Brendan Gleeson’s Charms Can’t Save a Listless Saturday Night Live

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Brendan Gleeson&#8217;s Charms Can&#8217;t Save a Listless <i>Saturday Night Live</i>

And your host…

Saturday Night Live tosses us a welcome curveball, host-wise, by booking Irish actor and perhaps twelfth least-likely celebrity host Bredan Gleeson for its second show of the season. I’m certainly here for that—an offbeat, unexpected character actor host perks me up more in prospect than the usual movie-promoting big star or even a tried-and-true returning host on their umpteenth go-around. And if Gleeson introduced himself as “that fella that you’ve seen in that thing that you can’t remember but you think you kinda liked” with signature character actor’s modesty, the venerable thespian’s filmography is dotted with sparkling comic turns in the likes of The Guard, In Bruges, and what looks to be another fruitful dark-comic team-up with Colin Farrell in In Bruges director Martin McDonagh’s upcoming The Banshees of Inisherin. (Farrell popped by the monologue and a later sketch, reaffirming the duo’s winning chemistry.)

And if Gleeson started off his monologue with the enthusiasm-chilling admission that he’s “not really used to telling jokes,” the presence of a formidably incongruous host is enough to forgive the fact that Gleeson, indeed, isn’t exactly a sketch natural. Whipping out his trusty (and constantly needing tuning) mandolin to noodle away nimbly behind a series of low-key Irish story-jokes in the monologue is a fine tone-setter for this episode, in which Gleeson’s twinkly charisma rubs the sins away from some indifferent material. For their part, the show’s writers built sketches around Gleeson’s charms while navigating his obvious unease with live TV comedy. One sketch calls for him to merely make adorable poses, while another straps him to the trusty blood rig for a tried-and-true extended gross-out gag. As for Gleeson himself, the actor seems to be having fun, even as this hearkens back to those episodes where the oddity of casting a dramatic character actor (Harry Dean Stanton comes to mind, for comparison) gets at least points for originality.

The Best And The Rest

The Best: All the above being said, not a lot stood out this episode. Season 48 sees SNL operating with a star power deficit, a state of affairs I’m excited about, actually. With a smaller (if still overpopulated) cast of last year’s middle tier plus a handful of striving newcomers, the playing field is wide open for people to shoot up the depth charts and seize their moment, freed from the airtime-grabbing antics of the departed household names. That nobody has truly leapt for that brass ring with any regularity or success in the first two shows is disappointing, if not a bit worrisome. Every cast faces the “not as good as it used to be” chorus after the previous big dogs leave to find their fortunes, and there’s nothing more predictable or eye-rollingly dull than that old tune. That said…

I suppose I’ll give the top spot to the photographer sketch, where Andrew Dismukes is good but not great as a head shot cameraman smitten with the rumpled charms of Gleeson’s tagalong grandpa to Michael Longfellow’s eager aspiring actor. This is the sketch where Gleeson just gets to ham it up and be silently adorable, as his Irish pop-pop immediately gets all the way into Dismukes’ cajoling direction while the cast-aside Longfellow fumes in confusion. When Farrell, as himself, drops by and joins the old man in preening for Dismukes’ lens, it’s pretty winning, with Dismukes riding herd on the joke with authority. What begrudgingly elevates this middling bit to the top of a middling heap is the tag, when, after feverishly snapping away at his new find, Dismukes picks up the phone to Tiger Beat magazine and says excitedly, “It’s your cousin, Marvin Tiger Beat Magazine—you know that new sound you’ve been looking for?” Saturday Night Live and quality sketch endings are all-too-infrequent acquaintances as a rule, but I’m all about a sketch ending with an absurdist snap like this. Like the Bowen Yang bug bit from last week’s Update (when Yang’s sassy pest is confronted by Dismukes in a corn suit for a Jerry Springer-style tussle), there’s at least a tingle of out-there inventive silliness to some of the writing this young season.

The Worst: With all the controversy and critical debate surrounding Andrew Dominik’s misery-wading Marilyn Monroe biopic, the fact that SNL thought that its Blonde sketch should be content with putting Brendan Gleeson in a dress is pretty dispiriting. Chloe Fineman does a good-but-not-great Monroe, while James Austin Johnson continues his pitch to be the next Phil Hartman/Darrell Hammond old-timey Hollywood guy as her manager, but the joke that two middle-aged studio workers (Gleeson and Heidi Gardner) just keep saying “whore” over and over again while reading out Marilyn’s fan mail is about as tired as it gets. The conceit is never fleshed out as to whether the two old biddies are malicious in their reading or just doing their job, and there’s not enough juice to sustain the gag. There’s plenty of potential for a Blonde sketch (Dominick’s recent, creepy tone-deafness about his subject and her movies following the release of this latest act of Hollywood exhumation is something that an ambitious writer could really dig into), but this is just—fine. My only laugh came with Gardner dutifully reading off “not a fan,” as seemingly every letter-writer’s sign off, while Gleeson, his glorious beard as undisguised as it is unremarked-upon, just looks a bit sheepish.

