After a few middling installments, Saturday Night Live finally found its rhythm in what was easily its best episode of the season so far.
Kumail Nanjiani proved to be a strong, reliable, if never quite standout host, demonstrating the strength of having a comedian on hand to deliver the opening monologue. Nanjiani’s clever routine began by riffing on his smash hit The Big Sick, which he stars in and co-wrote, before delving into more interesting and provocative territory, tackling racism and Islamophobia as only he could. Nanjiani noted that he’s frequently told to “Go back to India!” on social media — even though he’s from Pakistan — and that Islamophobia is “kind of like Will & Grace: It was huge a while ago,” and now it’s back and bigger than ever.
In one of his funniest bits, Nanjiani described the thing that really irritates him about “some” racists: “It’s the inaccuracy…. Do the research, put in the work!” he quipped. “You will see the benefits…. Just because you’re a racist doesn’t mean you have to be ignorant. An informed racist is a better racist.” The crowd howled.
Nanjiani’s presence faded in the sketches, unfortunately, where his characters were rarely more than functional. But he did a solid job, and the show really got its act together otherwise. After avoiding the subject last week, the show found a few intriguing ways to respond to the Harvey Weinstein scandal, and Kate McKinnon’s Kellyanne Conway made a spectacular return in a digital short even better than last season’s Fatal Attraction spoof.
We also were back to the standard cold open after last week’s powerful, mournful Jason Aldean performance, with Alec Baldwin reprising his Emmy-winning role as Donald Trump. It’s the mark of a strong episode when our weekly political sketch is also, by a fair margin, its weakest.
The cold open is once again essentially a recap of the week in politics, colored with exaggerations and Baldwin’s extreme facial expressions. As Trump is continually distracted from talking tax reform while at a “Trucker Rally,” we get references to everything from his tension with Rex Tillerson to his apparent desire to “get rid of everything Obama did.” (“We’re ripping out all the vegetables in Michelle Obama’s garden and planting McNuggets.”) Increasingly, the weekly schtick depends on whether you still find Baldwin’s impersonation at all funny, since the show offers so little additional perspective beyond the absurdity inherent in our politics right now.
The throughline for the sketch was a little sharper, at least: Trump checking in on Pence by phone and demanding the vice president leave various locations. The first, of course, is another sports event where a player is caught kneeling during the national anthem. But Trump’s also got a problem with Starbucks promoting the return of pumpkin spice over saying “Merry Christmas,” and Pence attending a same-sex wedding.
Though they steered clear of the topic last week, Colin Jost and Michael Che tackled the Harvey Weinstein scandal head on to start this installment of Weekend Update. They introduced the topic subtly during a discussion around the newly revealed Apple emojis: “A persona at a spa, a vomiting face, and a shushing finger,” Jost began, “finally giving emoji fans the ability to describe what it was like to work for Harvey Weinstein.” He then got a little more pointed, mocking Weinstein’s decision to go to a “European” treatment center before suggesting where he should really be: “prison.”
In the wake of an Oct. 5 exposé on Weinstein from The New York Times that detailed “decades” of alleged sexual harassment, numerous women have come forward with allegations of their own experiences with the Hollywood mogul. Che got frank about why SNL had not yet addressed the allegations, calling the subject a difficult one for comedians to discuss tastefully. “It’s so hard to make jokes about sexual assault, but it’s so easy to make jokes about a guy who looks like this,” he said. “You assaulted dozens of women. That’s not a mistake; that’s a full season of Law & Order.”
The pair also addressed Trump’s claim via Twitter that the Affordable Care Act is “imploding”: “You can’t say it’s imploding when you’re actively destroying it. Godzilla never tweeted, ‘Tokyo is totally imploding right now, I alone can solve!’”
Best Sketch: “Film Panel”
SNL’s satirical Hollywood roundtable sketch has been one of the series’ most reliable formats over the last few years, and this week’s iteration didn’t disappoint. Kate McKinnon reprised her role as fictional Old Hollywood actress Debette Goldry, a woman with a seemingly limitless set of wild Tinseltown anecdotes. “I actually did have one meeting with Harvey, okay?” she claimed. “I was invited to his hotel room, and when I arrived he was naked, hanging upside down from a monkey bar. He tried to trick me into thinking his genitals were actually his face. It almost worked — the resemblance is uncanny.”
The sketch also used the format to address significant issues that have come up in the aftermath of the reports on Weinstein. Cecily Strong’s Marion Cotillard criticized men expressing their sympathy by noting they have daughters, while Leslie Jones, as Viola Davis, said sternly, “Women who speak up get called crazy.” Overall, it was a fitting, if entirely funny, response to the scandal that helped correct last week’s oversight.
