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‘Saturday Night Live’ Review: James Franco Plays Himself, and Plays It Safe, in 4th Hosting Appearance

The "Disaster Artist" director and star had a lot of fun in Studio 8H this week.

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 1733 -- Pictured: Host James Franco during a promo in 30 Rockefeller Plaza -- (Photo by: Rosalind O'Connor/NBC)

Rosalind O'Connor/NBC

There’s still one more week to go before “Saturday Night Live” breaks for the holidays, but the show is still ramping up the yuletide cheer. In addition, like other “SNL” episodes with an experienced host at the helm, the tone this week felt more driven by their skill set than that of first-timers. And when it comes to this week’s host… well, it’s a very specific sort of tone.

Host: James Franco

Let’s be honest: James Franco is always at his best when he’s committing to a clear sort of character. It’s something we’re seeing right now with his performance as Tommy Wiseau in “The Disaster Artist,” and something we’ve seen before as he embodied known figures like James Dean or the dual roles of “The Deuce.”

In his fourth hosting appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” the role that Franco seems most comfortable playing is James Franco, star and director of “The Disaster Artist” (a project that gets mentioned more than once, along with its awards season buzz). And those moments are honestly his strongest, as other sketches seem mostly driven by a one-joke idea.

Franco’s favored concepts, as seen in his monologue and elsewhere, attack his fame and his reputation, but never in a super-damaging way. Instead, it was a very light, unchallenging episode overall — a disappointment for anyone expecting big swings, but featuring some fun character work along the way.

Best Sketch of The Night: “Visit With Santa Cold Open”

It’s fun to see real kids on screen for a surprisingly hard look at how tough this holiday season is when explaining the ongoing news cycle to the under-18 set. That said, what kind of Christmas-plosion is going to happen next week, given how the first two December episodes of “SNL” both played a lot into holiday cheer? Maybe it’s hard to think outside the holidays when you work at 30 Rockefeller Center, outside that giant Christmas tree? We get it.

Honorable Mention: “Spelling Bee”

This sketch represents a great deal of strong character stuff, while also making use of the ensemble (it’s always nice to see Pete Davison get a role that leans into his talents).

Worst Sketch of The Night: “Sexual Harassment Charlie”

This is a sketch where it’s really hard to understand exactly what the pitch was, beyond “some kinds of sexual harassment are okay, depending on who does it.” And sure, some comments are different from other comments in the workplace, but arguing over degrees of sexual harassment feels tonally off at this moment. Especially when you consider that “it’s just Charlie” is basically exactly the same as “that’s just Harvey being Harvey” — the sort of phrase that excused Harvey Weinstein’s behavior for decades. The twist of this sketch doesn’t really fix anything; in fact, it may make it worse.

Best Female Performer: Cecily Strong

This credit goes largely towards her work in “Christmas Charity,” though her commitment to the Weekend Update character of Cathy Ann, as always, is worth admiring. Strong’s complete commitment to the heartfelt tone of “Christmas Charity” invokes memories of equally artful sketches like her recent Melania work, with the added bonus of her riffing on that twist.

Honorable Mention: Kate McKinnon held her own in a number of prominent roles, proving her place as basically the primary female star of the series. Even when playing characters like Franco’s gift wrapping assistant, she makes the most out of supporting parts.

Best Male Performer: Chris Redd

Even when playing a minor role in certain sketches, first season player Chris Redd has become a notable addition to the cast, bringing his own unique energy to each character. Redd’s primary talent, as showcased so far, is his quiet reactions and deadpan reads. Hopefully, when he gets more to do on screen, we’ll see his full potential explode.

Honorable Mention: Dave Franco during the Reunion sketch was a lovely surprise and a welcome reminder that the younger Franco has become a charismatic performer in his own right.

Best Special Effects in a Sketch: “Gift Wrap”

However you might feel about watching James Franco spew blood across the Studio 8H set for five minutes, the execution is really impressive, especially for a live bit. The make-up and props departments — really, everyone involved with executing the stunt — should take a bow.

Best Impression: Michael Che as “Gretchen”

Didn’t love Michael Che making fun of his white female critics as “Gretchen,” but the sketch’s most important twist — him never using whiteface makeup to sink into the character — as well as his overall commitment to the idea was fun.

Grade: B-

As mentioned, this was an episode that really didn’t take too many chances, but did feature a lot of strong character-and-premise-oriented sketches, which felt relatively fresh in comparison to episodes that favor parody-driven bits. There was a level of wackiness this week that has been missing in weeks past; not much was said for an hour and a half on Saturday night, but those involved seemed to have fun.

“Saturday Night Live” returns next week with Kevin Hart and the Foo Fighters.

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