The Rest: Integrating the new featured players has clearly been a studied strategy for this young season, and the filmed piece in which Marcello Hernandez, Molly Kearney, Michael Longfellow, and Devon Walker all do one of those candid “what it’s like to be on Saturday Night Live?” get-to-know-them sketches is almost as canny an intro as was last week’s knowingly funny cold open. The four new kids get to say their names for familiarity’s sake, while each gets to punch one attribute that viewers can latch onto. Last week’s standout Longfellow jokes about his “odd, haunting” cadence, while Hernandez relays Lorne Michaels’ advice in such an excited way that he doesn’t recognize how he’s clearly being singled out for the sidelines. But the piece really belongs to Molly Kearney, whose own report on their progress gradually reveals a secret, show-wide (and seemingly long-running) tradition of hiring one new cast member solely as cover for a political assassination. (Kearney’s target: Russian dictator and current Republican pinup idol, Vladimir Putin.)

Kearney’s boisterous persona pops as the newbie incredulously explains how they were summoned to a meeting at Lorne’s with John Kerry and an inexplicably clued-in Kelly Ripa before being sent on a hooded journey through Central America on her way to knock off Tucker Carlson’s best buddy. (With the help of a Lorne Michaels lookalike who may or may not be the SNL producer’s Latin American twin.) It’s a loopy extended joke that works on the back of Kearney’s bluff commitment. It even tosses in the first onscreen reference to Kearney’s position as SNL’s first non-binary cast member with a nimble bit of exposition where Kearney recalls how being dragooned into the jungle by black ops specialists might not be the time to educate them about pronouns. (For the record, Kearney’s are “they/them.”) Like last week’s cold open, this is the sort of winking, behind-the-scenes goof that truly understands how to send up the show and its ridiculously long and storied mythology while being pointed and funny in its own right.

Putting Brendan Gleeson in some period robes and armor had my hopes up for the blood ritual sketch. I mean, if you’ve got Gleeson in the house, let’s get the guy kitted out in some skins. But the episode-long coddling of the sketch-unfamiliar host saw him kitted out also with the good old blood rig, with his palm-slicing blood pact with Mikey Day’s allying chieftain going predictably awry in a Julia Child-esque fountain of claret. SNL has to clear one of these big, splashy blood/vomit spectacles out of its tubes every year or so, and while it’s a time-honored traditional and all, there’s not much more to say about audience shrieks and cast members attempting to soldier on while fake bodily fluids drench them from head to toe. (Poor Chloe Fineman appears to get a jet of red right up her nostril at one point.) The laughs otherwise come from Kenan’s map-making shaman, underplaying amidst all the carnage, and the embarrassed Gleeson moaning about how he’s lost all authority. (“Map guy hates me,” he exclaims, seeing Kenan’s strategic layout spoiled in rivers of arterial spray.)

The first sketch after the monologue is something of a tone-setter for an episode. And so I’m attempting to find some way to interpret the CNN sketch about a certain internet comedy team’s recent social media scandals as something other than wan surrender. They are apparently guys who try (no, I’m not saying it) various gross and or uncomfortable things for the likes (or the lulz, or whatever the kids are calling them), and whatever point the sketch is trying to make about the skewed priorities of the news media (there is an ongoing assault on human rights and the very concept of American democracy underway by an entire political party, for example) runs a distant second to name-checking the very silly and insignificant YouTube nonsense the sketch is purportedly parodying. Gleeson does his best acting of the episode as his White House reporter breaks into his own reporting to update baffled anchor Ego Nwodim with the fact that the group in question has splintered thanks to [real world drama redacted so my brain doesn’t eat itself]. Nwodim, while technically anchor of the sketch as well as the broadcast, is stuck in the thankless role (traditionally essayed by Mikey Day) of restating the premise over and over again as she asks why Gleeson (and the world, apparently) is so enthralled by this sort-of celebrity dust-up. At least she gets to bail with a funny line about seeing what ketamine is all about. Hey, Ego, wait up.

