Saturday Night Live recap: Aziz Ansari
Ansari provides enough energy and confidence to make up for the show's underwhelming political content this week
After an action-packed week of big-deal political moments (controversial confirmation hearings for cabinet nominees followed by the inauguration of President Donald Trump followed by the huge Women’s March protests across the country and the world), this episode’s cold open was a bit of a letdown in response. Starring Beck Bennett’s Vladimir Putin and rehashing the same Russian jokes we’ve all heard over and over again, the open had “Alec Baldwin wasn’t available this week” written all over it. Luckily, first-time host Aziz Ansari rose to the occasion in his monologue.
Ansari was unafraid to make political commentary during the election, even penning a much-praised New York Times opinion piece about how Trump’s political rise made him scared for his immigrant family. He continued in that spirit with his SNL monologue, which forged several shining jokes out of this country’s recent political tensions — and proved he’s willing to wade into potentially dangerous waters.
One of his first jokes, for instance, was a semi-defense of some Trump voters that climaxed with the premise that Trump is “the Chris Brown of politics,” in that they both have supporters who don’t endorse their more extreme behaviors. Just as there are people who listen to Chris Brown “for the tunes” and not for his violent history with women, so there must be people who voted for Trump for tax cuts or conservative Supreme Court justices rather than his xenophobic rhetoric. It was an interesting stance to take, especially when so many people are unwilling to give Trump voters the benefit of the doubt considering how much he makes many people feel threatened (as Ansari himself laid out in his New York Times piece), and the result was political analysis of a depth that SNL usually doesn’t reach.
Ansari’s entire monologue focused on how change is needed, and he concluded with an encouraging line about the inauguration weekend protests: “Change doesn’t come from presidents. Change comes from large groups of angry people. And if day one is any indication, you are part of the largest group of angry people I have ever seen. Good luck to you.”
Best Sketch: “La La Land Interrogation”
One of SNL’s most memorable parodies of recent years was “The Beygency,” which portrayed how talking to Beyoncé superfans can sometimes feel like dealing with an all-powerful spy network insistent that everyone not only like or respect Beyoncé’s music but love it. SNL hit that same note this week when Ansari was taken to task by cops played by Beck Bennett and Cecily Strong for not loving the Emma Stone/Ryan Gosling musical that’s been sweeping awards shows.
Ansari’s character, for his part, just didn’t like it. Strong and Bennett can’t accept that: “Why would a bad movie win SEVEN [Golden Globes]?” The sketch hilariously sends up the pop culture media echo chamber that exists at film festivals and on Twitter, in which one must either love something or hate it. Bonus points for additional jokes about Moonlight and Westworld (Kenan Thompson’s ambivalence about the HBO show lands him in a cell right alongside Ansari).
Best Political Moment
Despite its weaknesses, the Putin cold open did provide the episode’s best political insight. After dragging out Kate McKinnon’s Olya Povlatsky to prove how happy his citizens are, Putin missed her sneak beside him and don a pink Women’s March hat in defiance — a solid joke, especially on a weekend when people all over the world joined together to protest Trump’s inauguration at the Women’s Marches.
Weakest Sketch: “Five Stars”
It’s never a good sign when a parody acknowledges the very thing it’s referencing (in this case, the season 3 Black Mirror episodes “Nosedive” and “San Junipero”). It seems to portray both a lack of confidence in the audience’s intelligence and a lack of original spin to put on the premise. But the worst part of this sketch was the fact that it made Bobby Moynihan’s Uber driver Russian, and then saddled him with several unbecoming stereotypes — he’s dirty, uses horrible off-brand mints, etc. Combined with the Putin cold open, it created an off-putting perception of the Russian people as some evil unwashed horde. One of the pitfalls from recent stories about Russian intelligence allegedly working to aid Trump’s election is how easily some people fall back into old Cold War prejudices. SNL should watch out for that if it’s going to keep needling this thread.
Weekend Update Highlights
In the absence of Baldwin’s Trump, Colin Jost and Michael Che provided a few wispy jokes about the inauguration. Most were okay (Jost joking about how the Trump welcome concert in front of the Lincoln Memorial must have been “the second-worst performance Lincoln has ever attended”), although Che’s digression about how believing in feminism just means “not being a dick” drew yet more attention to the show’s essential political weakness: its inability to imagine that its opponents are not just misguided but may have actively rejected liberal values of diversity and equality.
Leslie Jones then provided some intensity when she came on to talk Hidden Figures’ success, eventually turning in a powerful monologue about media diversity that was so digressive it made Che crack afterward, “That was about Hidden Figures, right?”
Mikey Day was the segment’s other guest, playing a “nice guy” stuck in the Friend Zone in what was an unfortunate bit: The general “friend zone” concept continues to be played out and offensive in its insistence that treating a woman politely somehow entitles a man to a sexual relationship.
Best Musical Moment: “Bounce Back” by Big Sean
Big Sean is a skilled rapper, albeit one who’s never reached the starry accolades of contemporaries like Drake and Kendrick Lamar (Lamar, in fact, seems to delight in hijacking Big Sean songs with a paradigm-shifting verse of his own, as on 2013’s “Control”). At this point, it seems clear Big Sean will never reach that top tier, but he nevertheless has a lot of strengths, and this performance showed them off. Beneath the fog and shining mirrors, the most impressive aspect of this rendition was Big Sean’s ability to effortlessly slip between different rap flows.
Cast MVP: Beck Bennett
Bennett really shone this week. Although the cold open didn’t quite meet the expectations set by such an insane week, Bennett deserves props for handling the burden. His shirtless Putin is a pretty good character, so long as he avoids the low-hanging fruit of Russia jokes. He also had some of the best moments in this week’s best sketch, “La La Land Interrogation.” Bennett’s interrogator holding Ansari down on a table while half-screaming, half-pleading, “Tell me you saw them dancing in the sky!” was one of the funniest moments in the entire sketch. And when it comes to Kellyanne Conway, Bennett’s Jake Tapper remains an amusing avatar of bewilderment. Speaking of…
The show really needs to figure out its plan for the Trump administration. Although Baldwin’s Trump has been well-received, he’s not a cast member, and simply won’t be available every time the show needs to skewer the president. For god’s sake, Trump quoted Bane in his inaugural address. He’ll always be giving the show something to work with, and they simply can’t handicap themselves to Baldwin’s unpredictable availability.
It’s obvious that SNL was planning on four years of Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton. They seem to have settled on using Kellyanne Conway as a replacement role for the show’s biggest star, but Conway is simply not as complex a character as Clinton, and not nearly as sympathetic. The show’s route with her, continued in this week’s Chicago parody, has been to actively seek hidden depths or some secret guilt about having to work for Trump. The idea that Conway works for Trump because she actually believes in his conservative political ideology appears unfathomable to the show. It feels like they’re turning her into something she’s not because they didn’t really have a good backup plan for this, but they need to figure one out fast.