Saturday Night Live recap: Fleabag's Phoebe Waller-Bridge kills it in hosting debut with musical guest Taylor Swift
Welcome back to SNL in Review, Coneheads! I’m your cruise director on this voyage through the seas of Saturday Night Live season 45. This week’s episode features the delightful Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag) and musical guest Taylor Swift.
Ratings from last week’s premiere, hosted by Woody Harrelson and featuring Billie Eilish as musical guest, were down about 15 percent in households and 30 percent in adults 18-49 from last season’s opener. Whether that’s telling of a larger trend in network late night, indicative of fans tiring the Alec Baldwin-as-Trump formula, or both, remains to be seen. I’d be disconcerted, to say the least, and eager to switch things up. It’s unclear if anyone on staff agrees, or agrees enough to let Lorne Michaels know.
On the heels of her recent Emmy Awards, Waller-Bridge has vaulted into stardom thanks to Fleabag’s brilliant, instant-classic second season. It truly is one of the best things on television, rightfully celebrated. So, knowing Waller-Bridge is a writer of unique ability — Amazon Studios just signed her to a $20 million annual deal to create/produce new content — how will she mesh with SNL’s modern tendency to produce comedy-by-committee? (If you have not read Dennis Perin’s scholarly thoughts on the subject, I highly recommend you do.)
Also, this is Swift’s fourth time appearing as SNL’s musical guest; she hosted in 2009. If we’re lucky we’ll be treated to one of SNL’s deep bench impressionists attempting to top Kristen Wiig’s stellar Swift portrayal from 2012.
Side note: the show missed an opportunity last week to display Melissa Villaseñor’s savvy take on Billie Eilish. Surely, it won’t botch the chance for her to riff on Waller-Bridge’s iconic, GIF-able fourth wall breaking. And new cast member Chloe Fineman’s take on Waller-Bridge is sharp as well. Dualing Fleabags, please!
Speaking of impressions, I am joined tonight by the excellent Jeff Richards, who appeared on SNL from 2001-2004. Given his expertise, we’re lucky to hear his take on the show’s many takes on public figures.
And away we go!
Back with the impeachment! A ton of political checkmarks, oh boy. We are just going through recent headlines again, like the South Park manatees are Mad Lib-ing the script. A few questions:
Did the world really need Matthew Broderick as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo? Does anyone have a sense of Pompeo enough to justify a celebrity impression, particularly from Ferris Bueller? Pompeo seems too burly and midwestern for Broderick’s nebbish affects. (Before being tapped as Pompeo, Broderick previously hosted SNL in 1988 and 1998, appearing in the classic Nude Beach sketch.)
Is Kenan Thompson actually channeling Jay Pharoah’s Ben Carson? Another 6ix9ine reference?
Man, Kate McKinnon goes all in with her savage take on Rudy Giuliani, doesn’t she? This cold open features Beck Bennett as a closeted Mike Pence, and a snake as Stephen Miller, and her Giuliani still comes off the worst. Jeff calls McKinnon’s work “freakishly wonderful” and “strikingly brave” – which certainly sums it up.
Finally, nice to see Chloe Fineman get in some background work as Pence’s assistant.
I am genuinely pleased so many people have embraced Fleabag. Waller-Bridge describes the character as “sexually depraved, foul-mouthed and dangerous.”
She’s killing this. You may recall Fleabag started as a one-woman monologue, and it feels like she heavily wrote this. Which is likely for the best. It’s slyly political and honest. I also like the shout outs to her role crafting Killing Eve. Great stuff.
What’s Wrong With This Picture?
So, first off, we have Thompson back as a game show host named Elliot Pants — very solid start! And Waller-Bridge is trying an… American accent?
We last saw contestants come up with wacky theories during the May 18th episode with Paul Rudd. This is fun — certainly stronger than the cold open — though “dumb contestants on a game show” is such a crutch, isn’t it?
Love Island spoof
Now we’ve got a righteous spoof of the British reality dating show, Love Island. Fineman continues to accrue some screen time tonight and she’s crushing it with the accent work! “Hulu: We got this and Handmaid’s Tale!”
WANU Mid-Day News
“The suspect is described as A White Male.” This is a nice showcase for Thompson, Chris Redd, and especially Ego Nwodim. Daytime news is another touchstone for the show, which is totally fine. I do wish — with someone like Waller-Bridge hosting — they would venture away from the obvious settings. This is a well-executed and energetic riff on race, however. And the crowd loves it. “Rock climbing in Utah?!”
