Talk about going out with a bang (or, more appropriately, a sprawling ’70s era folk band singing about summer in Arkansas). After a decidedly mixed season, filled with some high highs (Ariana Grande, “Space Pants!”) and some low lows (Donald Trump and the ensuing political fallout) and some straight up the middles (Chris Hemsworth’s return, Brie Larson’s first hosting gig), the forty-first season of “Saturday Night Live” closed out with one of its best episodes of the entire year, handily refuting any and all claims that “the show just isn’t funny anymore.”
Bolstered by the hosting abilities of former cast member Fred Armisen (and returning favorites like Maya Rudolph, Andy Samberg and Jason Sudeikis), the show was as swift and snappy and genuinely varied as it’s been in months. Sure, maybe everyone is happy to set off on whole months of vacation (who wouldn’t be?), but pre-summer excitement can’t wholly explain away a show so good that the latest edition of the always-wonderful “High School Theatre Show” didn’t even rank in our top two best sketches. That’s unprecedented stuff, and it speaks to the high marks set by the show early on.
Maybe everyone just saved their best work for last (though, that’s not really how the show works) or perhaps last-minute bouts of creative passion fueled a selection of sketches that were gut-busting and original in all the right ways. We don’t really care exactly how it happened, but we’re glad it did, if only because the very best way to end a show that runs from October to May and includes 21 hour-and-a-half long shows of varying quality and impact is to make us eager for the next season. Thanks for the memories, Season 41, and see you soon.
The Two Best Sketches: “Farewell Mr. Bunting” and “New Girlfriend”
Despite the mixed quality of this season, there have been a number of truly terrific sketches that will endure long after the season wraps (if you’re taking this as a hint that we’re unveiling a best sketches list imminently, you’re right). “Farewell Mr. Bunting” will not only top that list, it will likely end up as one of the sketch comedy show’s all-timers. Soaking up the rarest luxury of all — that would be time on a tightly scripted show with a hard out — “Farewell Mr. Bunting” is almost all set-up, but richly imagined, weirdly compelling set-up. It’s “Dead Poets Society” with a twist, but we don’t actually know that twist for over two-and-a-half minutes of the three-and-a-half minute sketch. We know there’s going to be some punchline, but the sketch takes such meticulous time with it that, when it hits (and, boy, does it hit), there is no better response than abject screaming and the hard-won sense that we really had no idea what was coming here.
The Worst Sketch: “Hillary & Bernie Cold Open”
Best Male Performer: Fred Armisen
“SNL” alums – especially recent-ish departures like Armisen – often provide the best hosting experience, thanks to a strong combination of skill and comfort and just plain old muscle memory. Armisen unquestionably knows what he’s doing when it’s time to light the lights and put on a show, but last night’s hosting gig showed off why he’s still one of the best: He didn’t, not for one moment, rest on his laurels or old-school affection. He just did it. He performed. He turned it on. That kind of work doesn’t just make a single performer shine, it makes the entire cast rise to the occasion. Armisen was great, and that greatness made everyone else around him want to be that much better. That’s how you end a season.
Honorable mention: Kyle Mooney
Best Female Performer: Aidy Bryant
Bryant was all over last night’s episode, charmingly cracking up during “New Girlfriend,” continuing to dominate “High School Theatre Show” and somehow holding it together during the wild weirdness of “Expedition.” Bryant is the brightest young female star on “SNL,” and seeing a season close out with her front and center hints at nothing but good things for the coming years.
Honorable mention: Kate McKinnon
Sketch Most Likely to Go Viral: “SNL Digital Short: Finest Girl”
The evening was packed with appearances by beloved previous cast members, including a banger of a “Weekend Update” performance by Maya Rudolph and Jason Sudeikis somehow holding it together during “New Girlfriend,” so it’s only right that Andy Samberg pop up in his natural habitat: The imminently shareable digital short. Samberg and the rest of The Lonely Island boys will soon release their latest big-screen outing, “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping,” a project they cleverly shilled with a fresh music video featuring one of the soundtrack’s most, um, memorable offerings. Yes, it’s a song about a girl (the “finest” one, of course), but it’s also about…Osama bin Laden?
Best Impression: Larry David as Bernie Sanders
No, the sketch wasn’t that good, but David’s Sanders continues to be a thing of insane beauty.
Character Most Likely to Become a Franchise: Mr. Bunting?
The guy has to get another job somewhere, right? Most of last night’s episode’s standout characters were returning creations, like Armisen’s Regine and even the “Funny Freddy” that popped up in his monologue (he’s done a different version of this one-man show before, with equally stellar results). If Mr. Bunting comes back, it’s only because we want to re-create the magic of this first sketch, which is probably impossible. Still, we can dream.
Colin Jost Tie-Watch: Still Wearing It
Good night, sweet prince.
“Saturday Night Live” returns for its forty-second season next fall.
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