Brie Larson is an Oscar-winning actress, so it’s no surprise that she was tapped to host Saturday Night Live. What is surprising is how indifferent the writers seemed to be to the lady, whose presence was barely felt in her inaugural hosting gig. Unlike the last new episode’s host, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who came to play, Brie Larson more or less, sort of slinked in, coasting on her charms, and dutifully blended into the background. The good news is that the Mother’s Day episode of Saturday Night Live, normally a heavily female-centric episode, was solid and had more hits than misses. The hits weren’t legendary, but over all, it was quite enjoyable, highlighting the fact that the balance is tipped heavily in favor of the show’s female cast.
The cold open was another little surprise because we have the return of the Church Lady. Dana Carvey’s holier-than-thou character made a return to judge and condemn Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. The choice of resurrecting a character from yesteryear is a bit of a headscratcher, but Dana Carvey has a new show coming out, so it makes sense that the SNL alumnus is out there growing his profile. Carvey’s tenure on SNL is considered the show’s second golden age, so the Church Lady is remembered fondly, even though it’s essentially a one-joke premise: a prim, repressed biddy wags her finger sanctimoniously at her guests and then spouts off her catch phrase, “Well, isn’t that special?” I have to say, I hate catch phrases, and I’m glad that SNL moved away from that kind of comedy. Because of that growth, the Church Lady doesn’t fit well into the current tone of the show, and the cold open wasn’t the glorious return that the writers were hoping for. Instead it was a tepid, toothless attack on Cruz (Taran Killam) and Trump (an always-welcome Darrel Hammond). That Cruz actually becomes Satan is a cute bit, and even cuter is the idea that Trump is too mean, even for Satan. But none of that needed Carvey’s Church Lady, who felt superfluous.
Brie Larson’s monologue highlighted just how uncomfortable the actress is doing live television. As per usual for a Mother’s Day episode, some of the show’s cast members brought out their moms, and Larson’s mom also made an appearance – and by the way, the lady looked about the same age as her daughter. Pete Davidson’s mom is adorable (that’s where he gets it from!) and Kate McKinnon’s mom was funny. It was all fun, if a bit safe.
The first sketch of the evening was pre-taped and it was a fake ad – two of the show’s strongest suits. Not surprisingly, it was also arguably, the strongest sketch of the evening. In the fake President Barbie ad, Cecily Strong narrates this great new Barbie that is president to the disaffected boredom of the little girls who much prefer Lego. The joke is that these little girls will live in a world where women can be presidents, so the idea isn’t as inspirational or aspirational. This joke hits at the generational divide among feminists who are facing the choice of voting for Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton. Older feminists like Gloria Steinem and Madeline Albright have questioned the feminism of younger female Sanders supporters, and the younger female Sanders supporters don’t get why women like Steinem and Albright are so invested in a potentially-off putting candidate like Clinton. At one point Strong’s narrator talks about a time when the idea of a woman president was unbelievable, to which one of the little girls chirp, “I wasn’t alive, then,” to which Strong sarcastically retorts, “good for you.” The joke works because it takes on identity politics and examines it in a funny (unlike the unfunny How’s He Doing sketch that simply implies black people vote blindly for a black candidate, regardless of his performance).
Another strong, female-centric sketch had the women of the cast play suburban moms who are welcoming Larson, the newcomer, to their klatch. What begins as an innocuous baby shower, quickly becomes something darker, as the group slowly reveals itself to be a Stepford Wives-like coven. What marks these ladies is their sassy mom haircut: “a soft waterfall in the front, knives in the back.” The details in the sketch are hilarious as each character enthuses about mundane “mom stuff” like flip-flop shaped soap, Marshalls Home Goods, and funny kitchen magnets. Larson, as the outsider, doesn’t understand why or when this de-sexing, de-womaning of these women happen, but even she isn’t immune, and ends up with the ‘do herself, and wanting to fix a plate for a teenager who’s more than capable of doing it himself (and saying things like “fixing a plate”). This sketch is the only one that allows Larson to really shine, and she’s matched by the scarily-intense performances by the other cast members.
Politics are never the show’s strong point but fake game shows are, so the Quiz Whiz 2018 sketch was also a contender for best spot of the evening. The sketch had Killam and Larson play contestants in 2018 who cannot remember Ted Cruz at all – a bit strange as right now, he’s a major figure in the elections, not so much for his performance, but for his incompetence. What’s great is that it allows for the show to lambast Cruz (which he totally deserves), but gives us the necessary space that a couple years would provide, to give the audience the necessary perspective on the guy’s campaign. It’s totally believable that his run will be reduced to a nothing. The sketch takes shots at Cruz’s ridiculous campaign, including his desperate grasp at attention by picking Carly Fiorina as his running mate in April, before winning the election (and after losing some key states). The great twist at the end is that Larson’s contestant is the much-beleagured Heidi Cruz.