The War in Words
Mikey Day dusts off another war letter riff. You may recall this sketch previously from the Claire Foy episode last December. (And, before that, a Civil War version from the brief Martin Short and Maya Rudolph variety show from 2016.) It’s curious seeing the show lean on material that’s likely been in writers’ back pockets, though again the audience is behind it. Day, usually known for checking pop culture nostalgia in his sketches, also commendably reacts in shock as the material tends to escalate. You can count on him to react in mock horror, if nothing else.
Taylor Swift — “Lover”
So, I will say this, after a few misguided PR missteps (involving: a heel turn, Kimye, and snakes, among other things) and, worse, a poor album in 2017’s Reputation, Swift returned to form with this year’s Lover. She sings a very nice, touching version of “Lover” here, about her relationship with boyfriend Joe Alwyn. It’s one of the album’s best tracks, mature, heartfelt, and a good choice to perform live. You can fault her public persona, but Swift’s songwriting and musical ear remain. (I am not sure I agree with the green art direction motif, however.)
Another hit squad on Trump from Colin Jost and Michael Che — just as pointed as last week. “Are we sure it’s okay to make fun of this guy?” Che’s strong metaphor is some of the best material the show has done on Trump. And Jost’s Biden jokes are fairer than I would’ve expected of SNL, given some of the low blows they attempted last season.
Next up: a smart and funny spoof of Elizabeth Warren’s recent Instagram posts, which feature her calling small money donors in her living room (and the occasional cameo from her dog, Bailey.) McKinnon has an obvious knack for tackling pols — her Warren is slightly warmer and tamer than the machete she took to, say, Hillary Clinton.
Oh, wow, Bowen Yang gets to debut on Update! As the top Chinese trade representative, Yang is hilarious. “I’m basically the Lizzo of China right now!” He’s certainly getting off on the right foot.
Also: JOST MENTIONS PETE DAVIDSON STILL BEING MIA! How long can the Suicide Squad shoot really go on for? Three Update characters tonight, which is interesting: Day brings back supercentenarian Mort Fellner, whom he previously played in February.
It’s fun to see Thompson performing what’s essentially Rudy Ray Moore a.k.a. Dolemite opposite a bunch of still Brits. Dolemite Is My Name is not even out on Netflix yet, guys! (Eddie Murphy deserves Oscar buzz, by the way.) I guess this is what SNL wants to do with Waller-Bridge tonight — playing the straight man/narrator. Huh.
Taylor Swift – “False God”
This is not one of my favorite tracks off Lover. The Kenny G sax gives it an interesting vibe — one of the jazzier things we’ve seen a pop star try on the show in a bit. I would’ve brought on the Dixie Chicks and done “Soon You’ll Get Better,” personally. That one has all the feels. At least it’s not “Me!” or one of those very mediocre singles. Honestly, the album is totally misled by very pandering and weak songs selected for promotion.
This has been a lite-Cecily Strong night, so good to see her alongside McKinnon and Aidy Bryant. “EX!” I’m honestly baffled the show asked Waller-Bridge to lean so much on her American accent tonight. No spoof of Fleabag? This sketch seems to weave wildly from schtick and some brief moments of pathos. I guess this was a vets sketch: no Heidi Gardner, no Nwodim, no Villaseñor.
That’s it! Let me know your thoughts below, or feel free to vote in this week’s poll! And thank you to former SNL alumnus Jeff Richards for his thoughts tonight, check out his Insta and go see him when he tours.
-Here’s a doozy of a factoid: Tuesday was the 14th anniversary of Bill Hader and Andy Samberg’s first episode as cast members. It was the first SNL episode to broadcast in high-definition (HD), after 30 years of broadcasting in analog. We can debate endlessly about what makes modern SNL so mediocre (or not), but I respectfully offer this to the poor souls in the comments section below: what if analog was funnier?
-Was Villaseñor in this episode?! I continue to be shocked that SNL does not utilize her more. Jeff says: “Melissa is the most dynamic and hilarious impressionist I’ve seen in a very long time.”
-We missed Baldwin’s Trump this week. Jeff mentioned to me: “It’s like Alec is stabbing Trump with his impression. Like a cat batting around a fake stuffed sardine. Love it.”