What is comedy’s role in tragedy, and our collective processing of it? In a world that seems to grow more tumultuous by the day, late-night entertainers have been forced to grapple with that challenging question on a regular basis.
Just days after dual tragedies rocked the music world — the horrific carnage brought by a lone gunman upon attendees of a Las Vegas country music festival on Sunday; the premature death of iconic American performer Tom Petty on Monday — Saturday Night Live abandoned humor and confronted the somber mood head-on.
The second episode of the show’s 43rd season began not with Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump impression or a slapstick skit, but with Jason Aldean, the country musician who was on stage when the bullets began to rain down on the audience of the Route 91 Harvest Festival. “You can be sure we’re gonna walk through these tough times together, every step of the way,” Aldean told the Studio 8H crowd and millions of viewers, “because when America is at its best, our bond and our spirit, it’s unbreakable.” Aldean then delivered a moving rendition of Petty’s 1989 anthem “I Won’t Back Down.”
It was the type of we’ll-be-talking-about-this-for-years SNL moment that any host, any cadre of cast members, any room of writers would have trouble following. But even considering that, the turgid episode, led by first-time host and Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot, fell far short. Lazily conceived — and sometimes distasteful — sketches abounded, and Gadot’s first turn as host didn’t produce any memorable roles.
Sometimes SNL takes a few episodes to find its groove after the summer hiatus. But after a lackluster premiere and last season’s unceremonious end, fans of the show can justifiably worry about its direction.
After Aldean’s powerful cold open, Gadot’s monologue was fortunately less gaudy than those of some hosts. She spoke in Hebrew to viewers in her native Israel — Saturday’s episode marked SNL‘s first live broadcast in the country — and was subsequently joined by Leslie Jones, the “Times Square Wonder Woman,” to compare notes on how their iterations of the DC heroine have inspired legions of fans. (Spoiler: Jones’ Wonder Woman inspires in some sleazier ways than Gadot’s.) The brief, disjointed monologue stood out, but for the wrong reason: It was one of just three minimal appearances the raucously funny Jones made in the episode.
Politics served as a focal point for SNL last season and played a role in this season’s premiere. On Saturday’s episode, current events were left entirely to Update hosts Colin Jost and Michael Che — and the results disappointed. In speaking about the Las Vegas tragedy, Jost compared owning 47 guns, like the shooter did, to owning 47 cats, explaining that the government would intervene with someone who owned four dozen felines. Later, Jost likened a viral video in which President Trump threw rolls of paper towels into a crowd of desperate Puerto Rican hurricane victims to the antics of a sports mascot. Comics can — and should — address such troubling events, but Update’s jokes skirted incisiveness in favor of milquetoast neutrality.
And appearances at the Update desk by two of the current cast’s leading talents, Kate McKinnon and Pete Davidson, underwhelmed. The former revived her impression of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her signature “Ginsburns,” but while watching McKinnon-as-Ginsburg breakdance after playing roastmaster never disappoints, the writing wasn’t there. (Example: “‘Sweaty Cheddar’ is what they called Steve Bannon in college.”)
Meanwhile, Davidson, who has repeatedly delivered as himself from the Update bench, drove a funny concept into the ground. Speaking about his recent diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, Davidson articulated steps depressed folks can take to feel better — and added that “if you’re in the cast of a late-night comedy show, it might help if they do more of your sketches.” Amusing on its face, the belabored premise quickly devolved into Davidson lamenting how his comedy writing isn’t as funny as it once was, squandering a real opportunity to marry humor with a vital message about mental health.
Best Sketch: “First Date”
Here’s one way to measure just how long Saturday Night Live has been on the air: O.J. Simpson’s murder trial occurred two decades into the show’s run. After serving nine years for an unrelated robbery trial, Simpson was granted parole and released from prison Oct. 1. Naturally, SNL addressed the news.
“First Date” contemplated the very real possibility that Simpson will soon begin dating again, and the sketch did so through the prism of a Bosnia-Herzegovinian love interest (played by Gadot) who spent the ’90s without access to television. Simpson, played by Kenan Thompson, met the woman through Bumble and a series of gags ensues: The restaurant’s waiter serves him his steak with a plastic knife, Simpson blames the excoriations of a fellow patron on racism, he asks Gadot’s character if she ever Googles the people she dates. On a stronger episode of SNL, “First Date” wouldn’t have stood out, but on Saturday it provided some of the show’s biggest laughs.
