By Shirley Li
December 09, 2018 at 05:19 AM EST
Will Heath/NBC
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Jason Momoa has so much screen presence. Honestly, if he’d spent the entire show opening pickle jars and staring straight into the camera’s lens, I wouldn’t have minded.

That said, it’s a good thing he didn’t. Momoa, despite the often stern characters he plays, can be quite goofy — his castmates have described him as the chattiest human being on set — and has appeared genuinely stoked all week to be to be hosting Saturday Night Live. (Who else would make a video diary while trying to put together a solid show?) That makes him a relatively easy actor to write sketches for: His size can comfortably serve jokes or be the butt of them, and his commitment just means he’ll be down to do whatever writers want to make him do, like, say, housework, or being shirtless in every other sketch. In other words, he’s always, always game. (He’s the kind of guy who has “an allergy to being ignored,” after all…) That enthusiasm must have been infectious at 30 Rock all week — and it livened things up just enough to make some of the episode’s stranger moments work.

Still, despite Momoa’s 110-percent investment in his inaugural hosting gig, this was another uneven installment that could have used more bite. (And maybe a single Aquaman-related sketch so Momoa could shout “my man” live? I guess that’s just me…) Here are the highlights.

Cold Open

Alec Baldwin didn’t pay Studio 8H another visit this week, but Robert De Niro did. The actor stopped by once more as Special Counsel Robert Mueller, this time to stalk Large Adult Son Eric Trump (Alex Moffat) in his youthful bedroom. (The minions lamp is a nice touch.) Eric thinks of him as a boogeyman — hey, Mikey Day’s Don Jr. doesn’t see him in Eric’s rather empty closet after attempting to read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas — but Mueller tells him not to worry: After all, he says, “No matter what happens, America is going to be just fine.”

It may be a message appropriate for a holiday-themed cold open, but it’s also toothless. Sure, there were pun-fueled jabs at Eric being the dimmest in the family — “My dad called Jeff Sessions mentally redacted” — and a hint at Don Jr.’s own legal troubles, but the political commentary was clumsily handled. And speaking of clumsy, how many cameos must De Niro make to get used to reading off of cue cards? For a two-time Oscar winner, he’s really struggling with delivering lines…

Monologue

At least first-time host Jason Momoa’s spirit matched the festive decor and saved that snooze of an opening. Bounding into the spotlight barefoot — and in pink pants, no less — the Aquaman star effused about his passion for all things SNL. (He loves telling his story about almost coming to New York to audition for the show.) “I’m so muscular to be hosting!” Momoa joked as soon as he reached the stage. Yeah, he gets it.

And by “it,” I mean the fact that as host, he’ll have to be up for everything — including a lot of sketches that’ll depend on his looks. That size! That height! That utter manliness that landed him roles like Khal Drogo and Arthur Curry! Most of his characters tonight either depended on Momoa’s Personal Brand or deconstructed it, with his monologue leaning into the latter. Right after acknowledging his “massively successful career” (and equally massive biceps), he begins getting emotional over finally getting to host SNL. As a way to pump himself back up, he has the band play a song he’d recorded for himself, reminding him and everyone watching that he’s “the strongest man in the world.” (Somewhere, The Rock cocks an eyebrow and tightens the belt on his Five-Timers Club smoking jacket. Probably.)

The monologue then brings some of the SNL cast onto the stage, beginning with Aidy Bryant, who just wants Momoa to open a jar and stare into her eyes. She’s followed by Kenan Thompson, Chris Redd, and Leslie Jones, who convince Momoa to don a pair of bedazzled sunglasses and accompany them on the “Aqua Boogie,” a tune for Aquaman that has lyrics describing him as someone who never learned how to swim.

Yeah, it’s… a lot, but then again, the rest of the night basically does the same: Everything involves a messily executed, but ambitious joke, held together as much as possible by an extremely game host.

Best Sketch

Oh, how I wish the Game of Thrones sketch took this title. (Alas, it does not — more below.) Instead, Momoa’s run started strong with this sketch, a twist on the elves-at-the-North-Pole outings of the past. Those elf trio gags always came with explicit sexual jokes, and this one was no different, only in this case, Momoa’s poor elf-on-the-shelf Scrabby is the only one who has a problem with his kid, Marshall, doing what a lot of teenage boys do. He doesn’t know whether this makes Marshall naughty or nice, only that he’d really rather sit and watch on the shelf of some other child.

The concept’s middling at best, but Momoa’s anguished line readings (“I want a new kid, Santa!”) — and the cast’s edited, chipmunk-y voices — gave the material a much-needed upgrade. It also helped that Momoa made a fully fledged character despite the little he’s given. Scrabby is just desperate to leave Marshall behind, but torn over his loyalty and the fact that, hey, 13-year-olds can’t help doing what they do alone in their bedrooms. And finally: The drawing of him, as the bearded elf on the shelf, was a solid note to end on.

