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‘Saturday Night Live’ Review: Seth Meyers Brings a Much-Needed Early High Point for the Season

The former "SNL" head writer helped quarterback a great character-driven episode.

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- "Seth Meyers" Episode 1749 -- Pictured: (l-r) Heidi Gardner, Seth Meyers during "Scary Story" on Saturday, October 13, 2018 -- (Photo by: Ava Williams/NBC)

Seth Meyers, “Saturday Night Live.”

Ava Williams/NBC

Following the politics-heavy but laughs-light first two episodes of this season, this week’s “Saturday Night Live” goes back to a familiar well: a host in the form of a former cast member. In this case, it’s Seth Meyers, host of “Late Night With Seth Meyers” and former “SNL” head writer.

While pointing out the idea of going back to a familiar well might sounds like a judgment on the same level of questioning why “SNL” keeps relying on outside celebrities as opposed to its actual cast, it’s not. In fact, when it comes to hosting, former “SNL” cast members have the opportunity to provide a much-needed reset or refous for the show’s path (and it’s so great when they actually take that opportunity). Only three episodes into this 44th season, it’s clear a recalibration is exactly what “SNL” needs right now and exactly what host Seth Meyers presents, just in time for the two-week break.

Host: Seth Meyers

They say you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone, and that’s exactly how it feels as soon as Seth Meyers comes to the main stage for his monologue. Don’t you ever leave 30 Rock again, sir. However, as Meyers points out in his monologue, he never left 30 Rock in the first place and instead was so desperate not to change things that he found a job 100 yards away from “SNL.” Ah, the short con.

Following the cold open, Meyers’ tale about Kanye West interrupting things (two years before he was even known for interrupting things) continues “SNL”’s weird love-hate relationship with Kanye — which is different from whatever its relationship with Donald Trump is — that one wishes they could just move on from (but probably never will). But the monologue at least is a nice little reminder how weird things are now. Things are pretty weird and not even in the good way (the “SNL” way is the good way).

“You’ve turned into a full psycho.”

Seth Meyers is the quintessential “SNL” straight man — in a way that’s somewhat of a lost art and not exactly relied on these days in “SNL” — and while that’s still apparent in this episode (see: the “Bayou Benny’s…” sketch), he doesn’t just play the Tina Fey card (this time) and point out he’s never been the most dynamic character guy. (However, he was still more of a character guy in his “SNL” tenure than Tina Fey was.) Instead, one of the earliest sketches of the night (“Beta Force”) has Meyers go all-in on the character front. While Meyers is a strong host, this is definitely the most he does in terms of major character work all night, and it’s worth it for the just the visual of… Is it appropriate to call him the Pepsi Blue version of himself? He certainly ends up looking like a Beck Bennett (who does the sketch voiceover) character, like a more aggro version of Beck’s Pitbull impression.

The combination of “Movie Talkback” and “A Frightening Tale” in one episode almost feels too inside baseball; the latter is especially an entertainment industry-based bit, but the former is actually more relatable if you’ve ever attended something with a Q&A component. But both sketches tackle their subjects with pinpoint accuract.

However, “Movie Talkback” surprisingly ignores the version of a film Q&A where some guy not-so-subtly attempts to have the filmmaker read their screenplay… but that could be because “SNL” knows that’s exactly the type of person Kyle Mooney’s Connor is in “A Frightening Tale.” So instead of that beat, the Q&A sketch goes with the twist about Kenan Thompson’s moderator character and his wife (Leslie Jones), basically as a necessary point to properly end the sketch without just saying “and now the Q&A is over.”

“SNL”’s Cajun and Southern sketches can be very “hit or miss” (mostly “miss,” if you want to take the word of a Southerner), but “Bayou Benny’s Liberal Lagniappe” very strangely works. Very strangely. The most comparable sketch for this particular situation is “Maine Justice”, an inexplicably beloved sketch of “SNL” faithful. The key to this sketch though is the fact while Beck Bennett’s Benny may be unintelligible, if you actually listen, everything he’s saying does in fact make sense. He’s not really saying nonsense, just saying things with a drawl and colloquialisms, all while looking like the Colonel. Again, Seth Meyers’ straight man is hard at work, as he plays himself and just tries to understand Beck Bennett’s Benny. Which he of course cannot.

The weak point of this sketch is surprisingly the fact that Heidi Gardner’s Taylor Swift is such a barely-there impression that it’s questionable why it even happens, as though it was either supposed to be a different character first or, best case scenario, actually Taylor Swift. Thankfully, things like characters telling something called a “MAGA Biscuit” to “Git!” distract from such a bafflingly nothing aspect of this sketch.

Best Sketch of The Night: “Traffic Stop”

The best problem to have with an episode of “SNL” is to struggle to settle on one sketch to take on the “Best” classification. But the unexpected breakout sketch of the episode has to be “Traffic Stop,” aka “Thirsty Cops,” a very unexpected version of a sketch with two black female cops pulling over a white guy. As the sketch goes on — and if you’re aware of Ego Nwodin’s work outside of “SNL,” since this is her first moment to really shine — it becomes a matter of realizing the sketch’s existence must’ve come from someone (perhaps Ego) pointing out how attractive they find Seth Meyers. And the rest is now thirsty history. Thirsty, terrible pun history.

