If you had it in your head that the writers and performers at Saturday Night Live were a bunch of Hollywood-liberal Bernie Sanders supporters, you might wanna think again.
If last night’s cold open was any indiction, those at SNL are Feeling the Hill.
The opening salvo of a heavily-political Melissa McCarthy-hosted episode took place not at the debates, or on the set of Fox & Friends, but with four friends, all Democrats, dining out. They debate who they would vote for, with all making the case that Hillary is way more qualified, but they’re supporting Bernie for reasons that are impossible to articulate. The result feels like an attempt to deflate the Bernie bubble.
Vanessa Bayer: “Hillary is the most qualified candidate in history, but at the same time…eh?”
Taran Killam: “Yeah, I mean, Hillary has every single thing I want in a president, but…
All in unison: “…she’s no Bernie.”
At this point, we hear the tinkling of soft piano keys, and Kate McKinnon, as Hillary, descends from the ceiling on a carnation-adorned swing, showing us that her talent goes even deeper than we knew.
She can sing.
McKinnon lays down a soulful version of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” changing “can’t” to “can” as she attempts to seduce the diners. She appears to them only in a dream-like state, dancing awkwardly and swirling her arms in the air as she softly caresses Killam’s chest.
Bayer: “Did anybody else just get so cold for a minute?”
Kyle Mooney: “I felt cold, but safe.”
The sketch, which works Bill Clinton and Jeb Bush in by the end and concludes with all assuming a Hillary victory, was the first sign of what was a very strong, somewhat musical episode for the women of SNL, that also one that spent more time than usual dealing with race.
But first, McCarthy opened (video: http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/melissa-mccarthy-fivetimers-monologue/2985360?onid=148621#vc148621=3) by telling the studio audience that the episode marked her entry into SNL’s famed Five-Timers Club, a not-so-exclusive-anymore club that nonetheless leads to celebrations and the return of past hosts. After a wild musical number, with shimmying cast members and professional dancers backing her rendition of “Born to Host Five Times” (to the tune of the 70s dance hit, “Born to be Alive”), Kenan Thompson, dressed in a large foam numeral “5,” stops the music and informs her she’s only hosted four times, as her participation in the show’s 40th anniversary special would count for 1/16 at best. At this point, the music’s over, but just for a minute, as they switch the song to “Born to Host 4 1/16 times.”
The sketch that followed, a pre-tape, was a highlight moment.
A parody of a horror film trailer, we again hear soft piano, and see the likes of Vanessa Bayer, Kyle Mooney, Aidy Bryant and Beck Bennett living their lives with entitled glee. They are playful, affectionate, until news reports begin playing that announce that Beyonce released a video that was “unapologetically black.”
We then see everyone them watching TV news, reacting with increasing alarm, until Bryant, panicked, says, “Honey, get in here,” and breaks the awful news to her hubby.
“I think Beyonce…is black.”
Title card, imposing voiceover: “The Day Beyonce Turned Black.”The sketch refers to the controversy over Beyonce’s Super Bowl performance of her new song “Formation,” which openly deals with racial issues, and led to protests among white people who felt, given Beyonce and her dancers appearance in Black Panther garb, that the song was an insult to police.
The spot-on parody brilliantly deals with what white audiences expect from black performers. In one scene, the streets are in chaos as people run around screaming, “Beyonce is black!” in horror, except, of course, the black people, who don’t understand the problem. In one exchange, McKinnon, recoiling, says, “What about ‘Single Ladies?’” Thompson replies, ”She was black in that,” and this goes on for a few example until the Pink Panther films, about which Thompson concedes, with a laugh, “OK, yeah, she was white in that.”
What kills here is how well the cast sells the feeling of abject terror, as neither the racial message nor the horror film atmospherics are toned down. Beck Bennett and Cecily Strong, in particular, are pee-in-your-pants frightened as the city crumbles, destroyed, news of Beyonce’s blackness simply too much for most to handle. As the news reports that other celebrities, including Kerry Washington, might be black as well, Strong, crouched under a desk in the darkness in a ransacked office, rocks back and forth in fear, in an almost fetal manner. “No. She can’t be,” she says. “She’s on ABC.”
