By Adrienne Onofri
December 16, 2018 at 10:37 AM EST
Will Heath/NBC
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Cold Open

With a week that saw Michael Cohen’s sentencing, the Oval Office showdown with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, a seemingly fruitless search for a new chief of staff, and the deepening of various Trump-related legal investigations, Saturday Night Live had plenty of material to work with — but instead went with a pretty lame and predictable spin on It’s a Wonderful Life in which the angel Clarence (Kenan Thompson) shows Donald Trump (Alec Baldwin) a world where he never became president. All the Trumpworld figures and their regular portrayers made an appearance — including Ben Stiller as Cohen and Robert De Niro as Robert Mueller — but… a spoof of It’s a Wonderful Life, really? That’s not only unoriginal for any TV show this time of year, it’s unoriginal for SNL: They did one with Newt Gingrich after the 1994 midterms (yes, I am that old that I remember it!). At least it provided a context for host Matt Damon to return as Brett Kavanaugh. His surprise appearance as Kavanaugh in the September premiere remains the show’s political-humor highlight this season, and he was back in “It’s a Wonderful Trump” still crowing about P.J. and Squee and gifting Trump with, what else?, a calendar (a beer-a-day calendar, of course).

There were a few good lines in the skit — turns out Hillary’s emails “were all Bed, Bath & Beyond coupons”; Trump calls his in-this-version ex-wife Melania “still smocking hot”; and Mueller speaks of the grandson he’s been able to spend time with, because “I don’t have to investigate some idiot for treason.” But the gags about what-would-have-been for Mike Pence, Kellyanne Conaway, the Trump boys, a Syrian immigrant who could have fixed Trump’s hair, etc., were generally DOA.

Monologue

A rarity: an SNL host who’s not on to promote a new project (Damon has no movie coming out). Another rarity: an SNL monologue with no singing, no backstage wandering, almost no jokes even. Instead, Damon told a heartfelt story about how his dad let him and his brother stay up and watch Saturday Night Live on the weekends they were with him growing up. Damon noted that his father had passed away a year ago Friday, mentioned his brother’s kids and his own four kids — and concluded with a toast “to all the moms and dads who let their kids stay up too late for all the right reasons.” Sweet.

Best Sketch(es)…and Music

Yeah, I’m a sucker for holiday entertainment, but the Christmas-themed skits and music truly were good. First, let’s talk about Miley Cyrus’ cover of John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”… with Sean Ono Lennon (and Cyrus’ co-musical guest, Mark Ronson) accompanying her! Did I say Damon’s monologue was heartfelt? Miley tore into the song like she was exorcising the nation of two years’ worth of despair and torment, tinged with a primal scream of hope. That had heart.

As for the sketches, the ones that were really about Christmas — as opposed to the neighbors-fighting-over-Weezer and guys-in-a-bar skits (both busts) that were vaguely set at Christmastime — were clever and fun. Easily the best: the one in which cast members portrayed ornaments relegated to the back of the Christmas tree — a.k.a. “the ornaments that are only seen by the wall,” as one of them says. It all begins with Drunk Santa (he holds a mug of beer) being deemed tacky and moved to the back of the tree, where he finds himself in the company of other ornaments that haven’t held up well, like a Rudy “America’s Mayor” Giuliani from 2001; a souvenir from Cleveland; a Harry Potter whose Quidditch broom broke (so he looks like “the cover of a Harry Potter porno”); something a kid made in kindergarten; and the onetime tree-topper angel now partially melted by a lightbulb. Damon played another of the rejects: a “For Your Consideration” promotional Good Will Hunting ornament — that has sound powered by a 20-year-old battery and “Happy Holidays from the Weinstein Company” stamped on the back. The premise was like the Island of Misfit Toys but for ornaments (or that Twilight Zone with the dolls at the bottom of a barrel), but this was actually original holiday humor, which can be hard to find this time of year (see above re: It’s a Wonderful Life spoofs).

Another first-half sketch, “Best Christmas Ever,” was able to mock us all for perhaps over-sentimentalizing our holidays, as a couple (Damon and Cecily Strong) reminisce about the wonderful day they just had while flashbacks show them losing their minds dealing with screaming, overexcited kids and their hard-to-assemble toys and putting up with tactless, farting, MAGA-hat-wearing relatives.

Even the lesser holiday skits were entertaining enough. Sure, the “Happy Christmas, Britain” show with Theresa May (Kate McKinnon) seemed like it was written at the last minute, but the quartet of dancing bobbies and Damon as former prime minister David Cameron made it worthwhile. And “Christmas at the Carnegie Lounge” retread some familiar ground for SNL — they’ve been sending up cheesy lounge acts since the beginning, haven’t they? — but it did treat us to Strong’s version of Barbra Streisand’s version of “Jingle Bells.”

Weekend Update

We finally got to meet Tommy! You know Tommy — the boyfriend of Angel, the boxer’s girlfriend in every boxing movie ever, who’s “takin’ the kids to my sister’s.” Heidi Gardner was back as this recurring Weekend Update character, and while she mostly just threatened to take the kids to her sister’s, Damon’s late arrival as Tommy was the high point of a weak Update.

The less said about the traveling-correspondent bit “Where’s Wes?” the better (especially since, isn’t this a riff on something Matt Lauer used to do on Today?!), and the Trump/Cohen jokes were okay but nothing special. And the finale, in which Colin Jost and Michael Che read jokes — supposedly without seeing them previously — that the other had written, had no great payoff. We get it: Jost is super-white, and Che, as a black comedian, can make jokes that the likes of Jost can’t/shouldn’t. Seth Meyers does a variation on this premise regularly on his show, so really, not fresh.

Special Nod for Hard Work

Goes first to Damon, who appeared in every sketch. That included a cute “Westminster Daddy Show” skit where he did that half-prancing, half-trotting thing show dogs do, and an Oscar-host audition segment in which he impersonated Chris Hemsworth and Matthew McConaughey (SNL cast members unloaded a slew of celebrity impressions for this one).

The other MVP has to be Miley Cyrus’ double-sided tape, or whatever it was that prevented a wardrobe malfunction. For both her songs, she wore an open jacket, with nothing underneath.

No new SNL shows till 2019!

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