The thing to understand about Tina Fey as an “SNL” host is that while she has her fingerprints on some truly brilliant comedy (both in the TV and film realms), her tenure on the show as a cast member wasn’t about being the star of the show. She’s not a Kate McKinnon or a Cecily Strong or an Aidy Bryant, she wasn’t a Kristen Wiig or an Amy Poehler or a Maya Rudolph. In fact, back when she hosted “SNL” in 2013, her monologue joked about the fact that she had no recurring characters. (Though, when it comes to lasting legacies, Mom Jeans is a sketch that might just endure longer than a lot of recurring characters.) She, of course, became the face of Weekend Update with Jimmy Fallon and then Amy Poehler, but Fey’s existence as a talent was never as the star until her host/guest appearances (like as Bedelia’s mother or especially as Sarah Palin). Because she’s “just… pleasant.”
So the expectation, unlike with other hosts, should have never been that Fey would be the focus of the finale’s sketches. Because that was never going to be the case. Unfortunately though, it still kind of was the expectation, because she’s Tina Fey, the name. Also, because it’s the season finale of “SNL.” Really, there’s a whole thing with logical expectations and general expectations going on in this episode… and unfortunately, the latter is the one that needs to be met and simply isn’t.
Host: Tina Fey
For example, it’s easy to think that, because Fey is hosting “SNL,” the show itself will have more of a “30 Rock”/“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”/even “Great News” styling to it. But this episode has also a lot of the same trappings as an episode of head writer-era Tina Fey “SNL” in it.
The biggest indicator of this is the monologue, which is an “audience” Q&A. Remember when the musical monologue became the definitely monologue style of the show, for some reason? Well, in the Fey era, it was 100 percent the Q&A. It’s honestly surprising Jimmy Fallon doesn’t show up in the audience with a bed head wig for this one.
The Q&A monologue also addresses the fact that the actual cast is being pushed to the background in favor of celebrity appearances, which is both something I’ve written a lot about this season and something that has become a major talking point. (There is no addressing the fact that Alec Baldwin’s Trump impression is actually bad, but if you want to hear about that — as well as the general issues about this season in terms of the cold opens, specifically — you might want to get Stitcher Pro.)
Of course, as is this show’s way whenever it’s aggressively called out with legitimate criticism, it just doubles down on it. Which leads to Fred Armisen’s intentional time suck aside, which is kind of funny. But at the same time, he’s not busy right now — “Portlandia” just ended, you know?
Armisen, “ignore Beck Bennett in favor of Benedict Cumberbatch,” and De Niro wondering if people recognized him (which they do, as they “woo!” him again after just hitting him with the “woo!” in the cold open) are the only actual jokes of the bit, but that’s still more jokes than a good portion of this season’s cold opens. Though Donald Glover, recent “SNL” host and former “30 Rock” writer, is here and forgot his hat.
That same 2013 hosting gig is one where she used the newbies at the time (six at the time, with only Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney still remaining today) as part of her monologue bit. That’s also kind of her thing.
There of course had to be a royal wedding sketch, and this — alongside Weekend Update — was part of the season-ending reminder that both Mikey Day and Alex Moffat were absolute powerhouses this season, especially together. Really, there isn’t much of a joke in this sketch past “Meghan has black family members,” and there is no Meghan in this sketch, as Maya Rudolph wasn’t here and the show thankfully didn’t try to make Cecily Strong play the biracial actress/Duchess. Then it gets to the “cheap seats” and immediately introduces stealth season MVP Heidi Gardner as Amber (of course), one of Meghan Markle’s “Deal Or No Deal” buddies (for the deep cut). That’s also where Fey’s character comes into this pretty long (that’s the name of this week’s game) sketch, as an inbred royal family member.
Also, somehow, Sir Elton John is in the cheap seats. It’s kind of worth it for Aidy Bryant’s very specific era Elton John but still — Sir Elton John in the cheap seats?
Meanwhile, seriously, a “Dateline: To Catch A Predator” sketch? In 2018? The sketch itself focusing on the idea of various takes and not the general perv factor is what makes it work — along with the duo of Fey and Bennett — but it’s not a sketch that immediately inspires confidence.
The “What I Did For Love” sketch (called just Sarah Palin Advice) is essentially the end of the season number, to the point it’s strange it’s not the final sketch. In fact, the actual final sketch (Chicago Improv) is neither weird (like the talent show) nor farewell enough (like this) to make sense in its actual spot. Like the audience Q&A, this is also very Tina Fey “SNL” (I would link to the “Summer Nights” sketch if I could) and a finale mix of real cast members and outside celebrities (Fred Armisen again, John Goodman still looking good… man) showing up to sing off-key and bid this season farewell. Seriously, it makes zero sense this doesn’t end the show.
Sadly, this HAIM-inspired sketch is cut for time, but if you want to replace the second Nicki Minaj number of the night with her verse in this, no one would blame you. Also: “But if you get back together / We’ll get back on board” is such a true lyric about a friend and their ex it’s upsetting this doesn’t get a spot on the episode.
