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‘Saturday Night Live’ Review: Adam Driver’s Behind the Wheel, but It’s a Slow Start for the Season

Kanye West was the musical guest for a very odd episode.

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- "Adam Driver" Episode 1747 -- Pictured: (l-r) Adam Driver, Cecily Strong during "Coffee Shop" in Studio 8H on Saturday, September 29, 2018 -- (Photo by: Will Heath/NBC)

“Saturday Night Live.”

Will Heath/NBC

Finally, “Saturday Night Live” is back. And 44 seasons in, it’s looking pretty good. At least, on the outside. It’s got snazzy new opening credits (every person and font looks amazing) and a very solid new cast member (Ego Nwodim, an absolute gem of a comedian), so it looks like it might be going for that whole “new year, new you” vibe.

Spoiler alert: It really isn’t. There’s stuff to enjoy in this season premiere, but there’s also stuff to remind you what’s been so frustrating about the show lately… and that’s just the very least of what these things will remind you of, because even a middle-aged sketch comedy show still reflects just how messy the world is. There will be plenty of people who say “SNL” hasn’t been good since whenever Chevy Chase said it was good, and that it’s actually irrelevant these days. It’s relevant enough for them to say that without actually watching the show — which they also let you know is something they do, “not watch the show” — but it’s completely irrelevant in all ways and forms.

So, let’s start talking about the 44th season of a show that nobody watches and never has any real-world implications. Then we can talk about sarcasm, if there’s time left.

Host: Adam Driver

Adam “Designated” Driver is a good one. That should’ve found its way into the “’80s Party” sketch somehow.

The monologue is honestly a solid beginning for Driver’s hosting, with the monotony of small talk about the summer (and an inner monologue… during the monologue) as the backdrop. It also features has the first Pete Davidson/Ariana Grande reference of the episode/season (more on that later), and it’s a pretty fun one, albeit one that — if you’re only watching this monologue divorced from the rest of the episode—could easily mean nothing to anyone 10 years from now (more on that later too).

Then Driver told us all to smoke a cigarette during the commercial break, because I’m pretty sure he was promising that this episode of “SNL” was going to be like sex. Like good sex, even. So it was a really tall order. At the end of the episode — especially if your feed didn’t cut out — you could definitely say you might have needed a cigarette, but that was more for the stress of the Kanye West stuff, not anything comically orgasmic. Maybe he meant a jazz cigarette?

The Coffee Shop sketch — like the Italian Restaurant sketch before it — is basically the show’s “stealth” way of getting their product integration on, but these sketches work because of how much Cecily Strong and the host commit. (The “reveal” that the restaurant they’re focus-grouping doesn’t exist never gets old, honestly.) It looks like Strong’s Gemma character is retired — if this were the ‘90s, she’d have her own Gemma movie — but this is essentially a lateral movement on a character level.

And while it calls for the couple in these sketches to be too dumb to function, it’s a funny dumb sketch. Cecily Strong’s vomiting sounds, the sounds she and Driver make as they kiss, her calling Heidi Gardner’s character “desperate” and “poor”: Strong has always understood a very specific brand of “terrible woman,” and sketches like this highlight that. (Gardner has that too, yet their characters never overlap, which makes them both more impressive.) Now, who wants some “burger juice?”

Best Sketch of The Night: New Look

Pre-tapes might have things easier, so understandably, it might seem like cheating to give them Best Sketch of The Night due. But that’s what this is, keeping the “SNL” winning strategy of weirdness and turning it into a weird thing where people might have to wrestle with the fact that Kyle Mooney actually kind of looks good “as” Pete Davidson.

While I do question how this fits into “SNL” behind-the-scenes continuity in terms of Kyle Mooney and Leslie Jones’ relationship — is she not a big enough celebrity for him now? — I’m also willing to ignore the established canon to accept Mooney’s celebrity relationship with Wendy Williams. Talk about an unexpected cameo on “SNL” — and also, talk about how Mooney believes Ariana Grande and Wendy Williams are the same levels of famous. This sketch is also the one that probably will age the best of this episode’s (and this season’s) Pete Davidson/Ariana Grande stuff, because it’s barely actually about that. It’s just about the surreal world of “SNL,” where Kyle Mooney’s terrible plan actually works.