This is also only the third episode of the season, and Ego now already has a high-profile sketch on the show — written by her, as confirmed by Leslie Jones — with a major chance for it to recurr. With the break coming, one can already imagine Lorne Michaels is formulating a plan to get more looks to this newbie.

Honorable Mention: “Trees”

First of all:

Pete: “Why you so dressed up anyway? We’re playing ourselves.”

Chris: “I like character work.”

Second of all, Pete not knowing what he’s supposed to be rapping about, only to just rap about Al Gore — basically the only thing he knows about global warming — is one of the most relatable moments in the entire rap game, obviously. (Can you believe certain NBC affiliates actually cut to commercial at the wrong time and then only played the last minute of this sketch? The disrespect…)

Worst Sketch of The Night: “Halloween Gig”

Shame on Kenan for getting “tweedle de twee!” stuck in everyone’s heads again. Shame on him. Also, shame on “SNL” for not having better Halloween sketches this year. Is “Pumpkin Patch” really going to end up being the most memorable? Now that’s a scary realization.

Honorable Mention: “Cuban Vacation”

This sketch has legs, but you’d never get that by how the audience barely reacts to it. Seth and Heidi — in a role that seems so tailor-made for Cecily Strong that it’s like looking in a blonde mirror — as the couple who just returned from Cuba and have to prove how much they know about it and culture in general (only to reveal they’re just plain dumb) is a fun premise that gets better as the sketch progresses, but the audience just doesn’t care.

Best Male Performer: Kenan Thompson

Seth Meyers is the type of host that’s the perfect quarterback for the talent, and Kenan Thompson is undeniably, and unsurprisingly, given both men’s times in “SNL,” his wide receiver in this episode. The “Jail Cellmate” is the perfect example of this, especially as Meyers takes a good portion of this sketch to drop some actual commentary on Bill Cosby into the sketch.

Kenan’s career really is a fascinating thing; this man has been doing a Bill Cosby impression since he was a child comedian, and anyone watching who’s followed his career since those child comedian days had to know exactly that this sketch was going to go the Cosby route before it even revealed that. And not to bring up the “real ‘90s kids” meme — which is even more appropriate because Toby Huss was in a commercial that ran during this episode — but real ‘90s kids absolutely anticipated Kenan saying “CAMILLE” (and also “THEO”) and got even more appreciation out of him finally saying it.

Best Female Performer: Heidi Gardner

Heidi Gardner is probably long past people pointing out her resemblance to Kristen Schaal, but that’s what she gets when she just flat-out goes for a Schaal-like look (well, a talkies era look that just highlights the Schaal of it all) lin the “Movie Talkback” sketch. It even almost buries the lede, which is her character’s name being “Adele Dazeem.”

Then there’s her newest breakout Weekend Update sketch, which continues the trend of how specific some of the sketches in this episode are, as she plays GOOP staffer Baskin Johns. (While this week’s Weekend Update isn’t anything special, Seth Meyers and Heidi Gardner both definitely make their moments stand out big time.) There’s a simple premise already just in the concept of being a GOOP staffer, but the bonus concept of being one that’s terrified of upsetting or embarrassing overlord Gwyneth Paltrow — who doesn’t test products on animals but definitely tests products on the staff — takes this character and bit to the next level. The cult of GOOP is real, and Baskin Johns is in deep.

Final Thoughts

It was only a matter of time, but this is the week “SNL” chose to bring back its true weakest link, Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump. Thankfully, his return doesn’t make for as dissatisfying of a cold open as one would expect, and a lot of that can be credited to the fact that most of his work comes in the form of voiceovers, meaning he can’t milk the audience reactions to his line delivery for as long as he usually would. Chris Redd’s Kanye West is serviceable (though, how can you not miss Jay Pharoah at a time like this?) and it really powers through this particular cold open.

Also, for just an expectation of being reliable — the opposite of Baldwin’s Trump, really — Paul Simon puts on a couple of damn good performances this week. A couple of bops, even, which is perhaps not how anyone would ever imagine “Bridge Over Troubled Water” being described, but that’s exactly how that performance comes across.

Surprisingly absent from this episode for the most part were Mikey Day and Alex Moffat, who basically fill the Seth Meyers role of the show in a way, though they’re more leading men than he ever really was. This episode is more about the type of weirdness that Beck Bennett, the original supposed straight man who’s actually way more niche than that, excels at, and as such, Beck gets to shine almost as much as Kenan. (And Meyers shines alongside both of them, not just during the mandatory glory days “Really!?!” segment on Weekend Update.)

Had this been the premiere, it would have been beholden to the obvious pressing current events, so it makes sense it took until Episode 3 to get here. This is an episode where the host is more than competent and doesn’t need the cast to really take the wheel from him, and while it might not allow everyone to get equal time, it at least makes proper use of the time it has. In fact, despite how much this episode feels like a big show before vacation, it actually works as somewhat of a showcase for more than just the usual crowd, to great effect.

Grade: A-

Saturday Night Live” airs new episodes at 11:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

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