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‘Saturday Night Live’ Review: Sam Rockwell Leads ‘SNL’ Into The New Year With a Great Episode

The Golden Globe-winning host used his new stature to showcase his underappreciated talents in a number of sketches.

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- "Sam Rockwell" Episode 1735 -- Pictured: Host Sam Rockwell during a promo in 30 Rockefeller Plaza -- (Photo by: Rosalind O'Connor/NBC)

Rosalind O'Connor/NBC

Saturday Night Live’ is back for 2018, and after a few much-needed weeks off, it looks like it’s got a renewed sense of focus. Though that could just be the Sam Rockwell talking.

Host: Sam Rockwell

Well, Sam Rockwell finally gave us something in his opening monologue that we were all deprived in his Golden Globe win: dancing. (Luckily, the Golden Globes win gave us his acknowledgment of how much he loves Leslie Bibb, so he didn’t need to try to sneak that in here. Though, it’s still not okay he didn’t dance at the Golden Globes.) The singing didn’t really need to happen — at all — but at least it all led to ninja fighting, old Hollywood “SNL” ladies, and Colin Jost getting “kicked” through a door. Oh, and the Rockwell splits. This number just couldn’t have ended without that old classic.

Despite his proclamation that he’s now a leading man, this episode is all about showing off his character actor versatility, disappearance so much into his roles — well, as much as one can disappear into a ‘Saturday Night Live’ role — that he even drops an f-bomb in his first actual sketch.

The “Science Show” sketch is essential a combination of Mr. Wizard and Bill Nye, if everything went wrong for them, and Rockwell’s palpable frustration in the sketch is a solid way to start the episode. Though it’s not just Rockwell’s performance here that works; Cecily Strong and Mikey Day are just so mind-numbingly stupid here that you kinda have to laugh in spite of yourself, especially with the “Back To The Future” bit especially — which is why it makes sense that it ends on that as well.

In “ATM,” Rockwell’s character learns more of a lesson about racism than his character in “3 Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” but that’s thankfully not all the pre-taped sketch is about. Chris Redd is impressive when it comes to how he plays these over-the-top “hard” characters, and Kenan’s switch from mystical black man to terrified “brother” (the way he says it to Redd is wonderfully nebbish) makes the set-up for this sketch work. As does the final beat — with the reveal that Kate McKinnon’s character is a prostitute — as it also plays off Rockwell’s general ability to go from playing normal to weirdo (at the very least) in zero to 60.

Here, the obvious joke is that Rockwell’s seemingly homophobic dad character recognizes the boyfriend because he watches gay porn… and the sketch makes sure to immediately accept that obviousness, as the actual joke is the way he reacts to the realization of who the boyfriend is. It’s very much unexpected for him to react both with relief and excitement over the realization. And it’s even more unexpected for him to suddenly go into a monologue about it. “Anyhoo, I’m getting a divorce.” is just a beautiful line to end the speech on. (The follow-up “And I’m probably stepping down as pastor.” is fine, but it’s not the better line.)

Best Sketch of The Night: TUCCI GANG

There are few things sweeter than a true appreciation of Stanley Tucci. And you know it’s true appreciation when you bring up: 1. the cookbook, 2. his relation-through-marriage to Emily Blunt, and 3. the fact that he really should have been the one to play Dr. Strange. Kind of like “Papyrus” in this season’s Ryan Gosling episode, it’s a very specific bit, but for those in the bubble — and that’s not just people who know him as “that guy” — it kills. Honestly, if every episode for the rest of this season had a music video dedicated to a different character actor, it would probably always kill. Fingers crossed for M. Emmet Walsh sometime soon.

Also, bonus points for Lil Pump — as Pete Davidson has apparently upgraded from playing a faux Lil Pump — putting an end to Sam Rockwell’s beatbox decision before it truly got started. You might be a leading man now, but please don’t try to be Justin Timberlake. No one needs that.

Honorable Mentions: Chantix & Fashion Panel

Desperate-to-prove-her-worth-as-an-actress Kelly is an instant classic from Cecily Strong. The “one woman show” part, especially.

Props to “Fashion Panel” for almost getting the amount of desperation and awkwardness of E! has had during this pay disparity issue. Almost. Honestly, everyone in this sketch plays off of each other very well, to the point where it’s somewhat disappointing this can’t be a recurring sketch.