Davidson reminding Mooney he has “like, mental problems,” only for Mooney to bust out some pills of his own is honestly one of the most ridiculous ways to start a season. But then they have a duel, and it somehow gets even more ridiculous. Heidi Gardner’s absolute disinterest (which led to the banana peel throw) and Alex Moffat’s intense excitement (which you can see throughout the scene, not just when he arrows Adam Driver and says “You don’t belong here”) make the duel.

I’m realizing now, you could argue that Darrell Hammond didn’t say Kyle Mooney’s name during the episode’s opening credits because Mooney “died” soon after this was filmed. The only live sketch he’s actually in is the cold open, so he could’ve bled out during the credits… Wait, no, he’s in the Neo-Confederate Meeting sketch>.

Worst Sketch of The Night: That “Fortnite” Sketch

AKA the sketch they were slowest to put on YouTube. It’s never a good sign when there’s a delay to put a sketch on YouTube.

This sketch really only works to highlight Mikey Day’s physical comedy, and the Boo Boo Jeffries sketch from last season’s Tiffany Haddish episode did that better anyway. Meanwhile, you have the other cast members as Fortnite avatars just standing around. As for the game players, Adam Driver as a super desperate dad who wants to learn how to play Fortnite to bond with his 11-year-old son… Well, at least he nails holding a video game controller like someone who doesn’t know how to hold a video game controller.

Best Male Performer: Adam Driver

So here’s the thing: Adam Driver is a good “SNL” host in general, but he really only gets to show his stuff in two sketches, “Coffee Shop” and “Career Day.” Even in “’80s Party,” once what seems to be the original premise of the sketch — with Driver as the sexed-up ‘80s movie character to Day’s Andrew McCarthy — is thrown out the window, he becomes inconsequential there. And that’s including the FBI investigation epilogue of the sketch. He’s certainly no Topher Grace in “Take Me Home” Tonight in this sketch.

But, as far as those two performances go, they’re easily the episode’s two best performances on an intensity level. Mikey Day, Alex Moffat, and Beck Bennett are all doing their jobs simultaneously holding down the leading man role (and this will probably be the season Bennett will just be allowed to be his weird “big boy” self, because Day and Moffat are around), but in terms of memorability in this opener, they’ve got nothing on Abraham H. Parnassus.

While perhaps not the best sketch, the career day sketch was certainly Driver’s best performance. Actually, the more I think about it, it definitely has claim to best sketch status, just because of how weird and wonderful it is. And it was also 100 percent understandable why Pete Davidson would break during that sketch, from the first moment Driver’s Parnassus called him “boy.” (That there wasn’t actually a joke made about Davidson playing a kid named “Mortdecai” is an underrated aspect of the sketch.) Melissa Villaseñor as the classmate who’s getting way too into the world of oil baron-ry also keeps the tempo of this sketch up, especially as she gives just as much energy as — in a different way from — Parnassus, in a way Davidson’s Mortdecai does not and cannot.

Best Female Performer: Aidy Bryant

Lil’ Baby Aidy pretty much grabbed this week’s award based on her brilliant exasperation in the cold open, as her exasperation as Rachel Mitchell — AKA “the female prosecutor,” “the female assistant,” “stewardess,” and “Ms. Frizzle” — was palpable. She also modifies that into something of anxiety in the career day sketch, as she’s witnesses the students grow more and more enthralled by Parnassus.

Final Thoughts

It’s always interesting when you can see in real time just how much an episode of “SNL” is going to age in the future. I have no opinion on Ariana Grande and Pete Davidson’s relationship — at least, not enough of one to judge them and definitely not enough to direct any sort of hate at either one — and all I really think about Davidson is that he gets a lot of very unfair criticism about his comedic prowess and physical appearance. But on the off-chance they do break up or one of them does something truly monstrous in general, this episode is really going to age poorly. What if Ariana Grande falls into obscurity? What if… Honestly, let’s just cut that off there. Kind of like Davidson probably should’ve done right before the birth control/Tic-Tac joke on Weekend Update, because while you might have these guys chastising truly villainous guys, they’re still a bunch of guys. Guys who clearly aren’t going to think, “Maybe a joke about tricking a woman into having an unwanted pregnancy is a bad idea. At least it’s a bad idea this week.”

