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‘Saturday Night Live’ Review: A Solid Episode, but Idris Elba’s in the Backseat

The "Wire" and "Turn Up Charlie" star made his Studio 8H debut this week.

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- "Idris Elba" Episode 1761 -- Pictured: Host Idris Elba during Promos in Studio 8H on Tuesday, March 5, 2019 -- (Photo by: Rosalind O'Connor/NBC)

Idris Elba

Rosalind O'Connor/NBC

Host: Idris Elba

As another first-time host, Idris Elba is the latest celebrity to give a pretty heartfelt opening monologue. (It’s certainly a much better trend than the musical monologue, that’s for sure.) Over 20 years ago, he was a part-time weed-dealing bouncer in New York City, and now he’s here, hosting “Saturday Night Live.” It’s the American dream.

But then the rest of the episode happens.

The first official sketch of the episode — “Can I Play That?” — honestly sets the tone for Elba’s hosting duties for the rest of the night: This will be an episode about working around Elba. It’s not that Elba is bad. He stumbles over his lines a few times in the night, but that’s often when he’s also focusing on an American accent (and Leslie Jones, a cast member, does the same too, so that’s not a judgment). But he’s not a comedian or a past “Saturday Night Live” cast member/writer who has a specific comedic voice (Bill Hader, John Mulaney). Even though he’s the “Sexiest Man Alive,” he’s not an actor who’s looked at as a lovable hunk (Jason Momoa). He’s British and charming… but not in a posh way and not in a way (at least in the case of the latter) that’s present during these sketches.

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The recurring theme of most of the night is Elba just sort of being there — and it’s not as though he’s not putting the effort into what he’s doing — while the actual cast members do the actual work. Back to that first sketch, this sketch completely belongs to Beck Bennett and (especially) Cecily Strong. Then the “PowerPoint” sketch is all Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon (with a few little bits from the other cast members), with Elba playing the supplemental straight man role to Mikey Day. (There’s no reason for there to be two supervisors in the sketch other than needing to give Elba something to do.) The pre-tape Impossible Hulk sketch is again a showcase for Cecily Strong, as an “upset” Elba transforms into her character: “an emboldened white lady.”

Elba is able to loosen up with the “Gold Diggers” sketch — his most comfortable sketch, other than the not-made-for-people-in-the-States “Soccer Broadcast” sketch, where his wig was poorly placed on — but that’s with the safety of Kenan Thompson and Chris Redd backing him up. But also… where the hell did “Gold Diggers” come from? It’s, unfortunately, not quite polished, and honestly just kind of depressing, the more facts about the lives of WNBA athletes it drops. But it is extremely out of left field, and the most interesting thing Elba gets to do.

Then a sketch like the one with The Great Rudolpho, which looks like it’s about giving Elba something to do really only works because of Leslie Jones’ gesticulations — especially when the focus is not on her — and Kenan Thompson’s Kenan-ness. The final sketch is also 100 percent Beck Bennett, and then it has the additional problem where it has a very rushed finish.

Best Sketch(es) of The Night: “PowerPoint” & “The Impossible Hulk”

Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon have always made a good team, and anytime the show wants to lean into that, it’s a good time. The combination of the imagery of Aidy and Kate’s botched PowerPoint attempts with their very sad reactions to it makes for a very early highlight in the episode. “My husband has to tie my shoes in the morning!” “I only went to preschool!” There’s an obvious place where this sketch could go — simply because of the early admission that they’re not tech savvy older women — but it surpasses that almost immediately.

“Yes, I’m being aggressed right now.”

While Cecily Strong is the MVP of this sketch, everyone else’s reactions to her outbursts are priceless. Especially Ego Nwodim and Chris Redd’s absolute confusion as to what’s going on, even before “froyo” comes into the picture. Also, the fact that the sketch decides to go all Ang Lee “Hulk” with the presentation — including otherwise unnecessary comic book panel transitions — should not go unnoticed. Clearly one of the writers just saw Ang Lee’s “Hulk” for the first time.

Worst Sketch(es) of The Night: “Bok Bok” & “Can I Play That?”