Ever since the black female cast member controversy that resulted in the hiring of Sasheer Zamata (who, with this sketch, has appeared twice tonight already after recent scant episodes), SNL has sought new ways to deal with issues of equality and privilege. They sometimes take the subtle route, downplaying laughs to make a point, and placing the issue out front rather than plunging deep into jokes. As a result, as with the Guns PSA from the Amy Schumer episode, the show can fall into the trap of preaching more than seeking laughs.
Here, they avoid that completely, letting the cast sink its teeth into deep comedic scenarios and portrayals. By the end, the silliness of the protests is undeniable, but we’re also left with a sketch which, like the show’s best, is eminently re-watchable.
Later in the episode, we see Leslie Jones as a bus passenger with the unfortunate luck to be offered a seat next to McCarthy, and we – white people, that is – get a depiction of how tiring it must be for black people to deal with some of the supposedly “casual” racism that comes forth on a daily basis. McCarthy tries to engage Jones in a discussion of “Roots.” She mispronounces the name of lead character Kunta Kinte, and when Jones corrects her she says, “I don’t speak it, but I enjoy the work.” (Which then leads her to, “I gotta be honest, I don’t love a lot of black movies…,” then, “I do prefer white movies.”) By the end, she’s suggesting they remake “Roots” with an all-white cast, and Jones is hoping the window next to her opens so she can jump out. Jones plays her anguish perfectly, providing solid awkward laughs along the way, and dealing with racism in a more head-on manner than usual.
Other highlights of the episode included a particularly strong “Weekend Update” that found Bayer unveiling an impression of Rachel from Friends. While a bit outside the up-to-the-minute vibe of much of the episode, (even despite the peg, which was a Friends mini-reunion), Bayer has Jennifer Aniston down, capturing the high-pitched tightness of her speech and her uber-controlled mannerisms. And even here, the show reaches for commentary, as Bayer says to Colin Jost, “What’s that?” She’s referring to Michael Che, who replies, “She’s on Friends. She’s never seen a black person, Colin.”
Later in Update, Jones, in a silky black dress, performs a soulful song (spoken, not sung) for Valentine’s Day about what she’s looking for in a man. In a nutshell, “good-sized penis, one that is functioning all the time.” There are others, but really, Jones makes it clear it’s the penis thing. Also, never send flowers, because they remind her of death, a point she makes with considerable force. Make no mistake, she says: “If I had a penis, it would be huge.”
Pete Davidson also had a highlight sketch, playing to his youth as a teenager watching The Terminator with parents McCarthy and Bobby Moynihan, and forgetting that the film has a sex scene. We hear the voiceovers of the three as they try to figure out how to handle the awkwardness, and their efforts result in the blurting of even more uncomfortable sexual comments, making it worse.
Kyle Mooney also had a good week, dropping a pre-taped mockumentary about himself, the premise being that he’s always dreamed of being a great rapper, but his hiring by SNL killed his dream. Unlike the mumblecore influence Mooney often brings to his videos, this one feels more scripted and tighter constructed. Mooney employs real video clips of himself as a teenager, rapping and breakdancing, and ultimately realizes the only way to fulfill his dream is to challenge the week’s musical guest, Kanye West, to a rap battle. Mooney is terrible, of course, and West, gamely playing along, destroys him. It’s a great use of the show’s guests, and one of Mooney’s better videos to date.
As for McCarthy, she put in a spirited effort as always, though there is a sameness to her characters that’s starting to wear. In particular, a sketch about a horror film test screening finds her reacting as only “over the top Melissa McCarthy” would react. While others scream and cover their eyes at the scary parts, McCarthy throws soda, punches people, and destroys the room. By the middle of the sketch, you know exactly how it’ll end, and it feels like much we’ve seen from her before.
And in a sketch about a female version of the pick-up artist scene, McCarthy squelches a smart premise as a woman taking instructions to “neg” men, in order to attract them, too far. The sketch has some funny moments of physical comedy as McCarthy puts her fingers in men’s drinks and “sensually” spreads it around their face and in their mouths, but by the end, it’s all redundant, managing to feel funny and tiring at the same time.
Overall, though, especially on the heels of last week’s Larry David episode, SNL is on a roll, with two of the strongest back-to-back episodes in some time. They take two weeks off now, returning on March 5 with host Jonah Hill. Fingers crossed the break doesn’t diminish their momentum.