Best Short

This could have been a one-joke short, but “Them Trumps” surprised me by going beyond its premise as a glimpse into a show (from the producers of Empire) chronicling what it would be like if Trump were black, and abruptly ending each “episode” with Thompson’s Darius Trump quickly being arrested, and then impeached. It’s solid — and more importantly, funny — commentary that works on multiple levels because of Thompson’s cocksure performance. If there’s anything I wish the short had a little more time for, it’d be to show Redd and Ego Nwodim dive deeper into their Trump counterparts. That said, bonus points for the use of the Empire font for the word “Them.”

Weekend Update

As much as I like SNL experimenting with what they’ve got, I’m mixed on the results of this week’s “Weekend Update.” The rapid-fire jokes about “Individual #1” and the president’s latest tweets were strong, but the jab at Kevin Hart was, well, just a jab. Pointing out Hollywood’s hypocrisy is low-hanging fruit; there’s so much more that could have been skewered around Hart’s embarrassing first attempt at an apology. Why play it safe on something like this?

Plus, the guests this week were… questionable. Aidy Bryant rules as a cast member, but her seventh-grade travel expert Carrie Krum felt like a rough draft to a better, sharper character. (Is the commentary about how kids have narrow worldviews, or something along the lines of “flyover states aren’t that exciting”? That wasn’t clear to me.) Besides, Stefon, the last great “Weekend Update” mainstay, was a creation that recommended locations to visit. If Carrie’s reason for stopping by the show is the same, she has an extremely high bar to clear.

As for Che being a guest himself, well, I appreciated that it led to more Che-Jost banter — one of the highlights of “Weekend Update” — but bidets as a topic? [Seth-and-Amy voiceREALLY? Newbie comedians constantly talk about airplane toilet seats, and this was similar to that. So again, low-hanging fruit, guys.

The Sketch of Ice and Fire

Oof. SNL has had a rough history with Game of Thrones spoofs, especially when cast members are involved; a good take on the HBO hit is about as rare as dragonglass. (Sorry — had to.) And though this one seemed promising at the start, with its admirably nerdy-but-zany format of having Momoa’s Khal Drogo co-host a talk show alongside Thompson’s bloodrider that involved chatting with dead characters, it became overcrowded with ideas as more and more cast members came along.

The sketch never figured out what its point was: Did it simply want to poke fun at how the show has killed off a lot of people over the years — a joke that’s, oh, seven years late? Or did it want to serve as a gag machine, which is why we got a random Kevin Hart line in the middle of Heidi Gardner’s appearance as Brienne of Tarth? (And even then, Momoa unfortunately butchered it. There’s a reason why Khal Drogo avoided speaking English.) Oh, and why did no one spell-check Olenna Tyrell’s name?! The Queen of Thorns would not approve.

All in all, it’s a fascinating missed opportunity, and I can’t complain too much — Drogo rode again, didn’t he? For comedy? And just for the record, the best Thrones sketch remains this game-show gem, featuring not only geeky Easter eggs spelled correctly, but also a little added SNL flair — like Bill Hader’s host’s name — and a real Thrones cast member. See? A good Thrones sketch is possible!

The 10-to-1 Honorable Mention

I’m a sucker for an elaborate, inexplicably nonsensical joke, and this short delivered, thanks to both Momoa and Beck Bennett’s intense commitment into its absurdity. Momoa’s reading of “Son of a bitch, yes!” in response to Bennett’s high-pitched teasing made me giggle. It was late, and it got me, I guess. Hehehehehe.

Musical Guest: Mumford & Sons

Good on SNL for booking a musical guest that brought just as much energy as the host did. Okay, so it’s not like the producers could have known that Mumford & Sons would also deliver some electrifying performances, but I’m glad they did. The British band performed “Guiding Light,” their first single off their fourth album, Delta, then later returned to play “Delta,” above.

Cast MVP

Gotta hand this one to Mikey Day, who did his best to save sketches like “Day of the Dorks,” “An Extra Christmas Carol,” and “Rudolph’s Big Night,” the latter two of which had the same basic joke: What happened after [insert classic holiday story] ended? Day’s been a consistently strong addition to the cast: See his one line in the “Gemma Sleigh Ride” sketch, which illustrated a near-fully-formed character despite roughly two seconds of screen time.

On that note, honorable mention to Cecily Strong, who returned on that sleigh ride as Gemma, the British “singer” who’s always dating some douche — played alternately by The Rock, Benedict Cumberbatch, and now Jason Momoa — and never shies away from debuting her latest track.

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