The first-timer rings in the holidays with help from some 'SNL' veterans

By Devan Coggan
December 18, 2016 at 05:33 PM EST
Will Heath/NBC
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Ahh, December: Christmas lights are strung from the trees, ugly holiday sweaters are fished out of storage, and Saturday Night Live alumni are returning to Studio 8H. The annual Christmas episode is usually one of the cheeriest of the year, as ghosts of episodes past return to the show for a few festive cameos.

2016’s installment was no exception. First-time host (and Oscar frontrunner) Casey Affleck was joined by some of the show’s most beloved guests: After taunting Donald Trump on Twitter all week leading up to his appearance, Alec Baldwin once again donned the Donald’s wig and orange makeup for the cold open, where he was accompanied by John Goodman as Trump’s secretary of state pick Rex Tillerson (more on that later).

The pair later hijacked Affleck’s monologue, with Goodman declaring that between the three of them, they’ve hosted the show a whopping 31 times. The always-welcome Fred Armisen also popped up for his zillionth cameo since departing the show, confirming my suspicion that Armisen never actually left and is instead living in the rafters of 30 Rock.

Still, despite all the famous SNL faces, this was Affleck’s show, and in his monologue, he poked fun at the fact that he’s a bit of an odd choice to host: Right now, he’s known less as a comedic powerhouse and more as the star of the most depressing movie of the year, Manchester by the Sea. “It’s not as sad as Ocean’s Twelve, which I was also in,” Affleck added. But although he’s not exactly a Goodman, a Baldwin, or an Armisen, Affleck wasn’t half bad! He seemed a little over his head in some of the show’s sillier moments (like as a kinky elf in Santa’s workshop), but other sketches allowed him to shine, especially when he got to tap into his Bostonian roots as a Dunkin’ Donuts-obsessed psycho.

Still, the episode couldn’t help but feel like an audition for Chance the Rapper, who not only lit up Studio 8H as the episode’s musical guest but straight-up stole the show in several sketches. NBC, please book Chance as a 2017 host ASAP.

Best Sketch

Hillary Clinton might have lost the election, but thankfully, we haven’t seen the last of Kate McKinnon’s top-notch impression. Here, the Democratic nominee channeled Andrew Lincoln in Love Actually, bringing her own cue cards to implore an electoral voter to ditch Trump. After citing Trump’s erratic behavior — from his refusal of security briefings to his global business conflicts — Clinton invited Cecily Strong’s elector to vote for literally anyone else. Tom Hanks. Zendaya. The Rock. May we suggest McKinnon’s Clinton impression?

Best Political Moment

You better watch out, you better not cry… Vladimir Putin is coming to town. Beck Bennett’s shirtless Vlad came down Trump’s chimney in the cold open to flatter the president-elect and do a little cyber recon. “I was just in town,” Putin declared as he hijacked Trump’s internet router. “You know, hiding in the walls.”

From there, Goodman popped up as Trump’s secretary of state pick, Rex Tillerson, who proceeded to embrace Putin like a long-lost brother and start planning how to open up oil drilling worldwide. “Then we destroy Vanity Fair, right?” Trump whined in the background. Sure, they reassured him. Sure.

Best Use of Chance the Rapper

In addition to his two musical performances, Chance the Rapper made an appearance in two sketches, including one that had him strapped into a massive puppet so he could play all three wise men in a nativity scene. But the highlight came when Chance and Kenan Thompson reimagined Run-D.M.C.’s “Christmas in Hollis” as the last Christmas with Barack Obama as president. (The real Darryl McDaniels even popped up for a cameo.)

“Hey, kid, enjoy the presents while you can because next year you might get a bomb from Iran,” they rapped. “Look, man, we got birth control under the tree, and we’re stuffing every stocking with legal weed!” The pre-taped bit also took advantage of Affleck’s scraggly beard by casting him as a breakdancing Jesus, while Leslie Jones rapped about her undying love for Joe Biden and his ice cream obsession. (Same, Leslie.)

Weakest Sketch

In December of last year, Ryan Gosling hosted, and in many ways, Affleck’s episode felt like a little bit of Gosling déjà vu, including the stellar return of Kate McKinnon’s chain-smoking abductee Ms. Rafferty. (In Gosling’s episode, she was abducted by aliens; here it was a Christmas goat man called Krinklemouse.) That also meant the reprise of last year’s punishment-obsessed Christmas elves, which fell flat. Again. Here’s hoping the elves stay at the North Pole and don’t return for another episode in December 2017.

Best Short

Affleck’s most memorable moment came in this pre-taped bit, with the host playing a Bostonite named Donny, the self-proclaimed “Mayor of Dunkin’ Donuts.” Whether he’s falling into coffee displays or arguing with the manager about whether or not he can smoke inside, Affleck perfectly taps into Donny’s dirtbag ethos.

Weekend Update Highlights

Colin Jost and Michael Che devoted much of the last Weekend Update of the year to the president-elect, riffing on everything from the Russia hacking to Alexander Hamilton’s involvement in the electoral college. “It’s pretty ironic that because of Hamilton, a black guy is getting recast as a white guy,” Jost deadpanned. They also closed out the segment by revisiting some of the year’s cut jokes, some of which soared and some of which should’ve stayed on the cutting room floor.

After popping up as the designer of a gay robot in one sketch, Fred Armisen also returned to the Update desk with Vanessa Bayer as Putin’s childhood best friends. In the past, this passive-aggressive pair has riffed on everyone from Kim Jong-Un to Bashar al-Assad, and they were in fine form once again as they whispered about Putin’s party etiquette.

Best Musical Moment

When he wasn’t stealing scenes in sketches, the Chicago rapper took the stage to perform “Finish Line/Drown” and “Same Drugs” off his recent album Coloring Book. Joined by Noname and Francis and the Lights, Chance got festive with red overalls and a holiday sweater, and his dynamic performances brought plenty of energy to Studio 8H. I repeat: NBC, please book Chance as a 2017 host ASAP.

Cast MVP

Kate McKinnon continues her reign as SNL’s most dynamic player, reprising her incredible Hillary impression and her ghostly Kellyanne Conway. But as far as non-McKinnon players go, this one probably goes to Beck Bennett, who’s always delightful, whether he’s sliding down the chimney as a shirtless Vladimir Putin or playing an inexplicably gay robot.

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