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‘Saturday Night Live’ Review: Oscar Winner Brie Larson’s First Hosting Gig Is Outshone By Outrageous Political Jabs

'Saturday Night Live' Review: Oscar Winner Brie Larson's First Hosting Gig Is Outshone By Outrageous Political Jabs

Finally. After months of dancing around the biggest story of the year — the absolutely bonkers nature of the current U.S. presidential election process — “Saturday Night Live” finally dug in and started adding some serious bite to their politically minded sketches, opening the show with a “Church Chat” surprise that featured Ted Cruz as the devil himself, winding up to a quiz show sketch that imagined Donald Trump’s possible presidency as a totalitarian disaster populated by pod people. It even branched out to other parties with a commercial that used a President Barbie as a vehicle to talk about Hillary Clinton (“She’s too stiff!”). The show has struggled this season to really add punch to these kind of sketches, and while it’s heartening to see the show getting a bit more pointed with its jabs, it may be too late.

One problem? The best sketches from last night were not politically motived in nature. Sure, seeing Taran Killam snarl it up as Devil Cruz in the midst of an unexpected new edition of “Church Chat” should be great, and anything involving Donald Trump should be a goldmine of giggles, but “SNL” has been unable to own the election as it has in years past, and it’s going to take more than one set of devil horns and one clever commercial about the viability of both a President Barbie and a President Clinton to get back on track. (And, in can’t-help-it drum-banging fashion: Don’t forget that mere months ago “SNL” played home to the same guy they’ve now got cast members issuing modified Nazi salutes, too, a misstep in the hosting calendar that’s still hard to shake.)

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

At least the show benefitted from the natural charm of first-time host (and newly minted Oscar winner) Brie Larson, who took on the utility player role in her inaugural outing. A consistently sweet and funny presence in every sketch she appeared in — her pre-recorded Kickstarter plea with Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett was a highlight, as was her uncanny take on Lesley Gore during one of the night’s best offerings — and she even managed to keep her cool while most of the cast crumbled in the face of one of Kate McKinnon’s best new characters. Larson did a good job in a good show, but perhaps her next turn as host (and we hope there is one soon, she’s a busy lady) can come at a time when it won’t be sacrificed to the show’s attempts to gain a better political foothold. 

The Two Best Sketches: “Near Death Experience” and “Hologram Album”

Looks like Kate McKinnon has another new character to add to her already-full ranks. We previously met her ill-fated and disaster-prone Ms. Rafferty during the Ryan Gosling-hosted show back in December (when she cracked up just about everyone on stage, though no one as much as their newbie host, who looked like he was going to pass out from choked back laughter at any second), and while she was a standout then, few people expected to see her again. Turns out, Ms. Rafferty’s issue isn’t just that she gets the short end of the stick when it comes to alien abductions, but any unexpected near-death experience. 

As Larson and Cecily Strong wax poetic about their experiences being ushered to Heaven by personal angels, McKinnon breathes vivid, raunchy life into how things went down with her. Accompanied by a lower-tier angel named Keith and culminating in a shocking display of “Donald Duck-ing it,” Ms. Rafferty’s story is a narrative delight with lots of delightfully horrifying wordplay and McKinnon holding steady while everyone struggles to hold it together around her (check out Aidy Bryant, who routinely seems to close her eyes and take a breather, lest she fold).

Similar to sketches like their take on the “Star Wars” auditions or “Michael Buble’s Christmas Duets,” “Hologram Album” (or, perhaps more appropriately, “Dead Bopz”) is mostly an excuse for the cast to trot out impersonations in the kind of setting that demands them, but while “Hologram Album” boasts a number of amusing impressions (again, Larson’s Lesley Gore is a winner, and Jay Pharoah’s Tupac Shakur is always welcome), it also digs into two timely narratives. The initial joke — holograms of your favorite singers of the past are here to entertain you! — is something already being put into practice at various venues (hello, Tupac Hologram, yes, that happened). It’s strange enough to warrant a gag or two, but it’s pushed forward by another trend that pop culture can’t seem to shake: Imagining performers of yesteryear singing and swaying their way to contemporary jams.

Case in point: Eartha Kitt doing “Bitch Better Have My Money.” You know you’d listen.

The Worst Sketch: “Quiz Whiz 2018”

Despite a solid turn from Larson as Ted Cruz’s wife Heidi (both unnerving and kind of sweet!), the central joke — that no one, absolutely no one, can remember Ted Cruz two years from now — doesn’t really stick, and it’s apparently only used as a vehicle to ding Donald Trump (in the world of the sketch, now the president) as a totalitarian leader, complete with salutes, which really doesn’t stick. If you’re going to do a Trump sketch, do a Trump sketch.

Best Male Performer: Beck Bennett

Based on hairstyle alone, Bennett almost takes this one outright, but between something like his squeaky-voiced wannabe rocker in “Kickstarter” and his smoothly malfunctioning Bing Crosby in “Hologram Album,” Bennett showed off his versatility with total ease last night.

Honorable Mention: Taran Killam

Best Female Performer: Kate McKinnon

Once more for the cheap seats: KATE MCKINNON IS THE STAR OF “SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.”

Honorable Mention: Vanessa Bayer

Sketch Most Likely to Go Viral: “Church Lady Cold Open”

Here’s a recipe for a viral “SNL” sketch that everyone will be talking about the next morning: Take one part unexpected cameo, add two parts beloved classic sketch, add a dash of timely humor, blend with some pointed digs at a hated character, generously fold in impersonations from other cast members, blend, blend some more, add devil horns and an unmistakable political opinion, serve. Not so satisfying, though, huh?

Best Impression: Pete Davidson as Jon Snow

In the grand pantheon of sketches that kind of had to be done, just to stay on top of things culturally, this was a fine enough entry with lots of fine bits, though none more amusing than Pete Davidson’s dumbstruck Jon Snow. Fortunately, he’ll get the chance to show it off again (because Jon Snow isn’t dead, you heard that right, hello?).

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

Character Most Likely to Become a Franchise: Kate McKinnon’s Ms. Rafferty in “Near Death Experience”

What else can possibly happen to Ms. Rafferty next? She’s been abducted by aliens and subjected to what sounds like a really bad death-by-water scenario, what more horrors can the world hold for her? For our sake, let’s hope lots and lots!

Colin Jost Tie-Watch: Still Wearing It

It’s pretty hard for Jost’s tie to get any traction in the face of Pete Davidson’s popping bright sweatshirt (he got it from wardrobe!), but damn if it’s not trying. Your time is almost over, trusting tie. Rest soon. Soon.

Grade: B-

“Saturday Night Live” returns on May 14 with host and musical guest Drake. 

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