Worst Sketch of The Night: Captain Hook

Sam Rockwell does an accent in this, and it’s too bad that can’t save it. This is one of those “SNL” sketches that so greatly misses the point that you just have to cross your fingers that it will be one of the sketches they drop in syndication. (The Safelite sketch was dropped off the face of the Earth for less.) The joke here is about the “optics” of Captain Hook and the Lost Boys — surprisingly, nothing is made of the fact the Lost Boys agree very quickly to join Captain Hook’s crew, that buncha sellouts — with Michael Jackson and Bryan Singer jokes. (Oof, indeed) Yet the whole while, the sketch makes it abundantly clear that Hook and his crew honestly aren’t bad guys, at least not in that way.

But because of the way it looks, they choose to jump ship and avoid the talk, to the point where the conclusion to the sketch is Hook giving Peter Pan (played by Kate McKinnon, because, of course, he is) his ship as “hush money.” Yes, in theory, the joke is that it’s better safe than sorry. The problem is how much this sketch plays off the infuriating concept that bad people finally being called out for being bad people is somehow a problem for the “good guys” who didn’t do anything wrong. The concept that the “good guys” have to be on high alert instead of just not being scumbags too.

Just let Captain Hook be creepy, if you’re going to go with this at all.

Best Male Performer: Sam Rockwell

When “SNL” actually lets its hosts take the lead — and now that Sam Rockwell is a leading man, it makes sense — they’re able to be the best part of the show. That doesn’t mean the rest of the male performers weren’t up to the task of being the best on this episode, but they worked well to make the host and themselves look good as well.

Best Female Performer(s): Kate McKinnon, Cecily Strong, & Aidy Bryant

This was a strong episode for “SNL’s” top ladies, and trying to choose just one this week would feel like a disserve to all three of them. Kate fought ninjas for Sam Rockwell, Cecily got herself a “MY DRUNK BOYFRIEND” (“from the makers of “MY DRUNK GIRLFRIEND.”) And Aidy? Well Aidy’s work here is especially impressive, because even though she’s not all over the episode, her segment on Weekend Update alone is enough fire to fuel her to the top of the mountain this week.

Best Follow-Up To “Henrietta & The Fugitive”: Genetics Lab

Who amongst us didn’t fall in love with Dog Head Guy from the moment we first saw him? Sure, it might have taken some of us a little while — like when he ate that sandwich and made Sam Rockwell and Mikey Day break — but surely we were all in love with Dog Head Guy by the end of the sketch. It’s like the saying goes: “There’s no law that says you can’t make a Dog Head Guy.”

Best Impression: Kate McKinnon as Frances McDormand

It’s crazy to believe it took this long to have Kate McKinnon play Frances McDormand, but let’s thank the award season (basically, the only reason for McDormand to decide to be in the public eye) for that one. This is an episode with a dropped F-bomb and Weekend Update asking to be fined with those “shithole” mentions, but the bit with McDormand getting bleeped at first for no reason — which NBC did during the Globes — is a good one. As is everything about her physicality as Frances McDormand.

Grade: A

This episode was just the thing “SNL” needed to start off the New Year, especially as it seemed to have one thing that was deeply missing for the first part of the season: a sense of identity. This episode felt specific to Sam Rockwell and to his strengths and sensibilities as an actor on a mainstream sketch comedy show. Yes, it was weird — but that’s the point.

It’s also nice to start the New Year with a cold open that’s not another Baldwin Trump sketch, even though the “Morning Joe” sketch is just as uncomfortable as it sets out to be. Plus, Fred Armisen and Bill Murray showed up, which is half-surprising. (Fred Armisen just showing on “SNL” is the part that’s not surprising, of course, except for the part where he was just in Los Angeles the day before for a press event.)

As for the musical performances… Well, if the point was for them to look very physically uncomfortable, then mission accomplished, Halsey! But besides the “Peter Pan” sketch — which was frustrating but not enough to sour the whole episode — there wasn’t a misstep in this episode.

Okay, for nitpicking’s sake, Leslie Jones’ Oprah could still use some work and Weekend Update could use some trimming, but Chris Redd’s Stedman as Oprah’s hype man was a fun touch.

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