Bringing in an athlete as host is always a risky move. They’re usually only good at one thing — their chosen sport — and that one thing is a far cry from acting or comedy, let alone both. To make up for this handicap, the writers tend to lean heavily on sketches focusing on the subject their host is most comfortable with, or relegating them to the background for long stretches in order to minimize the weight of carrying an entire show.
To the “SNL” staff’s credit, neither of the latter points were problems with this week’s show, as Rousey utilized her MMA persona early on (in the opening monologue and briefly in a video short where she beat up a bully) before ditching it entirely. She was also involved in most of the sketches…even if she wasn’t all that effective. To be fair, she didn’t really do anything wrong. Rousey seemed to be on point with her dialogue and even established some decent comedic timing. But the material just wasn’t there, and no one in the weekly cast stepped up to help her out.
This week’s episode will be remembered for two things: Tina Fey reviving her Sarah Palin impersonation yet again and Selena Gomez. Fey gave Donald Trump impersonator Darrell Hammond a lesson in comedic timing, addictive energy and finding the x-factor in the character you’re mocking. Hammond has always looked the part, and, frankly, he’s probably the show’s best option to play Trump. But the veteran “SNL” performer has lost a step or two, as evidenced by his off-pace, low-key and ultimately bland counter to Fey’s piping hot Palin. Gomez, meanwhile…well. She was the only other flash of life all night.
The Two Best Sketches: “Bland Man” and “Teacher Trial”
Timing was a big issue on this week’s “SNL,” as the cast couldn’t quite get on the same page throughout most of the night. But they managed to find a rhythm for “Bland Man,” a sketch reliant on timing to sell the repetitious dialogue. (“Can I steal him for a sec?” “Mmm. I like this.”) Not everything worked about the “Bachelor” takedown — namely Gomez obviously reading off cue cards and a few flubbed lines — but the most righteously vicious moment was fine-tuned. When Sasheer Zamata sat down and explained she was “the black one,” Taran Killam bluntly retorted, “I’ll see you out.” Really, from the moment the sketch kicked off with “25 long-haired women,” “Bland Man” meticulously pointed out the stock characters and fake back-and-forths between the bland man and his many dates, all while the performers kept things moving along at the right clip.
While “Bland Man” had a nice peg in relation to “The Bachelor,” the night’s second-best sketch was a random delight. “Teacher Trial” put Pete Davidson on the stand as a student who was extremely proud of having sex with two of his teachers at once, even as his mother was suing for “emotional trauma.” Davidson made the most of his time, cleverly and carefully bouncing between serious, well-worded explanations of his actions and emotional breaks to sell the joke (that Vine video…). But the sketch was sold by one very well-put line: When asked, “Were you ostracized at school because of [having sex with two hot teachers],” Davidson responded, “I felt more like Forrest Gump when he was running across the country and people started following him because he represented hope.” My man.
The Worst Sketch: “The Super Crew”
Superhero fatigue isn’t just a factor at the box office. It’s a universal problem in that it’s all been done before. So if you’re going to do something with superheroes, it has to be very, very good. While, admittedly, the idea of utilizing Ronda Rousey’s badass fighting skills as a hero in tights is sound, the execution of this one-joke dud is shockingly misguided. Not only is the bulk of the sketch made up of the cast reading down a list of bad superhero powers (an oft-used and ultimately exhausted concept), but they even try to make a joke out of repeating one of the superheroes. And that’s just lazy.
Best Male Performer: Michael Che
Despite its own issues with diversity over the years, “SNL” had to take on #OscarsSoWhite in a week that saw so much go down on the hot-button issue. Sadly, only one of their two attacks really hit home. “Screen Guild Awards” is likely to be the crowd favorite considering how directly it calls out the Academy for only focusing on the white performers in films stacked with black talent, but overall it took the easiest route to a joke. Name-checking films like “Creed” and “Beasts of No Nation” certainly broadens laughs for those watching at home, but why not instead attack the industry at large or dig into the Academy’s historically shady politics? (The “Straight Outta Compton” gag was solid, though.)
Michael Che, meanwhile, found all the right words when he broached the subject on “Weekend Update.” After a few sharp jabs to the problem at large, Che took us down a specific side road related to Spike Lee’s non-boycott boycott that had me cackling. “There has to be nothing more infuriating to Spike Lee than nominating a movie called ‘Brooklyn’ with only white people in it.” Che paints a vivid and comical picture of Lee without diminishing his cause in the slightest, adding an extra layer to a conversation that easily becomes redundant.
Honorable Mention: Taran Killam, for his consistent monotone in “Bland Man”
Best Female Performer: Selena Gomez
In a week without much spark, Gomez provided a needed shot of adrenaline with two stylized musical performances and a couple of cameos sprinkled in throughout the show. Whether or not you like the songs she’s singing, it’s hard to dispute Gomez was one of the most watchable aspects of the show, snapping along with the beat in her first performance (“Same Old Love”) and rhythmically writhing around the bed in her second (“Hands To Myself”). She earned bonus points for laughing at herself afterward, falling backward into the black sheets in embarrassed glee (which helped make up for her obvious cue card reading in the faux-“Bachelor” sketch). Would she make a good host? Probably not. But she was an above average musical guest, and thus the standout of an off-week.
Honorable Mention: Vanessa Bayer, for her consistent cruelty in “Love Struck”
Sketch Most Likely to Go Viral: “At the Club”
Anything with Tina Fey impersonating Sarah Palin is going to be the viral highlight of its given week, but this simple, quick rap session should get a slight bump from girlfriends bonding over douchey guys and guys making fun of their vibe-killing friends. The digital short is far from a classic, but Pharoah and Killam’s dedication helped push this over the edge into the better half of “SNL’s” pre-recorded sketch history.
Best Impression: Tina Fey as Sarah Palin
A mandatory honor any time Fey appears as the former governor of Alaska, the ex-“SNL” star (currently starring in “Sisters” alongside Amy Poehler!) proved why she’s made Sarah Palin into an iconic character capable of repeat appearances from here to eternity. Fey always finds new nuances in the character, even if it’s just the way she says “here” or somehow manages to make another lengthy, nonsensical speech sound legitimate. Of course, Palin herself deserves credit for the latter, but Fey continues to capture the zsa zsa zsu, making the ex-VP candidate so much more than what we’ve seen in real life — and we’ve seen a lot. Hammond should take note, as his Trump is getting a little stale, and he’s got so much farther to go.
Character Most Likely to Become a Franchise: Kate McKinnon, Irish Loon
As I wrote in my notes, “KATE MCKINNON IN AN IRISH ACCENT FOREVER.”
Colin Jost Tie-Watch: Yup, Still Wearing It
If Jost does dry-clean his weekly uniform, he remembered to pick it up before the storm. Way to plan ahead, Jost.
“Saturday Night Live” returns on February 6 with host Larry David and musical guest The 1975.