Best Digital Short: “Kellywise”
A good portion of Saturday’s episode was Kate McKinnon doing her greatest hits — like in this kind-of sequel to last year’s Fatal Attraction-themed digital short. SNL once again imagined McKinnon’s Kellyanne Conway as a stalker of a CNN staffer, this time Alex Moffat’s Anderson Cooper. And this time, their pop-culture reference point was It.
As Cooper heads home from work, McKinnon’s Conway is lurking in the sewer, sporting clown makeup and a devious smile. “I’ll give you crazy, crazy quote,” she repeats when he finds her, after calling herself “Kellywise the Dancing Clown.” McKinnon then goes a little meta, shifting to her Hillary Clinton persona, who has better luck at luring Cooper into the sewer with a copy of her book, What Happened. It’s another tour-de-force for McKinnon, and a smart, blisteringly funny parody.
Best Sketch Involving a Trump character: “Customer Service”
This week’s episode featured Alec Baldwin’s cold-open turn as Donald Trump and Cecily Strong’s Ivana Trump in Weekend Update. But this week’s best impersonation of a Trump was reserved for the final bit of the night: a digital short in which Strong’s Melania Trump returns and forges a connection with a call center employee played by Nanjiani. It showcases the best of Strong’s take on Melania, alternately aloof, childlike, and surprisingly pensive. “It’s difficult to talk to [Donald] about things that are not solid, things that are abstract,” she tries explaining. They go back and forth, growing closer over the phone, until she becomes First Lady and moves on — but not without a warm in-person goodbye.
Best Geriatric Sex Joke: “Nursing Home”
As ever, several SNL sketches this week hinged on one, elongated joke. The best of them was set at a nursing home, where Kate McKinnon — surprise! — stole the show without saying a word for much of it. The premise: McKinnon plays a grandmother in a nursing home and is being visited by family. Nanjiani’s unusually revealing doctor comes to greet them, however, and things get plain bizarre from there.
It’s quickly discovered that granny has gonorrhea and just received a penicillin shot. “Your grandmother may be 91,” Nanjiani tells her grandson (Mikey Day), “but she has a very active sex life.” It only builds from there, as we learn just how frequently — and with how many people — this quiet old woman still manages to do the deed (a lot). McKinnon’s many knowing smirks keep the sketch funny enough to sustain itself, and the mountain of geriatric sex details is just silly enough to work.
Worst Sketch: “Hotel Check In” and “Office Halloween Party” (tie)
Fortunately, none of the sketch’s in Nanjiani’s episode were seriously bad, but there were two one-joke premises that didn’t really go anywhere. The first takes place at a Halloween office party, as the boss (Beck Bennett) calls in from out of town to inform his employees that he has Hepatitis A — and that the cake he made for them shouldn’t be eaten. (They already ate it.)
The other, set in the “Chatsworth House” Marriott Hotel, centers on a documentary filmmaker (Day) who’s just been rescued from North Korea by the U.S. government and is trying to check in to his room. Problem is, he can’t get past the check-in guy (Nanjiani) trying to sell him on the hotel’s many amenities. “I just want to check into my room,” Day’s character repeats. Delightful as it is to hear Nanjiani recite the wonders of the “stargazer lounge,” the sketch falls flat by hitting the same beats over and over.
Best Pink Performance: “Beautiful Trauma”
Pink’s return to the spotlight with new album Beautiful Trauma — demonstrating her steady presence in the unpredictable music industry — was fully on display in her two excellent SNL performances. The new album’s first single, “What About Us,” has been a radio staple over the past month, but even more satisfying was her energetic, emotional rendition of the album’s title track, “Beautiful Trauma.” If you’re a Pink fan at all, you can’t go wrong with either of these performances.
Episode MVP: Kate McKinnon
McKinnon owned Nanjiani’s episode. It had been a while since her last turn as Kellyanne Conway, and her latest spin on the Trump advisor was gasp-inducing. She cameoed her Hillary Clinton with grace, silently stole a sketch as a sexually active granny, and most hilariously, triumphantly skewered Harvey Weinstein — and a few others in Hollywood — by bringing back one of her great creations, Debette Goldry. With other typical standouts like Leslie Jones and Beck Bennett were barely used this week, here was a case of McKinnon running away with the MVP title.
Larry David is returning to host for a second straight season when SNL returns on Nov. 4. He’ll be joined by musical guest and current The Voice coach Miley Cyrus. The two have some history together: David once guest-starred on Hannah Montana for his daughter, who at the time was a huge fan of the show.