While there was a lot of Kavanaugh material in this episode, both predictably and understandably so, the most poignant adjacent bit to come out of it was “’80s Party.” Because it’s not just Kavanaugh, and it’s not even just one side of the fence — it’s an important point that actions have consequences, even if you were young (but old enough to know better, come on) when you committed these acts. It’s ridiculous that it needs to even be said — and to adults — but that’s where we’re at now, with “Animal House” riffs needed to turn a garbage fire into a teacher, humorous moment.

But also: Mikey Day’s character’s future being “dead” (after he says he’s “going places”)? Even better when it later reveals he was “killed by Andrew Cunanan.” Making “SNL” officially 2 for 2 (the first being the John Mulaney episode) when it comes to Andrew Cunanan jokes that are way too subtle for the live audience, who just want to see the big celebrities. (In their defense this time, this was an even more throwaway joke, combined with other sad, realistic reveals.)

There aren’t any outwardly bad signs to look for in this episode when it comes to this season as a whole. While Matt Damon as Brett Kavanaugh technically falls into that very big issue “SNL” last season — the one where nearly all the juicy, substantial real people roles were played by celebrities, instead of by cast members who could actually use the exposure — he actually kind of nails it? It was already a weird realm knowing that this episode was going to make laughs out of a pretty horrific situation, and then confirming that it was going to do that for most of the episode. But then it got weirder realizing Matt Damon was going to be the one to do it. Again, the Aidy Bryant stuff is the real highlight of the cold open. But Kavanaugh really kind of is the real life, grown-up version of Matt Damon from “School Ties,” so… He actually kind of nails it.

There’s still a disconnect between Colin Jost and Michael Che supposedly being a successful Weekend Update team and the live audience not caring for literally a single joke they make. (And “ooh”-ing at jokes about Dunkin’ Donuts instead of, you know, actual tragedies.) This happens even when they end up doing good material, and I’m specifically talking about Che’s “Cosby Show”/Huxtable tangent, because he’s right. The UPN series “Eve” had rapper/actress Eve play a character named Shelly. Why not just call the show “Shelly,” then?

Jost and Che are not the ebony and ivory dynamic duo Lorne Michaels seems to think they are, but they are here to stay, so the question becomes one of how to deal with that. In a world of optics and just generally trying to see if there’s any way to remove the stigma of smugness these two men have, perhaps “SNL” should consider this: With there being so much discussion of sexual misconduct (coming mostly from men) in this world and the news cycle, how exactly does it make sense that two straight men (who, again, come across as smug as well as bro-y) are the ones who get to dictate the humorous approach on that? Especially when at least one of those men definitely doesn’t care who he offends on that front?

There are appearances by Kate McKinnon (as Ruth Bader Ginsburg) and Leslie Jones (as herself trying to play Serena Williams) to break the boys club monotony of the Update, but those aren’t permanent solutions. The logistical problem, of course, is if you put a female cast member on Weekend Update, that also means they either need to be hired specifically for the role or we’re losing one of the current crop of very talented women to Update. (This is why Cecily Strong stepped down from Update after one season, as she wanted to keep focusing on sketches.)

The musical performances… Of the three Kanye West performances, only the first one (where he decided to take it on down to Waterville) lived up to any expectation of bizarre Kanye status. And honestly, it was bad. The other two were plagued by “SNL’s” historically bad sound mixing — with the final one also having the MAGA hat-shaped elephant in the room, that you have to expect is going to lead to some think pieces and loud noises…

That previous paragraph was written before Kanye made a speech about life and Trump post-third performance (that was completely cut on the West coast feed), where he called his MAGA hat his “Superman cape.” So actually, there are bad signs in this episode, mostly of the fact that “SNL” keeps allowing things to happen that will only lead the cast to say “we can’t believe we allowed that to happen” from this point on. See: Donald Trump’s hosting gig. (If you’ve seen any of the footage online of Kanye’s speech, you can see Colin Jost’s awkward “What the hell are we gonna have to say about this now?” reaction.) Even pre-Trump, Kanye and “SNL” have always had a weird hate-hate relationship, but now we’re not even getting any good performances to go along with that.

Also: There was not enough Kenan. Is there a manager we can speak to about that?

Grade: C

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