? Because that would be just ideal.
Colin Jost Tie-Watch: Still Wearing It
Colin Jost has been wearing the same tie on “Weekend Update” for the entire season. The entire season. In this new section, we check in on the tie.
Current status: He’s still wearing the same tie.
“Saturday Night Live” returns December 19 with hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and musical guests Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band.