With “Saturday Night Live” back in the New Year — and after closing out 2021 with a stripped down version of both a Fiver Timers Club and Christmas episode — it continues its 47th season’s impressive run of first-time hosts. This week saw Ariana DeBose fill that role, hot off her Golden Globe win (Best Support Actress in a Motion Picture) for “West Side Story.”
“SNL” has thankfully been out of the era of constant musical monologues for quite some time. Now, when there actually is one, it can be appreciated (instead of just seen as the go-to bit the show has, regardless of the host). Even more impressive about the bit was that, unlike most musical numbers on “SNL,” this one truly captured the vibe of just a couple of friends singing show tunes (in this case, “West Side Story” show tunes), goofing off, and having fun.
The earnestness of the monologues has been a high point in this season of first-time hosts, and this was a good sign that the first episode of 2022 also maintained that energy.
“NBA on TNT” had a simple premise: NBA replacement players in the time of COVID-19. (And Yao Ming being a large, large man. At least, for Kenan Thompson — who was so visibly amused by everything Bowen Yang did — that was clearly the premise of the sketch.) The joke was simple: a Sacramento Kings team — which some might call a joke in and of itself — with fans and support staff filling in for NBA players. The premise allowed for plenty of little bits throughout. From James Austin Johnson (just in photograph form) as the equipment manager whose stats against James Harden are laughable, to Mikey Day as the one who runs away at halftime (because he’s scared), to DeBose’s star player (the one who got the one free three) trying to shoot her shot, (get a selfie with Blake Griffin) to Kyle Mooney’s temporary coach whose child son got dunked on by Kyrie Irving… Again, a simple premise and fun bits throughout, if not anything revolutionary.
And hey, the Kings had a good sense of humor about the whole thing:
There’s a powerful energy in the combination of Pete Davidson, Sarah Sherman, and Andrew Dismukes (who had one heck of an episode this week), as evidenced by the “Winter Formal” (aka “Ron and Donna Lacatza’s Formal Emporium”) sketch. A powerful, strange energy. Kudos to Dismukes, especially, for never being afraid to be the butt (or “clinical swamp ass”) of a joke. As one of the “satisfied customers,” DeBose didn’t have too much to do in this sketch — though she provided plenty of fuel for the piling on of Dismukes character — but it was for the best that the sketch didn’t try to do too much. It was also another showcase for Sherman, with a solid Davidson performance (after the bizarre, voice changer-based one from the cold open) in an episode that otherwise didn’t rely too much on him.
There’s almost nothing “SNL” loves more than “Southern” accents for seemingly no reason, and “Kitchen Staff” was a perfect example of that. Do people from Texarkana sound like the characters in this sketch? Who is to say? The sketch itself isn’t anything special, but the sheer force of will of everyone’s accents — and how they somehow didn’t all stumble over themselves doing it — made the sketch work. It was basically the rule of repetition, only in this case, the repetition came in the form of the accents themselves and trying to figure out Heidi Gardner’s character’s phrase “lurr” (which ended up being “love,” as the line, “What is ‘lurr’?” somewhat tipped off) meant.
While sketches like “Winter Formal” and “Kitchen Staff” swung for the fences in terms of weirdness, “Sappho” — a fine sketch, to be fair — was especially lowkey. The punchlines were expected but fun, of course culminating in some Indigo Girls to wrap it all up. The sketch felt fitting in an episode that began with McKinnon and DeBose fist-bumping over the “gay” line in “I Feel Pretty.”
“I said ‘la, the note that follows so’.”
“Damn. That’s so lazy.”
For every classic Hollywood sketch “SNL” does — especially “The Sound of Music,” which it loves to go down the well of — there can be a strong case of diminishing returns. In fact, that was just the case with the “Annie” sketch in this season’s Jason Sudeikis episode. But this episode’s “Sound of Music” sketch (“New Governess”) found a fun twist in the form of DeBose’s new governess character (for the Von Trapps’ neighbors) — one that also paid proper respect to Queen Latifah.
A cut for time sketch, this pre-tape saw Redd rap with his crew — DeBose, Thompson, and a feature by rap legend Freddie Gibbs — about all expenses at the club being on him. In an episode that saw a number of strong Redd performances, both leading and supporting, having “All on Me” in the episode would’ve been the icing on a delicious cake. Instead, it ended up being a hidden gem, especially for Redd and DeBose.
While a meandering “SNL” cold open can be pretty frustrating, this season returned with a cold open that only had one joke revealed that it could be worse. Seven minutes of only one joke, actually. “SNL” cold opens, in general, can be a lot more miss than hit because of the need to be the political sketch of the episode, and it’s with that that they’re usually not mentioned as the worst sketch of the night — it’s just too easy. However, this was an otherwise solid episode — if not revelatory — where even the weakest sketches were still charming and a cut above, especially above the cold open.
If the “Urkel Reboot” (which DeBose was great in, in her brief role as Urkel’s drunk single mother) hadn’t immediately clinched the top performer spot for Chris Redd this week, then the “Eric Adams Press Conference” would have. Especially as the latter pretty much cemented a new recurring political character for Redd and one far stronger and more entertaining than his Cory Booker “impression.” DeBose’s role as the City Hall spokesperson definitely added to Redd’s version of New York City Mayor Eric Adams, but it’s also a role that could easily make for a revolving door of hosts and cast members if it continues on for even a fraction of the time Eric Adams was apparently a cop.
Also: As the “Urkel Reboot” trailer sketch was in response to the trailer for Peacock’s gritty “Bel-Air,” let’s not forget that Redd has also already graced the “SNL” audience with a great, gritty “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” sketch.
It would be hard not to get the top spot this week when she literally started the show (making the opening monologue a two-hander) and had a couple of sketches where she and the host were the focal points (“New Governess” and “Sappho”). Of course, her big features were also the kinds of things she could probably do in her sleep at this point — and yet, they still work.
McKinnon’s return after an absence earlier in the season usually means that other female cast members have to take a backseat. And considering that Cecily Strong, Aidy Bryant, and Punkie Johnson were nowhere to be found, with Ego Nwodim only briefly appearing in the cold open and “Urkle Reboot” (as Laura Winslow, who even here was just as humorless as in the original series), it seemed like that was the case again. But this episode also saw strong performances from Gardner, Sherman, and Chloe Fineman, proving she can still thrive and spread the wealth.
Fineman’s Weekend Update bit as Elmo — of Elmo vs. Rocco — was a beautiful thing, one that even managed to get flaming Elmo in there. The timing of the memeification of the Elmo/Rocco “feud” and the return of “SNL” couldn’t have been any better.
As mentioned before, while this “SNL” return — with a live audience and full-ish cast — wasn’t full of brilliant sketches, all of the main sketches were various levels of charming and fun. DeBose brought charm and enthusiasm to everything she did, even the occasional stumbles over lines. No part was too small or too big for her, and once again, a first-time host made the strong case for returning.