The Please Don’t Destroy Guys continue their odd limbo existence. While not listed as cast members, the pre-tape team routinely gets more airtime than some, while the trio’s traditional backstage writers room vibe keeps them rooted to SNL proper. But here, for the first time, the guys leave SNL entirely for a filmed sketch where their high school bros learn that fourth wheel Gleeson is actually a 67-year-old Irishman with a wife and 13 kids. It’s fine—like the show week promo where Gleeson shreds on a skateboard all over the SNL sets, it gives the actor a chance to cut loose and be silly in a safer-then-live comedy environment. But taking the PDD concept away from the backstage arena entirely robs the team of their wonted identity on the show, making this more nondescript than we’re used to. With the team prepping for a big screen outing away from SNL and rumors of a sketch spinoff of their own, this seems like a trial balloon for a life outside of the Saturday Night Live bubble, and, with Ben Marshall, John Higgins and Martin Herlihy still not being added to the opening credits, it appears that SNL is preparing to see their latest viral content creators go.

Weekend Update update

After the departed Pete Davidson memorably got in trouble for mocking the war-wounded (but undeniably still loathsome) Dan Crenshaw on Update a while back, Michael Che clearly enjoyed having an openly despicable one-eyed guy to make fun of in “Oath Keeper” January 6 terrorist and about-to-be-convicted fascist goon Stewart Rhodes. Is it unfair or unseemly to mock the eye patch and depth perception of a self-proclaimed would-be coup hobbyist? Eh, I’ll allow it. Just as I will Che’s solid joke about hypocritical Georgia GOP senate candidate and wife-abusing absentee dad Herschel Walker raising a cool half-million following the revelation that the staunchly and incoherently anti-abortion former football casualty paid for at least one abortion that we know of. (“Dollars are the only thing Walker is willing to raise,” noted Che with customary bad boy glee.)

Che and Colin Jost are wise-asses, punching up, down and all around at whichever news story presents the most appealing target that week. Sometimes that’s cathartic and effective, as when Jost, quoting Florida governor Ron DeSantis claiming that some Floridian Hurricane Ian victims didn’t want to leave their homes, alludes to DeSantis’ recent crime spree of racist human trafficking. Sometimes, it’s hazy and/or lazy, as in the ongoing reports on Joe Biden’s occasional gaffes. (This season has already staked out the position that Joe Biden being sort of old is as satirically juicy as Donald Trump attempting to overthrow democracy and hoard American nuclear secrets to sell to the highest bidder. Allegedly.) Jost and Che took their shots and ran this week, with a shorter segment and plenty of so-so topical material. I did appreciate Jost’s report on Pennsylvania GOP senate candidate and well-documented talk show quack Mehmet Oz’s recently outed habit of skirting medical guidelines to murder scores of research dogs, with Jost noting how Oz’s PR nightmare included him running over more puppies in Hitler car. (Yes, Dr. Oz did do a fundraising speech flanked by Hitler’s touring limousine and nothing in this world is too on-the-nose for satire anymore.)

The correspondent pieces were equally mediocre, sadly. Ego Nwodim came out as the recently announced Black Ariel. (“You can just call me Ariel,” she tells Jost.) Like the Blonde sketch, this is a case of writers looking at a potentially deep trench of relevant social commentary and saying, “Nah.” Nwodim’s a funny person, and this is the sort of character bit she could really run with in an improvisational setting like Comedy Bang! Bang!, where she routinely shines. Here though, the joke is on how this Ariel is a Paris Hilton-esque dummy and awful person/fish-person, and not—and here I’m just spitballing—about how white people are freaking the fuck out that a fictional undersea creature has been recently cast as a Black woman. Nwodim’s fine, but the piece never goes anywhere, and the sheer barrel full of un-shot comedy fish that is the inevitable ginned-up conservative outrage that “their” culture is being stolen just stinks the more you think about it.

Marcello Hernandez gets his Update shot after Longfellow’s standout turn last week, and, like his fellow new kid, gets to essentially just do five minutes of the stand-up act that presumably got him the job. It’s not bad stuff, with Hernandez energetically extolling the relative entertainment value of Latin ballplayers compared to “Tanner from Kentucky.” The running theme of people calling out Jost for assumed racism is always a fun way for a cast member to spike up their desk piece, and Hernandez has a manic energy that’s going to save or sink him, depending on how well he harnesses it on the show.

“That really bit it.”—Recurring Sketch Report

With the big-hitters out of the picture, this is the time for SNL to bust out some new stuff (and, presumably then turn the new stuff that works into recurring stuff). Still, I’m enjoying the repeater-free experimentation, as long as it lasts. Added bonus: last week’s egregious product placement appears to have given this second outing a miss.

“Strategery.”—Political Comedy Report

No Biden and no Trump for the second week to start the season and, with apologies to James Austin Johnson, whose impressions of both are far better than anything we’ve seen in a long time, I don’t miss them. Simply embroidering upon the verbatim speeches of the week is a recipe for exhaustion (on the show and for me), and if SNL intends the cold open to be the domain of the weekly topical sketch, then the Bowen Yang-anchored game show So You Think You Won’t Snap is a decent delivery system for quick-hit references to the week’s cavalcade of terrible people doing worse things. (Here I’ll just once more fight my futile battle against SNL’s over-reliance on the threadbare game show premise before moving on.)