The sketch is not only the height of giving Elba absolutely nothing to do, but it’s also a reminder of the stupid “Momo Challenge” hoax. Meanwhile…

There’s a lot that just comes out of bad faith in this sketch because the joke is punching down on the supposed collective Twitter hive mind, instead of up at the Hollywood executives and the entire culture that “makes the rules” on casting. Like the controversy over Will Smith not being “black enough” to play the Williams’ sisters father in a movie, it reads more like a casting or studio note than anything. (It would be in the same vein of someone being told to “black it up.”)

If the answers in this game show sketch were the result of studio notes, not only would the sketch be calling out Hollywood, but it would be more focused. It actually does that with the who-can-play-Japanese bit, but since the rest of the sketch is going after supposed political correctness, it gets lost among everything else happening. (The sketch does really miss the chance for the expected Emma Stone/Scarlett Johansson answer to the “half-Asian” casting question, though.) The “Can You Play James Bond?” kicker is also the perfect example in this case.

But this sketch also ignores the actual reasoning behind the hack concept that it’s raging against, that “no one can play someone they’re not like,” which is the fact that blind actors or transgender actors or even Japanese actors are often passed up for these roles in the first place, while seeing actors or cisgender actors or (as Cecily’s character mentions) anyone with any Asian heritage, respectively, get the roles instead.

Best Male Performer: Kenan Thompson

Kenan Thompson really is the glue who holds this whole show together. He might as well just take over the Donald Trump role instead of just playing the race-bent version in “Them Trumps” sketches. Or the show could continue to have nonpolitical cold opens with Kenan front and center. That works too — there are enough non-political horrors in the world, after all.

Best Female Performer: Cecily Strong

Cecily Strong didn’t come to this episode to make friends, she came here to win. And win she does, in both “The Impossible Hulk” and “Can I Play That?”

Final Thoughts

This is not just the rare contemporary “Saturday Night Live” episode that opens with a non-political sketch, it’s the rare contemporary “Saturday Night Live” episode that opens with regular cast members, no celebrity guests to “woo!” at. It’s also the rare contemporary “Saturday Night Live” episode that doesn’t take a detour or two to focus on impressions. Yes, there’s the Gayle King/R. Kelly of it all in the cold open — and truly, what a refreshing change of focus that is from the standard cold open — but they’re played by Leslie Jones and Kenan Thompson, of all people. Again, this is not an episode about impressions.

On the hosting front, while there have been plenty of hosts in recent memory who show potential but aren’t quite given enough or the right material, this entire episode plays like after a week of pitching and writing and rehearsing, there wasn’t really any right material for Elba to play. And then someone somehow got Gwyneth “GOOP” Paltrow to show up during the first of three Weekend Update features and laugh at her existence as a snake oil salesman. This is a strange episode of “Saturday Night Live.” And not just because Leslie Jones sits by Michael Che (aka “Mr. Che”) for the first time during her Weekend Update feature. (By the way, Leslie’s funeral sounds lit.)

But just one more note about the Weekend Update features: While Pete Davidson has an absolute point in calling out the double standard of older male actors being in relationships with much, much younger woman, the very fact of it coming up — after Colin Jost’s judging — is ill-advised on every conceivable level. All of “Saturday Night Live” is a time capsule, but between the Ariana Grande and now the Kate Beckinsale stuff, “Saturday Night Live” is just asking to age poorly and date itself in the future (see also: the “Bok Bok” sketch) with these constant check-ins on Pete Davidson’s love life. It’s also just asking to be mocked, because why does there need to be any discussion about whom any of the cast members are dating on this show? That’s far less interesting than Pete getting booed when he calls out the Catholic Church in this same bit.

The sketches themselves are fine to good, with “Can I Play That?” being just on the cusp of the right side of the joke and things like the cold open and Weekend Update (especially because of all the features) not dragging the show down in any way. Khalid is a good musical guest as well. But as a hosting gig, Kenan or Chris could have filled in for Idris Elba at multiple times during the show, and it wouldn’t have even mattered, unfortunately.

And in case you’re wondering where Kyle Mooney was during all of this, he was cut for time:

Grade: B-

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