Watch Octavia Spencer Try To Save A Baffling, Disappointing Saturday Night Live
SNL writers had plenty of time to keep the streak going. They didn't.
The thing about a hot streak is that eventually it has to end. The puzzling, baffling thing about the one that ended on Saturday Night Live this week is that all signs pointed to a great episode. Guest-host Octavia Spencer is beloved, genuinely funny, an Oscar winner, and riding the success of an uplifting, seriously excellent award-season film that didn't make people want to go sit in a corner and cry for the rest of the day. The show had two weeks off to regroup and make a plan of attack to continue a strong run of political sketches that had put SNL back on everyone's radar again. For the last two weeks, you saw plenty of repeats of tweets like this one:
— Chris Stewart (@CStewartWPTV) March 3, 2017
Oh boy! Did you see what Trump Tweeted this morning? They're going to have a field day! Only, they didn't. Except for a toothless Jeff Sessions/Forrest Gump cold open, a movie trailer, and the typical mixed-to-bad bag of "Weekend Update," the show missed opportunity after opportunity to go for the jugular. Some of this is understandable: you can't rely on Alec Baldwin and Melissa McCarthy week after week; they have lives and careers and won't be available all the time. But the Trump/Barack Obama wiretapping ridiculousness could have easily been addressed from the Obama side; why not bring Jay Pharoah back to show us how many fucks Obama doesn't give about Trump's accusations while he chills on a beach somewhere with Richard Branson? Or, hell, ask Jordan Peele to do it, he's certainly hot right now. Even Octavia Spencer brings with her a literal golden opportunity for humor: what was she doing while all the La La Land/Moonlight drama was happening onstage?
Instead, it was an increasingly sad assortment of one-off, weird, and unfunny pieces, few of which seemed sharp or very relevant after the also underwhelming musical guest Father John Misty, did his first song. A lot of them were sketches that could have run any week, not during a week when so much ripe material was on offer from the news. Of course, unless she vetoed a raft of political sketches, this doesn't fall on Spencer herself, who was funny throughout and spot-on in her short monologue; this is what happens when good SNL hosts are stuck with terrible writing. Let's hope she comes back someday on what doesn't feel like an off week.
Best Sketch Of The Night
This video piece is the only piece of political comedy that has any real sharp edges or a clear point of view. An ad for a movie thriller about a "TBD" Republican candidate willing to stand up to Donald Trump (and certainly not Paul Ryan), is short, well-executed and super funny. It made you think this was going to be a great episode and as such also wins "Most Misleading Sketch Of The Night."
I feel like SNL is having the same problem with Kate McKinnon's Jeff Sessions as it does with her Kellyanne Conway: the show's not sure what it's trying to say about the person, and despite being funny on its face due to McKinnon's performance, it seems to change from week to week. (Speaking of which, McKinnon popping up as Conway kneeling with her phone during commercial breaks was a smart approach if they didn't have an entire sketch worth of material to use that.) This week, it goes to the long-lost parody well for a Forrest Gump sketch that would have already felt dated in 1996 and portrays Sessions as a clueless racist without an ounce of malice to his ignorance, which...you know...that's pretty problematic. Also, Octavia Spencer misses her getting-off-the-bus cue and has to walk in from the side, which is super-distracting if you're bothered by that sort of thing. The callback to The Help is funny, but this feels like one that probably looked better on the page than what we ended up seeing.
This one tickled me not because it's a particularly original idea, but the commitment with which it was played got me. Maybe it's because my wife is a pharmacist or that Octavia plays it so well (as does Sasheer Zamata, still criminally underused on the show except as a foil for white characters acting racist), but this was a semi-highlight given what came later.
Worst White-Girl Privilege Sketch
White-Girl Privilege has been an ongoing theme this season and this one...wow. Just...oof. Cecily Strong plays a woman who keeps assuring her friends that her new black friend is cray-cray as things get more awkward and cringey. Bad writing, bad ending, bad, bad, bad.
This sketch is really about how the show is still figuring out how to deploy cast member Melissa Villaseñor, who does incredible voice impressions, but who doesn't always work perfectly in regular-character roles. Here, she gets to do Jennifer Lopez and, improbably, spot-on Kristen Wiig and Kate McKinnon voices. It's a nice spotlight and by the time she gets to Owen Wilson, the audience is primed for it. The real surprise here, though, is how great Alex Moffet and Octavia Spencer (and sure, even Kenan Thompson) are as they burn through Oprah Winfrey, Hugh Grant, Tracy Morgan, and Jodie Foster. Then Beck Bennett comes in and ruins it with a bad Javier Bardem. Should have ended on McKinnon.
Most Repeated Joke
"Girl At A Bar" is a good premise: that white-knight feminist dudes are the worst and will turn on a dime to call a woman "bitch" the moment she declines a date. That's a solid idea, but it's not a solid idea that can sustain a three-minute video sketch, especially since you see what's coming so early and the beats are so predictable thereafter. This is the kind of sketch that if you're going to escalate it, you need to go full Key and Peele and take it to another absurd place. Switching the white knight's gender to a woman isn't enough to end strongly.
Seriously, what the fuck is this sketch? I don't get what's happening at all and Beck Bennett (who is usually solid and just flailing this week) is playing a weird character that we're supposed to be...creeped out by? It's about as unfocused a sketch as you can do and by about this point in the show, I knew all hope was lost.
Hey remember all those amazing political sketches #SNL was gonna spent these last three weeks writing?
— Omar L. Gallaga (@omarg) March 5, 2017
And why chocolate? Yeah, this one just fails on every level.
Most Goofy Glasses
Sometimes stuff like this works; take a really dumb basic joke like associating someone's name (Octavia Spencer) with something we're already familiar with (Spencer Gifts) and run that sucker into the ground with wild abandon. It doesn't quite work out that well, although I think Octavia is fine here. It's just the joke products aren't particularly funny once you're grown, as anyone who ever spent a significant time in Spencer's as a teen already knows.
Most Put A Pawn
I really wanted to like this one, but the joke about a wizened chess player in the park who doesn't know how to play chess is too thin for what it's trying to do. Too bad, because I love the interplay between Kenan Thompson and Octavia Spencer.
And lastly, this sketch about bad customer service at a sticky bun shop seems only to suggest that someone at SNL had a bad bun experience at an airport. With plenty of opportunities to be topical this week, the show chose forgettable glazed sugar over a mound of empty calories. Seems about right for this week.