Welcome back to Studio 8H.
Donald Trump’s least favorite television show is back for season 43, with the ever-delightful and perpetually handsome Ryan Gosling making his return to the stage. The Blade Runner 2049 star first hosted Saturday Night Live back in December 2015, and at the time, he proved himself capable and charming … albeit prone to breaking. Here, he delivers more of the same.
In all, the first episode of the new season had its highlights, but it didn’t quite feel as exciting and spectacular as SNL season premieres past. There was a starry guest, a few celebrity cameos, and some decent political jokes, but really, it felt like a kind of boring start to the new season.
Gosling kicked things off by reminding us all that he was in La La Land and that he, singlehandedly, is responsible for “saving jazz.” It’s a premise that might have felt a little fresher had it not aired seven months after the Oscars, but Gosling was, as always, delightful, swapping Harrison Ford stories and puffing on a cigarette while “playing” the piano. Add in a cameo by his costar Emma Stone and Gosling’s pronunciations of “Nerlins,” “Chicagee,” and “NYC City,” and you’ve got a solid monologue.
Of course, it’s impossible for the show to cover every single political thing that’s happened since the season finale in May. (Anthony Scaramucci! Steve Bannon! Covfefe!!!) Smartly, they decided to focus on the Trump scandal at hand: the president’s unpopular response to the devastation in Puerto Rico. Aidy Bryant donned brown contact lenses to play Sarah Huckabee Sanders, with Melissa Villasenor as Puerto Rico’s Carmen Yulín Cruz and Alex Moffat doing a decent Chuck Schumer impression. It was fine, but things picked up when Kate McKinnon showed up as mildly racist Keebler elf Jeff Sessions. Baldwin and McKinnon have great comedic chemistry, as evidenced by all of their sparring as Trump and Hillary Clinton, and here, you can tell they’re having fun.
Still, the cold open didn’t feel all that different from past cold opens with Baldwin’s Trump — and it felt more like a midseason episode than the season premiere. The show’s been off the air all summer, and this is the best they could come up with?
After the muted cold open, the only one who showed any real political outrage was Michael Che, who let loose during Weekend Update. After reading aloud some of the president’s tweets about Puerto Rico, Che called Trump both a “bitch” and a “cheap cracker,” criticizing his disaster relief response. It was a fiery moment during an otherwise politically quiet SNL, and here’s hoping that the rest of season 43 looks more like this and less like the so-so cold open.
McKinnon also made her return to the Update desk as poor German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who calls Trump a “mutter-fuhrer” and spends the entire segment pining over her lost love, Barack Obama. Poor Merkel.
Also welcome was the return of Alex Moffat as the Guy Who Just Bought a Boat (with a bonus appearance by Gosling as the Guy Who Just Joined Soho House). It’s a silly, specific premise bolstered by Moffat’s performance and his pronunciation of “frag,” as in “fragrance.”
Best Sketch: “Papyrus”
Gosling is a “serious actor,” not a comedian, and he was at his strongest when he had a specific, dramatic character to grab onto. Nowhere was that more evident than in the strongest sketch of the night: an extended riff on the fact that James Cameron’s Avatar, an 8-year-old billion-dollar blockbuster, used the font Papyrus. It’s dumb. It’s specific. It’s executed perfectly. I’ve watched it like four times already.
Best Use of Kate McKinnon: “Another Close Encounter”
This sketch, about a trio of alien abductees, originally debuted when Gosling hosted for the first time back in 2015. As a bewildered McKinnon described her bizarre and hilarious alien encounter, Gosling couldn’t stop laughing, and here, he can’t keep it together either. Expect to see a lot of GIFs in the future of McKinnon poking and prodding Gosling’s rear end.
Most Dramatic Freakout Over Pasta: “Italian Restaurant”
Gosling broke and started laughing in not one or two but three different sketches: the alien abduction sketch, “Henrietta and the Fugitive,” and this, a sketch about a couple who are really, really passionate about authentic Italian food. Gosling once again got to get dramatic, as he and his fiancée (Cecily Strong) get increasingly distraught over the revelation that their Italian food is not from a high-end restaurant but — gasp! — Pizza Hut.
Best Skewering of HGTV: “The Fliplets”
HGTV! Because your house sucks! This goofy home renovation show sendup pokes fun at the Property Brothers with a show called The Fliplets. Mikey Day’s the suave real estate agent, Alex Moffat is the rugged carpenter, and Gosling is the weird third brother, prone to saying things like, “Religion is a drug.”
Also, fun fact: There actually is a third Property Brother! He’s not a triplet, but he’s a brother to the twins. His name is J.D. Scott, and he used to be an Adam Lambert impersonator. Which, come to think of it, sounds a lot like the premise of an SNL sketch.
Worst Sketch: “Henrietta and the Fugitive”
In this off-the-rails old movie parody, Gosling’s the fugitive, on the run from the law, and Aidy Bryant is Henrietta. Henrietta is a chicken. It’s a fun premise, and Bryant gave it her all, but it never quite comes together, especially once Gosling started breaking. An occasional chuckle is charming, but constant laughter and blown cues just make everything feel sloppy.
Most Forgettable Commercial Parody: “Levi’s Wokes”
Ugh, do we really need a sketch where Gosling makes fun of trigger warnings? This fake jeans commercial had its moments, but mostly, it fell flat and suffered from a lack of direction. Is it poking fun at general “woke” culture and political correctness? Or is it skewering brands who try (and fail) to be socially conscious because research shows that millennials like that kind of thing? Sure, it is kinda funny to watch Gosling parade around in shapeless “greb” pants, but I couldn’t help but think I’d rather be rewatching “CHONK,” the similar but vastly funnier sketch from last season.
Best Musical Moment: Jay-Z
Jay-Z made his return to Studio 8H too, performing two tracks off his newest album, 4:44. First he stormed the stage with Damian Marley for an electrified performance of “Bam,” and the rapper showed his support for former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick by wearing his name and number on a jersey.
Later in the night, Jay-Z returned for a confessional, stripped-down performance of the album’s title track, opening up about his family, relationships, and insecurities.
Episode MVP: Kate McKinnon
Going into season 43, McKinnon is, without a doubt, SNL’s most beloved player. When her elfin Jeff Sessions popped up (literally) in the cold open, the audience erupted into cheers, and over the course of the episode, she trotted out some of her greatest hits, from the abductee Miss Rafferty to the lovesick Angela Merkel. She’s got an unparalleled ability to breathe life into even the weirdest little character, and she comes into this season with back-to-back Emmys for Outstanding Supporting Actress. Can’t wait to see what kind of weird, bug-eyed McKinnon characters this season brings.
Odds and ends
– The premiere marked the debut of three new cast members: Heidi Gardner, Chris Redd, and Luke Null. They join the cast after Sasheer Zamata, Vanessa Bayer, and Bobby Moynihan departed in season 42.
– Not enough Leslie Jones, Kyle Mooney, Pete Davidson, or Beck Bennett!
– “I’m sorry, who is Danny Randall?”
“Beats the hell out of me, but he’s never gonna forget his 12th birthday.”
– “I don’t even think this is literally Papyrus! Maybe that was the starting point, but they clearly modified this.”
“Well, whatever they did, it wasn’t enough.”
– Next week, Wonder Woman herself will be visiting the show, as Gal Gadot hosts with musical guest Sam Smith. See you then!