Taraji P. Henson’s blown up in the past few months thanks to her starring role on Empire, but she’s been acting for a looong time—and she made sure the audience knew it in her monologue: “After 20 years of show business, white people finally know who I am!” she exclaimed before launching into a musical number that revolved around the phrase “I made it.”
Henson (who has an Emmy and Oscar nod to her name) got to show off her pipes, and the rest of the cast got to insert some quick punchlines about what they would have been doing had they not “made it”—Kenan Thompson would have been the oldest cast member in Good Burger 7, Leslie Jones would have been in jail, and Pete Davidson would have been… a well-adjusted college sophomore. The performance—complete with a choir decked out in purple robes—was an energetic way to start the show, and Henson’s enthusiasm made it all the more entertaining. But that’s about the extent of Henson’s enthuasiasm we got to see: The rest of the night, she mostly spent her time in supporting roles that gave other cast members a chance to shine, like in the night’s…
Cecily Strong plays a 32-year-old teacher who’s facing time for having sex with her 16-year-old student (Pete Davidson) who is thrilled to be there. “I would say it felt like what Disneyland is,” he says when Henson, playing the lawyer, asks him about his mental state during the affair. Henson doesn’t really get to do anything but set up Davidson’s punchlines, and that’s a bummer—but (most of) his punchlines are solid, especially one about what his peers called him once they found out: “Fred Pimpstone, Goodyear Piimp, King of the Teachers, After School Special, Teacher’s Petter, The Boy Who Lived.” The list goes on and on, and gets progressively stranger, giving the sketch (probably inspired by Mary Kay Letourneau’s recent return to the news) an added dose of pure ridiculousness.
Kate McKinnon kills it as Hillary Clinton in the cold open, which features the politician practicing to announce her run for presidency. She does this by looking into her phone’s camera and making not-so-warm faces—and the best part is when Bayer instructs her to “soften,” which results in McKinnon looking more like a Botched star than a presidential nominee. Although McKinnon’s undoubtedly the star of the sketch, Darrell Hammond also makes an amusing appearance to reprise his role as Bill Clinton. “And surprise, I will be her VP,” he pops in to say. “And if anything happens to her, God forbid, I will happily be President of the United States again.” McKinnon quickly corrects him though to say that, of course, she will be the vice president. McKinnon’s impressions are always enjoyable to watch, and this one is no exception.
Henson actually gets a starring role in Power Rangers parody “Connectatron,” but all she gets to do is sass her co-stars as they attempt to fight a giant shark-dinosaur. It falls completely flat—and is a waste of a shark costume.
Best Pop Culture Reference
Tonight’s episode featured a couple parodies of current or upcoming entertainment releases: There was a pre-taped ad for Home 2 and another pre-taped segment announcing Game of Thrones’ eighth, Boyz n the Hood-inspired kingdom. The Game of Thrones one wins, partly thanks to the real Jaime Lannister’s cameo: He rides in on a majestic horse, then closes out the sketch by looking into the camera and saying, “Don’t hate the slayer, hate the game.”
Best Commercial for Worst Product
No grown person wants to wear diapers—but don’t worry, SNL’s figured out a way to get your grandparents to put on some Depends anyway: just slap images of old-timey stars on the backs of diapers, and you’ve got a product everyone will want to wear. “Why should I be embarrased?” one grandpa says in the commercial, “I just went on Ms. Betty Page.” Immature? Totally. Hilarious in its immaturity? For sure.
This is what we all were waiting for: an Empire spoof. Henson brings the character of Cookie to Sesame Street, where she yells—a lot—and turns Elmo into her fur coat. Seeing this character interact with the innocent denizens of Sesame Street is strange but entertaining, especially when Cookie gots full-on Cookie Monster on an actual cookie.
Best Musical Moment
Mumford & Sons have traded in their banjos for electric guitars, and the result is surprisingly not bad. Both performances were pretty strong, but “The Wolf” is where the onetime folk band really got to show off their new selves. And these new selves, luckily, aren’t too far off with the old ones—just imagine Mumford & Sons mixed with Kings of Leon, and you get their updated sound.
For a while, it seemed like McKinnon was the host—not Henson. She gave the cold open life, she helped make the A League of Their Own parody extra uncomfortable, and she even managed to make Hollywood Game Night somewhat bearable. One of her strongest moments though came in a QVC sketch where she tried to sell a 3-way poncho but couldn’t figure out the third way to wear the poncho. The character is absurdly wacky, the kind of role that McKinnon shines in—and her selling tactics are equally absurd: “Look at her, she’s a perfect square!” she marvels, pointing at Aidy Bryant wearing the poncho. Sold.
- Henson’s impression of Nicki Minaj in the Home 2 sketch is good. Really good. Like, they should have just ditched “Connectatron” and given Henson a couple minutes to Minaj it up instead.
- Weekend Update was full of gems this week, including Billy Crystal’s cameo as Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy’s father. Although it was momentarily exciting to see Crystal pop up, it was—shockingly—Colin Jost and Michael Che who stole the segment. Highlight: “Afterwards, disappointed Wisconsin students took to the streets to riot the only way white people know how: without consequences,” Che said before the camera switched to Jost, who uttered a simple, “Hey.” Their rapport still isn’t the greatest, but it’s getting there—and this moment gives hope that Weekend Update has a bright future ahead.
- Henson showed up in Sasheer Zamata’s “How to Dance with Janelle” and really brought it with her dance moves. While the sketch wasn’t the most original, it was a fun few minutes that gave Henson a chance to use up some of her enthusiasm.
- This episode was full of spot-on racial humor, including the A League of Their Own parody: Henson and Jones try to get on the women’s baseball team, but the team—made up of white women—reject them, claiming that adding black women to the team would “complicate it.” “While our husbands are away, we’re the racists,” McKinnon explains matter-of-factly. The sketch ends with no one—well, except the men (surprise!)—winning once Taran Killam shows up to tell them the war is over and the men are back to take back the field.