Best Sketch of The Night: “Mean Girls”
Lorne Michaels both saying and explaining the concept of “fetch” in this season ender is one way to go out, don’t you think? Fey turning her “Mean Girls” musical into her own personal “don’t make me sing” moment is pretty fun, especially with the “work acquaintance” combo of Aidy Bryant and Cecily Strong, as well as new enemy Lin-Manuel Miranda waiting in the wings with his own Burn Book. Unsurprisingly (even to her, I’m sure), the best Tina Fey sketch of the night is one where she’s just herself. “Chicago Improv” is pretty close to this sketch in terms of quality too, and honestly, she’s basically playing herself (a past version of it) there too. Again, she warned us all she had no actual characters.
Worst Sketch of The Night: “Morning Joe”
The finale’s “Morning Joe” parody introduces Mika’s new “two exasperated groans,” but really, those best capture these sketches in the first place. There’s a confidence in this Kate McKinnon/Alex Moffat pairing that can’t quite be duplicated — think a solid Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader/Jason Sudeikis sketch — but the seeming looseness (particularly in McKinnon’s reactions, which are really all mostly sighs) between them makes them stressful in a way. There is no punchline or endgame other than to show Mika and Joe’s uncomfortable sexual tension, and Fey’s role as a Russian lawyer neither changes that nor is memorable enough to take it past that.
Best Male Performer: Mikey Day/Alex Moffat
The cold open is a good early showcase for them as the Trump brothers, but then they get highlighted in the first sketch of the night as Prince Harry and Prince William, which honestly works better in sketch form than as Weekend Update guests. Finally, they get a nice farewell to this season’s Weekend Update as the Trump brothers yet again. There’s an interesting dilemma in “SNL” right now with Day, Moffat, and Bennett all as these obvious “SNL” leading men (and as someone who has followed Day’s career since “Wild ‘N Out,” it’s both strange and kind of awesome to see that). Bennett has kind of had to carry around that mantle post-Taran Killam, but he’s always been on the weirder side of things thanks to his partnership with Kyle Mooney, and Moffat especially and Day also seem able to step up. The end of this season still doesn’t make it any clearer who’s going to be The Guy (think Bill Hader).
And to eat Play-Doh, in Moffat’s case.
Best Female Performer: Cecily Strong/Aidy Bryant
Despite Tina Fey not taking over this episode, it’s not as though anyone else really takes it over in her place. All things considered, this finale is a group effort, which is great but a little late, don’t you think? So, in the spirit of the “Mean Girls” musical sketch (and already choosing Day/Moffat as Best Male Performer), it makes sense to choose Tina’s “best friend[s],” Cecily Strong and Aidy Bryant.
In a lot of ways, this episode peaked at Anne Hathaway in the Q&A monologue, which technically defends the “SNL” choice to make outside celebrities the focus. That’s not even “SNL’s” fault, as a lot of things (except for “The Dark Knight Rises” and that one Oscars James Franco bombed but for which everyone blamed Anne) peak at Anne Hathaway. There are things that makes this episode play as a finale — see: Weekend Update’s cut jokes conclusion, which sadly doesn’t feature Fey at any point — but the structure hurts things.
Because really, this episode plays things surprisingly safe. “Chicago Improv,” a pretty on-point pre-tape, is the 10-to-1 sketch, and overall there’s enough balance that every cast member has their own moment to go out on, but no one has a real highlight sketch — besides maybe Melissa Villaseñor, who gets to bring System of a Down’s “Chop Suey” (a song from 2001, by the way) back into the 2018 conversation… because everyone loves “Chop Suey.” (Seriously, how was that not the 10-to-1 sketch?)
Highlighting the season’s big problem is the cold open, which immediately begins with Alec Baldwin’s dire Donald Trump impression, only to segue into a “Sopranos” series finale riff. That finale aired in 2007, but honestly, it’s clearly something the live “SNL” audience recognized far less well than the “Meet The Parents” riff — which it again tries to go with here as soon as De Niro/Mueller shows up. Also: McKinnon’s Rudy Guilani is really more the Penguin than anything else, and a poorly-enunciating one at that.
But at least actual cast members are even in this sketch (even if Heidi Gardner is just a diner waitress) — in fact, the highlight is Alex Moffat’s Eric Trump as he parallel parks his Fisher Price tricycle, the one moment of the cold open that doesn’t rely on a “pause for applause” or “I get that reference” laugh. Only just like the “HIV”/“HPV” moment, the Trump sons bit is better served in this episode’s Weekend Update.
The lack of pomp and circumstance, and the fact that Luke Null even shows up in more than one sketch, signals that maybe no one is heading out of “SNL” after this season. But beyond that, the problem certainly hasn’t been the current cast, old or new. Besides the cold opens and the show’s general reliance on outside celebrities (past cast members or not), writing to and trusting the voice of the host has been a big problem of the year, though it has gotten better towards the end of the season. Of course, as mentioned, despite the lack of highlighting Tina Fey this week, this is also kind of par for the course for her as a host/part of the “SNL” machine. She works better as a premiere host, honestly, not a finale one.
Oh, and Nicki Minaj performs one amazing number (“Chun-Li,” while also doubling down on what people are sure to say, “Oh, so this is cultural appropriation.”) and half of one… well, it’s certainly a song (a Playboi Carti song which mostly sounds like a Dusty Rhodes-esque appreciation for polka dots but is actually called ).
Based on a lyrics search, the latter has a Natalie Imbruglia/“Torn” reference from Nicki, which would indicate it’s better than it actually is. But the best way to describe this episode and maybe this season as a whole is that Colin Jost says “homie” during Weekend Update. Yes, Michael Che calls it out, but it still happens. That’s the show.