The actress riffed on the ups and downs of her career in the 12 years since she last hosted
It’s been 12 years since Natalie Portman last hosted Saturday Night Live, and honestly the results of her return raise the question of why she didn’t come back more often in the intervening years. Portman is a dramatic actress, and many of her most memorable characters — from Black Swan’s Nina to Jackie Kennedy — endure intense trauma. Yet she was a capable performer on Saturday, guiding the episode to completion with only one real dud sketch while humorously riffing on the ups and downs of her own career.
Portman actually only got a few jokes in during her monologue. One was about how she last hosted to promote V for Vendetta, and now the whole country feels like it’s promoting V for Vendetta. Another was an adorable joke suggested by her 6-year-old son about how P is the funniest letter in the alphabet. But the meat of the monologue was a joke about the upcoming Olympics, with Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, and Kenan Thompson acting as color commentators on Portman’s monologue. This combo didn’t quite make sense (except as NBC corporate synergy), but it gave the episode a dose of fourth-wall-breaking meta-weirdness that continued throughout the night.
Cold Open: “Fox & Friends”
Alec Baldwin’s Trump impression has been subject to diminishing returns since its 2016 debut, mostly because it often misses what is actually funny about the Trump presidency. Thankfully, this week’s cold open finally eschewed stale Putin jokes to zoom in on the single most absurd element of the current American moment: that the president gets all his information and insight directly from Fox News, to the point of insisting that the channel be blasted at full volume during high-level government meetings.
Cecily Strong played Hope Hicks, the current White House communications director, who isn’t always given her due as one of the stranger characters in the Trump saga. Having worked for Trump since before the campaign, Hicks seems to have survived the White House revolving door by virtue of personal loyalty to Trump; her title isn’t super-relevant because, as Strong explains to the SNL-ified Fox & Friends anchors, “There are no real jobs here.”
After Baldwin’s Trump finally made his appearance calling in to Fox & Friends from his White House bedroom, the show tried to tackle one of this week’s big political media topics, the Devin Nunes FBI memo. But perhaps because of the memo’s dubious merit — it certainly wasn’t the smoking gun Republicans promised — SNL couldn’t find much to say about it. The closest the show came was bringing Chris Redd’s Louis Farrakhan on to the Fox & Friends parody to humorously highlight the absurdity of wealthy white people calling the FBI corrupt and unlawful, when the FBI’s biggest target has always been black political activists.
Best Sketch: “First Lady”
Melania Trump is not a terribly interesting figure, but basing a sketch around past first ladies coming back to advise her did give Portman the chance to reprise her take on Jackie Kennedy. The overall impact is to show how degraded Trump-era scandals are from even the worst vagaries of past presidents. After all, Portman’s Jackie points out that Trump isn’t the first president to be accused of cheating on his wife (see: Marilyn Monroe and JFK), but Cecily Strong’s Melania retorts that an iconic actress is still a more reasonable infidelity than a porn star. As the sketch continues, Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton even makes her return in a hilarious entrance marked by flowing smoke and an evil cackle. Aidy Bryant also shows up as Martha Washington to observe that maybe the job of first lady has always meant spending time with someone who doesn’t like you and doesn’t treat you well, though Leslie Jones impersonates Michelle Obama to argue that last point. This show sure loves its Obama hagiography.
Best Short: “Natalie’s Rap 2”
Well, what did you expect? The biggest hit of Portman’s last SNL appearance was the “Natalie Raps” digital short, and she used her long-awaited return to craft a worthy sequel. The new rap began with the same aggressive style, updated with current references (Xanax, Tide Pods) but then remixed Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” into a badass declaration about motherhood (“I don’t dance now, I make mommy moves”) and defended the honor of the Star Wars prequels against their newer, more critically acclaimed successors. SNL’s old digital-short master, Andy Samberg, even returned in the same goofy Viking outfit to bless this second round.
Best Cameo: Tina Fey in “Revolutionary War”
The Philadelphia Eagles’ placement in Sunday’s Super Bowl gave the show the perfect opportunity to bring back Tina Fey and her impeccable Philly accent. The sketch in question placed her back in colonial times, suggesting a Boston-Philadelphia rivalry that predates even the founding of the United States (and, even more importantly, a shared resentment against both cities and their fanbases by everyone else). Rachel Dratch also made an SNL return to defend Boston’s honor alongside Harvard-educated Portman, but they were no match for Fey’s Philly disses: “Boston’s not even a real city. It’s a college town with fishing pier.” Kudos to the show for making a colonial-themed sketch in 2018 that didn’t make a single Hamilton joke.
“Weekend Update” Highlights
Like their cold-open counterparts, “Weekend Update” anchors Colin Jost and Michael Che struggled to find interesting things to say about the Nunes memo saga. It’s hard to riff on the Trump presidency in general when, as Che demonstrated, actual clips of the president talking are far more absurdly hilarious than any joke you could write. Che made the segment’s single greatest joke when he compared Trump’s stammering to “Colin when I asked him if his family ever owned slaves.” There’s a good tension between these anchors, and I like when they each try to catch one another off guard.
This week’s guest lineup, however, was fairly unimpressive. Kate McKinnon and Cecily Strong impersonated French actresses to riff on the weeks-old news that some of that country’s celebrities have taken issue with #MeToo; Pete Davidson came on to joke about the difficulty of making ad campaigns in such a fast-moving, politically charged environment (but mostly so he could talk about learning to masturbate with his left hand after breaking his other one); and Kenan Thompson played Che’s “overly optimistic” neighbor Willy, whose wide-eyed naivete allows almost everyone and everything around him to take advantage of him.
Worst Sketch: “Bunny”
The premise of this sketch was weird enough — Aidy Bryant’s maybe-homeless character Bunny lecturing Portman and Strong that they were being too prudish and should take any chance at sex they can get — but the fact that it ended with every character getting laid except for the responsible Strong left a strange aftertaste.
Best Musical Moment: “New Rules”
To be honest, the best musical moment of the show was undoubtedly Portman’s return to rapping. But the episode’s actual musical guest, Dua Lipa, did a capable job performing her single “New Rules,” which has steadily climbed the charts since its debut last year. It was even one of EW’s favorite songs of 2017, and Dua Lipa did it justice on stage.
Cast MVP: Beck Bennett
Bennett appeared in almost every sketch this week. He remains an impeccable straight man, capable of anchoring even the most absurd shenanigans, but he’s also up for getting goofy himself, as when he played Portman’s alien lover who literally talks out of his ass (bonus points for casting Star Wars actress Portman in a recognizable Star Trek riff).
When SNL returns from a three-week Olympics break on March 3, the show will be hosted by former NBA superstar Charles Barkley for the fourth time. This time, Barkley will be accompanied by hip-hop trio Migos as the show’s musical guests.
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