Best Digital Short: “The Chosen One”
Two seasons ago Pete Davidson introduced the character Chad, who is known for ambivalently stumbling through romantically charged interactions with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Benedict Cumberbatch. The character returned Saturday in “The Chosen One.” Upon seeing a glow from his closet, Chad puts down his video game controller and investigates, finding himself transported to a snowy, Tolkien-inspired fantasy realm.
Once there, leaders of the kingdom outline a world-saving quest to an indifferent Chad. In fact, the only elements that impress Chad are the promises of the queen (Cecily Strong) to take his virginity — after the quest, she reminds him when he drops his pants on the spot — and the phallic sword Beck Bennett’s character presents him. (“It’s like his sword is his penis,” Bennett’s character observes when Chad holds it to his crotch, “very clever.”) In an entertainment sphere where the self-serious fantasy stylings of Game of Thrones reign supreme, the lampooning of the genre in “The Chosen One” proved refreshing.
Best Mockery of Reality T.V.: “E! New Lineup”
“The world is a complete bummer right now, and here at E! we know that sometimes you just have to be like buhhh,” a peppy voiceover announces at the beginning of this ad for an imaginary slate of programming from the cable network, “so, turn your brain off with our new lineup of fall programming!”
In a conversation with Bella and Gigi Hadid on Kendall’s Model House, Kendall Jenner (Gal Gadot) questions her attractiveness — and ultimately has to ask her Alexa unit “which one” of the socialite supermodel cadre she is.
Later, the ad riffs on “the moments in The Kardashians where Kanye clearly doesn’t want to be on camera,” depicting the rapper (played by new castmember Chris Redd) army-crawling around his own home in Where’s Kanye?
Most Unnecessary Wonder Woman Retread: “Themyscira”
Just as last week’s host, Ryan Gosling, inevitably spoofed La La Land, the writers had Gadot riff on her breakout role as Wonder Woman. Jones’ appearance in the monologue suggested that, like Gosling, the reference would be confined to the episode’s start, but that didn’t come to fruition; for the penultimate sketch, “Themyscira,” SNL took us to the character’s titular home isle.
There, lesbian friends Megan (McKinnon) and Dre (Aidy Bryant) stumble across the matriarchal society — and are bewildered when Megan asks, “Show of hands, who all here is a lez,” and none of the Amazonians raise their hands. Their extended shock isn’t particularly amusing, though, stranding funny lines — “It’s like we’re in a porn, but the plumber is just genuinely there to check the pipes” — in a lackluster sketch.
Worst Sketch: “Mirage”
A true race to the bottom in this week’s episode — the fake ad for Safelite windshields made light of statutory rape, while “Espionage” propagated a pernicious caricature of working-class Americans — but “Mirage” was a spectacularly ill-conceived sketch, in which two National Geographic cameramen stranded in the desert (Kenan Thomspon, Beck Bennett) hallucinate. Thompson’s character sees a skimpily clad Gadot making lemonade and rubbing lemons on her shirt, while Bennett’s sees a Jamba Juice counter helmed by Mikey Day and Kyle Mooney. Jones’ cameo as Day and Mooney’s fired-up manager didn’t offset the bit’s uncomfortable objectification of Gadot.
Best Sam Smith Performance: “Pray”
Smith’s sleek fusion of pop and R&B was understated and easily overshadowed by Aldean’s moment in the spotlight. But the British crooner, who will release his second studio album, The Thrill of It All, on Nov. 3, nevertheless brought polished performances of his two new singles to SNL on Saturday. The second song he played, “Pray,” was also his best, a clattering ballad produced by Timbaland.
Episode MVP: Kate McKinnon
For the second consecutive week, SNL‘s star impressed with her versatility, from Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the woman visiting Themyscira to a mouse working to stitch together an admittedly ugly dress for a medieval maiden. (“We only live for a year, we basically gave you our twenties!” her mouse declares when Gadot’s maiden laments the shabby garment.) She’s a comic genius, sure, but Studio 8H desperately needs some of its other occupants to up their game.
SNL‘s third episode will feature host Kumail Nanjiani and musical guest Pink. Here’s hoping that Nanjiani’s comedic chops and Pink’s triumphant anthems infuse the installment with some much-needed verve.