It’s interesting because none of the sketches were terrible – some were funnier than others, but none of the worst sketches of the evening were that bad. We had a return of Kate McKinnon as Ms. Rafferty, the out-of-luck sadsack who appeared in the Ryan Gosling episode as one of three people who were abducted by aliens. The joke was that while the other two people had lovely, transcendent experiences, poor Ms. Rafferty had a terribly disappointing one. It’s no different here. Cecily Strong returns, and Larson joins, as well. This time we’re talking about near-death experiences, and of course, Strong and Larson report wonderful experiences of peace and love, while Ms. Rafferty gives us an account of a particularly inept angel named Kevin who bungled his assignment, inevitable depantsing Ms. Rafferty and leaving her “straight Donald Duckin’ it.” It’s a funny premise, and as always, McKinnon plays the hell out of the weary Ms. Rafferty – and Strong is a lovely straight man in the sketch, personifying New Agey silliness – but the sketch was far funnier last time (goosed by Gosling’s inability to tamp down on his giggles).
Another so-so sketch was a take on Game of Thrones, specifically the show’s love of slow, dragging scenes and plotlines. I don’t watch GOT, but I get the gist, having watch similar fare like Lord of the Rings, and wonder why everything is so plodding and slow. Larson and Strong are hecklers of sorts, who try to move things along at a quicker pace, while Killam and Strong are thoroughly invested in the more lugubrious speed. Kenan Thompson, as always, manages to quickly inject some hilarity, as a character who pops up and his appalled at how slow things are happening. It’s a one-joke idea that is stretched too long. Not terrible, but not hilarious, either.
There’s also the final sketch, an ad for a CD of dead singers performing current pop hits. This seems like an excuse to see the cast members do okay impressions, while highlighting the incongruity of legends like Roy Orbison, Eartha Kitt, or Lesley Gore singing current hits on the radio. It’s okay, again, these celebrity impression marathons are never as funny as the writers think they are.
I’ll never be Team Jost/Che, but the two have established a decent reparte, though it’s clear the Che far outclasses Jost (who acts as if he has been binge-watching Seth Meyers’ tenure). The jokes landed for the most part, but Weekend Update has become a vehicle for its correspondents, and this episode did not disappoint. Vanessa Bayer was back as child star, Laura Parsons, whose inappropriately chippy Disney-fied delivery of the news belies some of the darker stories she’s reporting. Bayer can play these show-boating kids in her sleep, and does a great job with Laura Parsons, and she shares a great, tense chemistry with Che, who is shocked and appalled at Laura’s joyful Broadway-style belting of horrible news like the KKK’s desire for everyone to be dead except whites.
The other two correspondents were cast members just being themselves. Davidson shows up and does his excellent stand-up about how great his mom his, and how protective she is when he faces haters and trolls on his Twitter account. It’s all very funny and Mrs. Davidson pops up, like the ultimate proud mama, filming this on her phone. Davidson and Jost have a great back and forth with each other, as the former regals the audience with stories of his mom’s devotion in his laid back, yet loving style. It made for a very funny entry.
The third correspondent is the most controversial, not only because of her subject matter, but because of the audience reaction. It’s no secret that Sasheer Zamata is turning out to be the Julia Louis-Dreyfus of the show: a fantastically talented performer that is continuously undervalued and underused. It’s a depressing theme among most black performers on the show, especially black female performers. She in an ignoble line of talented ladies like Danitra Vance and Ellen Cleghorne (isn’t it depressing that the line is so short?). Maya Rudolph, besides being a virtuoso, was also light-skinned enough to act as a chameleon, and therefore was able to play a stable of ethnicities, thereby freeing her from being relegated to simply “black characters.”
So, I was thrilled to see Zamata roll up next to Jost, and was even more thrilled that her topic was the n-word and racism. In response to Larry Wilmore’s use of the n-word at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and the ensuing fracas, Zamata talks about the inherent hypocrisy of certain news outlets like Fox complaining about the use of the word, when in reality the same people “definitely say it off camera.” She also points out that what Wilmore differs little from the coded racist language that the media gleefully trots out, highlight words like “thug” and “athletic” (the latter got a rousing applause from a nervous audience). In order to avoid the Wilmore-like controversy, Zamata then substitutes the n-word with “McGriddle” and recounts a story when she was a victim of the racial slur – the perp was a joyfully racist creature who drove a pickup that was covered in every imaginable racist marker. She then points out that ignoring the ugly parts of our culture is “ignoring history” – a salient and profound observation. Jost asks if he’s allowed to say “McGridda” – a great tweak on the “Nigga” controversy, and Zamata says he should do what he feels is right, and then playfully calls him the n-word. All of this was obviously a bit too harsh for the audience who tittered in places, laughed in others, but stayed uncomfortably silent. Zamata, seemingly indifferent to her audience’s discomfort, commanded the stage, and was in a word: brilliant. I wish SNL did this kind of thing more: uncomfortable, but important humor that examines privilege. The president Barbie did some of that, but Zamata’s spot on Weekend Update was far more powerful. In fact, despite the excellent work of Kate McKinnon, Cecily Strong, and Vanessa Bayer, this one spot by Zamata makes her my MVP for the episode.
Though it’s clear that if things continue as they do, Zamata’s time at SNL is nearing the end, this spot proves that she’s a fearless and brilliant performer who can reach fantastic heights if given the opportunities.
I normally don’t comment on music, but Alicia Keys did a great job – the songs were wonderful, and she’s an engaging presence.