With all that said, this one should have hit harder than it did. Yang is better as a contestant, where his unpredictable energy can better exercise itself, than as the sinisterly no-nonsense host of a game where the last four sane people in America can be tested with news of impending nuclear annihilation and Kanye West donning white supremacist outerwear. The contestants (Heidi, Chloe, Kenan, and Devon Walker) are all okay, although the predictability of their inevitable freak-outs saps some of the comic zing from their segments. Kenan’s is the funniest, simply because it jumps the gun in having his placid contestant (contentedly high and recently laid) smash the waiting glassware before him at the first mention of Elon Musk’s name. (“Well take your ass to Mars then,” he snaps, storming off.) As with Jost and Che’s Update, the mix of things being held up for mockery blends the weighty (Hershel Walker and Republican shamelessness, that whole “Putin hinting he might just nuke everyone” thing), with the trivially buzzed-about. (Chris Pratt as Mario causes news-unplugged mom of four Chloe Fineman to explode, “Mario’s Italian! That’s like his whole thing!,” before she hauls off and slugs Sarah Sherman’s dutifully standing-by flight attendant.)

Not Ready For Prime Time Power Rankings

There’s a power vacuum at Saturday Night Live, and, so far this season, nobody’s exactly rushing headlong to fill it. Kenan’s the biggest star left after the exodus (and with Cecily Strong’s absence being a murky proposition at best), but his emeritus position is more about stealing scenes than carrying the show at this point. Protocol and precedent suggest that this is the time when Heidi, Chloe, Ego, and Mikey Day show what they could have been doing if not for the understandable ubiquity of the bigger stars of the past few years, but I’m not really seeing it yet. There’s a clear push for the new hires to be thrust right into the deep end, but they’re just getting their feet wet. Meanwhile, Sarah Sherman made another push to be the queen of the ten-to-one spot tonight, with some success. (Pity poor Punkie Johnson, who, promoted to the main cast in the offseason, literally got to pour Heidi Gardner a glass of wine in the cold open and then wasn’t seen again until the goodnights, where she looked understandably not-happy.)

“I guess that lightning made the horses crazy, but those Marines are just mean.”—10-To-One Report

If there were anyone hired specifically to be the reigning monarch of the final sketch of any Saturday Night Live, it’s Sarah Sherman. Sherman’s a weirdo, and I mean that with all appreciation and respect. Here, she gets her first shot to really go for it as an office worker (for the Denver chamber of commerce) who’s had her eyeballs surgically replaced with enormous google-eyes, much to the horror of her coworkers. With Kyle Mooney off doing Kyle Mooney things elsewhere, it’s Sherman’s kingdom to conquer, and while this isn’t the most side-spitting or brain-scrambling bit of weirdness we’ve seen from her so far, it’s a suitable flag-planting for the once and future Sarah Squirm. There’s always a question of volume supplanting comic rhythm, though, and this one turns the knob up to eleven before the sketch warrants it, leading to things running out of gas prematurely as Sherman works those (impressively prosthetic) google eyes as her office worker works herself into a lather. The sketch has a few oddball touches I enjoyed, such as Kenan’s late-arriver taking one look at Sherman’s new peepers, taking a beat, and then dipping with an underplayed, “Aaand, I’m goin’ straight to church.” And Sherman is in there swinging along with her effortfully movable eyeballs, tearing down curtains, exclaiming in horror that she forgot to refrigerate her previous, fleshy (and now whiffy) eyes, and generally crushing all opposition to her claim to the realm that is Ten-To-Oneland. As with Mooney before, I say to Lorne: Just give the weirdo the last sketch to do with what she will. The bills are already paid. What do you have to lose?

Parting Shots

I like the new credits where much of the cast is shown in the same room and everything. [Looks at news, sees COVID is cranking back up.] Annnnd… I just snapped.

Willow was pretty impressive, actually. I confess to not following the former Willow Smith from her “Whip My Hair” days to her persona as a somewhat adventurous rock front-woman. (Still, if you’re going to end on a guitar-smash, actually smash that thing—that gimmicked TV set did nothing for anybody.)

Next week: Host and musical guest Megan Thee Stallion.

Dennis Perkins is an entertainment writer who lives in Maine with his wife, the writer Emily L. Stephens, and their cat, (Special Agent Dale) Cooper. His work has appeared in places like The A.V. Club, Ultimate Classic Rock, and the Portland (Maine) Press Herald. You can find him on Twitter, where he will anger you with opinions, and Instagram, where you will be won back over by pictures of Special Agent Dale Cooper.

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