Expectations can wildly affect how a Saturday Night Live episode is received. A storied comedian, possibly even with ties to SNL, can build plenty of pressure, while a sports star with little acting experience can be a worrying sign for the show’s live portions.
But a host pulling double duty as musical guest faces even more expectations, especially one who has transitioned from acting to mostly performing. But when Ariana Grande took to the stage of Studio 8H, the question of how well she’d contribute was quickly answered from the monologue on, as the “Dangerous Woman” singer not only nailed her musical performances, but also shone as the best part of some of the night’s sketches.
Had someone told me at the top of Saturday Night Live that Ariana Grande would do a funnier impression than Jay Pharoah in a sketch, I’d have thought they were crazy. Yet that’s exactly what happened during the night’s “Celebrity Family Feud,” sketch, an all-too-familiar excuse largely for the cast to strut out a host of (admittedly fun but superfluous) impersonations. But it was Grande’s shockingly good Jennifer Lawrence, complete with deeper voice and, as Kenan Thompson’s Steve Harvey called it, “annoyingly relatable” behavior, Grande proved she could hold her own amongst the SNL players. (Pharoah’s Idris Elba once again showcases the comedian’s knack for nailing celebrity voices, but the jokes weren’t quite there to complement his impersonation like they were for Grande’s Lawrence.)
And Grande delivered again and again during a night that was never incredible but enjoyably consistent. No outright bombs were in sight, and Grande often saved the sketches that almost became near misses. (The night’s random “Sound of Music” sketch fell flat except for Grande’s Maria with modern day affectations, clapping her hands to emphasize her point like an emoji made real.)
The first signs of a good night came in an opening that, yes, saw the return of Larry David as Bernie Sanders (who also introduced Grande during her musical bits, amusingly flubbing her name ahead of “Dangerous Woman”), but also brought back an SNL not willing to pull its punches. Having Darrell Hammond’s Donald Trump tell the crowd “What did I say? Not this one,” after Pharoah’s Ben Carson is attacked at a rally is the type of lines with bite SNL hasn’t been able to inject into the Republican side of the race. There’s still plenty of room to grow, but that, coupled with Pharoah’s always wonderful Carson impression, offered a good bellwether for the night.
The show’s staff seemed to be aiming for quality over originality, making for a surprisingly enjoyable night with little in the way of actual surprises. Grande proved herself a worthy addition to the hosting pool (and possibly even scored herself an opportunity to return) thanks to several of the night’s sketches, including…
This Is Not a Feminist Song
“Do It in My Twin Bed” may never be dethroned, but SNL’s continued use of its female castmembers for pre-recorded musical sketches continues to be one of the best things about the show’s last few years. “Feminist Song” is a fine addition to the collection, as all of the women go out of their way to point out the song’s lack of feminism, only to realize it may have been full of it all along. Throw in some delightfully cheesy beachside shots from Coney Island, and you’ve got a song with just enough of a compelling point that is also catchy enough to listen to now and then on its own.
Tidal is breaking down, and the future of the streaming service is in the hands of intern (a meek Grande) to impersonate the service’s biggest artists. SNL first trumpeted out this sketch with Bruno Mars saving Pandora (which remains one of the great yet unwatchable sketches of the last few years because of those pesky copyright laws). So while the idea is not a fresh one, Grande makes it work with a host of spot-on impressions. From her Britney Spears to her Celine Dion to her unexpected Shakira, nearly all of her covers are fun riffs on familiar voices (though the punchline to her Rihanna bit works better than her actual performance). Nothing new, but still decidedly fun.
A Scandalous Monologue
Grande predictably pulls out a musical number for her monologue. Thankfully it’s one of the funnier hooks to build a monologue song around, as Grande searches for her first real, adult scandal. The true “scandal” of it all, of course, may be that Grande says “Oh s—” midway through the song (sadly cut out of the versions put online), inserting a meta moment that generated headlines even as the episode aired. A fun, smart way to kick off the show and an added bonus in an episode that did not shy away from using Grande’s vocal talents outside of her two musical performances. (Both of those, by the way, “Dangerous Woman” and “Be Alright” are quite good.)
The Not-So-Little Mermaid
“Mermaids” has really only one gag, but it’s tough not to at least initially laugh at Kate McKinnon dressed as a monstrous mermaid “Shud,” made of 35 percent woman and 65 percent blobfish. Your mileage may vary, but McKinnon’s commitment to the oddities of Shud and Beck Bennett’s thinly veiled disgust makes for a silly, but still funny, sketch that doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Hillary Clinton Campaign Ad
Hillary Clinton has always been campaigning for the millennial vote, calling for a revolution in the streets while reminiscing about her boyhood in Brooklyn. Oh, no? That’s been Bernie Sanders? Well McKinnon’s Clinton hopes you won’t notice in this new campaign ad, as Clinton, desperate for the youth vote, slowly transforms into her opponent for the Democratic nomination. McKinnon’s commitment is better than the sketch itself, but seeing her Clinton as Bernie Sanders is a worthy punchline.
Is Cecily Strong’s “Drunkest Girl on The Bachelor” an amalgam of other characters she’s played on Update? To a certain extent, yes. (Though fans of the reality series may notice her uncanny resemblance to one particular contestant, Lace.) Yet it doesn’t stop Strong from turning in some hilarious lines, like knowing she fell in love with Colin Jost when she saw an opportunity to be on TV or calling him out for glancing at cue cards and Michael Che and not looking at her. Again in a night where little felt new, this was a fun variation on previous material.