“Fuck” or one of its many variations has been said on Saturday Night Live multiple times in the past, and it usually doesn’t bode well for the person who said it. Cast members Charles Rocket and Jenny Slate were both fired at the end of their only seasons on staff. Samuel L. Jackson memorably said it during a What Up with That in 2012 and hasn’t been on the show since, although that’s the kind of thing you sort of expect him to do, and he had only been on the show one time prior to that, 15 years earlier. Kristen Stewart did it just a year ago, too soon to really tell if it’s hurt her standing with the show. So if Sam Rockwell doesn’t get invited back any time soon, it won’t be too surprising: in his very first sketch, last night’s host told a couple of kids (played by Mikey Day and Cecily Strong) that they couldn’t really be “this fucking stupid.”
The sketch was a parody of old children’s science shows like Mr. Wizard, so it was super timely. It had one joke, repeated in a variety of ways, and that joke was that the two kids helping Rockwell’s host were so nervous to be on TV that they couldn’t do or say anything correctly. It was the model of a Saturday Night Live sketch, then—a few twists on one central idea in a sketch that’s based on an outdated TV genre and that’s only a few minutes long but still somehow grows old and repetitive.
Rockwell was game. (Too game, if the F-bomb is any indication.) He’s a respected actor who’s adept at drama and comedy, and other than this early bit of overenthusiasm he was perfectly fine in every sketch he appeared in. Some of them were pretty good, too. Even Weekend Update was stronger than usual this episode. Unfortunately a few sketches took stances so questionable that they felt like they could’ve been written for one of those terrible “comedy” shows that Fox News occasionally vomits up.
The worst offender was the video “ATM.” Rockwell runs into an ATM in a “bad” neighborhood, despite his date Kate McKinnon asking him not to, and is followed in by Kenan Thompson in a hoodie. Rockwell gets nervous and defensive, Thompson calls him on it, jokes about robbing him, and then the tension is diffused and Rockwell feels like an asshole for judging Thompson. And then Chris Redd, channeling his crazed rapper Hunter the Hunted from the Lonely Island movie Popstar, shows up with a crew of dudes, and the same dynamic replays but with Thompson now being afraid of other black men. Only this time Redd and his friends actually beat the hell out of Thompson. It’s basically reinforcing every rural or suburban parent’s fears of the city and of young black men who dress a certain way. Thanks, SNL, for agreeing with the racist uncles of America that, yes, actually, young dudes in hip hop clothes probably ARE violent criminals. And then the stinger is that Rockwell’s date is actually a prostitute, because apparently good comedy is based on unnecessary last second details that only serve to diminish both the only woman in the piece and sex workers overall.
There was also a sketch about a Fashion Police-style E! show called The Look that bravely decided to take this whole Time’s Up movement against sexual harassment down a peg. A stereotypical round table of ridiculous E! personalities (including Thompson dredging up a gay impersonation older than he is while playing the flamboyant fashion expert Angelo Dolphintuna) ditched their catty one-liners about Golden Globes fashion and said nonsensically inspirational things about Eva Longoria’s dress looking like it can go to college—Harvard, even. Meanwhile Melissa Villaseñor was a guest panelist who runs a shelter for abused women; she winds up getting shamed for talking about the women’s clothes in much more polite ways than the regulars hosts would’ve done in the past. Defenders of this sketch might argue that the focus is specifically on the celebrity media’s embarrassing lack of substance, but it certainly seems to depict an attempt to reduce the systemic harassment of women as hypocritical and insincere. I’m not sure how that makes a lot of sense in the current climate, but then I’m also not sure if the man with the final decision on what makes it to air on SNL would ever even think about that.
Speaking of thinking, did you ever think that Captain Hook wanting to kidnap the Lost Boys in Peter Pan made him look like a pedophile? If so, you could maybe write for SNL, based on one particularly terrible sketch from last night. Get those packets ready, middle-school boys of America!
Outside those three sketches, last night’s episode ranged from tolerable to legitimately good. Cut those three out, or rewrite them after a thorough reevaluation of the assumptions about our world that underpin them, and this could’ve been a perfectly fine episode. Here’s what was good about it.
Weekend Update was perhaps the strongest it’s been all season. Colin Jost and Michael Che mostly avoided the cutesiness that has undercut so much of their Trump coverage of the last year, digging in firmly against the president’s “shitholes” comment (even saying the word uncensored, like they’re Anderson Cooper or something) and the news that Trump’s lawyer paid a porn star to keep mum about an affair shortly before the election. Che in particular was on point, commenting on Trump’s racism and avoiding the shitty both sides-ism that he sometimes indulges in.
Aidy Bryant was the highlight of the entire episode with her appearance on Weekend Update, where she talked about how, as a woman, she was raised to not express any opinions and apologize for almost all of her thoughts and actions. She compares the week-long public shaming that coerced Mark Wahlberg to donate the money he made from the All the Money in the World reshoots to Time’s Up to the daily private shaming that compels her to always apologize to everybody all of the time. It’s similar turf to some of Inside Amy Schumer’s best sketches, but it’s still funny and true, and Bryant’s performance made it even funnier.
The best sketch, meanwhile, came at the end of the night, and hinged pretty much entirely on a sight gag and one turn of phrase. Rockwell played a scientist at a facility being toured by the government. His major project was to create what Rockwell calls a “doghead guy.” It’s basically a real live retriever with two human arms. While Rockwell and the government officials have a relatively straight conversation in the foreground, the doghead guy’s in the background playing with Duplos, solving a Rubik’s Cube and eating a sandwich, occasionally giving Rockwell big thumb’s ups and OK signs. No matter how political it tries to get, SNL is usually at its best when it’s intentionally idiotic—everything the doghead guy does, and every time Rockwell or Day says “doghead guy,” made me laugh harder than anything else in the episode.
Alec Baldwin thankfully had the week off, so instead of another interminable Trump cold open we got what would’ve been an interminable Morning Joe parody if it wasn’t for one pretty huge special guest. Bill Murray played Steve Bannon in the opener, alongside another former SNL player, Fred Armisen, sitting in as Michael Wolff, the author of Fire and Fury. Murray might be too inherently charismatic to really do Bannon right—that guy’s a human black hole with rosacea—but there’s not that big a line between Murray’s confidence and Bannon’s caustic smugness, which makes the SNL legend about as good a pick to play Bannon as possible.
Oh, Halsey performed. Her first song, “Bad at Love,” has that woozy, end-of-the-night club vibe of the Weeknd or FKA Twigs, but with a keyboard player who looked a hell of a lot like JJ Abrams. Her second number, “Him & I,” added a string section, the rapper G-Eazy and an unhealthy amount of melodramatic cheese that basically choked all the life out of the song. One out of two ain’t bad, Halsey.
This was Rockwell’s show, though. He did fine, give or take a “fucking,” but the show didn’t hold up its end of the bargain. It wasn’t a great start to 2018 for SNL, but at least it wasn’t a total disaster, either. Really, it was about exactly what one can expect from the show this season.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.