Sandra Oh has spent decades grinding away as the best part of almost everything she stars in. Tonight she continued that trend in an uneven, but mostly wonderful, Saturday Night Live. From Grey’s Anatomy to Sideways, hell even dating back to Arli$$, Oh’s commitment to every role elevates whatever material she works with. On a night where Saturday Night Live’s managed to score with whimsical absurdity while feeling politically flatter than ever, it was a joy to have her hosting.
When the Mueller report dropped anyone’s who’s watched the show in the last few years knew what the cold opening would be. Mueller, Trump, whoever the current surviving attorney general is, and maybe another Trump White House figure. That’s why it’s so frustrating that the cold open felt like watching a baseball player you respect wif swings in a batting cage. Instead of anything pointed, or at least funny, we get the old standard impressions just treading water. Robert De Niro’s phoned in Mueller continues to make use long for the nuanced charisma of Joe Piscopo.
Thankfully the rest of the show fared better, elevated by a few stand out performances, Oh’s incredible charm, and a Saturday Night Live writer’s on-screen debut. Sandra Oh’s opening monologue was the sort of good-natured intro that warms you up to a host. Her enthusiasm is infectious, so even if her jokes about Asians and Canadians equally struggling to accept praise got light laughs, you still wanted to keep watching.
Seeing the normally serious Oh dive headfirst into the goofiest waters Saturday Night Live could provide made that investment of time well worth it. Nowhere is that enthusiasm brighter than the glorious “Future Self.”
“Future Self” kickstarted a trend throughout the episode of absurd bits landing because of their unflinching commitment to the jokes. Mikey Day plays a teenage nerd wondering what his life will be like when he grows up, only to be visited by his future selves. In the future he’s ripped, handsome, and most importantly, married to a nightmarish Fourloco guzzling spring break burnout named Tishy. Oh’s chest tattoo sporting Tishy, who manages to have a broken arm for 20 years, is pure goofy joy. Props to Oh for not breaking character, no matter what limits they took Tishy and her goo-goo too.
The trend of Digital Shorts being the best part of the show continues with “The Duel”, a beautifully shot BBC period piece parody that descends into gore-soaked madness. It’s a joke that very easily could trigger complaints about violence against women, but in action reveals itself more a parody of the constant deference of women to men’s feelings through the ages.
If the cold open’s take on Mueller felt limp, at least the episode’s time spent teasing Putin was well spent. Terrible as it might be for America for Trump to just be deferential to Putin for no reason beyond how much he respects dictators, the idea of Putin’s reputation taking a hit for it is funny. Like a jock caught inflating his scores, Beck Bennett’s Putin has to answer for all the times he told subordinates and allies he had Trump in his pocket.
It’s bad enough when his subordinates come for him, but when Kim Jong Un arrives with questions, Putin is left scrambling to cover. Staff writer Bowen Yang made his on-screen Saturday Night Live debut tonight as Kim Jong Un. He plays Kim like a pouting, sarcastic, yet still stoic, brat. A grown baby dictator. It’s a brief role, but Bowen steals every moment he’s on screen. Somehow Saturday Night Live has never had an Asian cast member. Seems like a perfect opportunity to right an egregious oversight, especially since the man is so damn funny to begin with.
Kate McKinnon brought a new nightmare office character into the fold with “Louise’s Birthday” about a horny 85-year old who just wants everyone at work to kiss. The show is still at its best in these silly moments, bits that almost dare the cast and host to break character. McKinnon’s work mining the oddball dredges of humanity for loveable, yet horrifying, new characters is always a treat. Hopefully, Louise will rise again to ruin a prayer group someday.
Weekend Update did its best this week to pull gold from the clusterfuck of nothingness that currently defines the Mueller report. Michael Che lands the best bit, explaining how the Toxic Optimism of his white friends got him invested in a story he’d otherwise write off. As always the funniest jokes of the segment are the topical, apolitical, ones. Grindr, a zebra shooting, and mild cannibalism each prove fertile ground for these weird news jokes. But the stars of the segment are Aidy Bryant and Cecily Strong.
Strong’s Jeannie Pirro shows up for a Mueller report victory lap, using the FOX News host’s recent suspension as fuel. Cackling that she’s finally back for her bread and butter audience of “mean, horny men, lying on home hospital beds” Strong locks into the unhinged impotent rage of hard right talking heads. Saturday Night Live’s Pirro is a racist Madlib, throwing punches everywhere in search of an idea that can land and keep the checks clearing. It’s brutal, even when preaching to the choir.
Then we have Aidy Bryant has astronaut Anne McClain, who was recently denied getting to go on a spacewalk because NASA only has one woman’s size spacesuit. Bryant channels the frustration of every woman you’ve ever known who was left out of a conversation or denied opportunities because men were careless. Through a forced smile and teeth clenched so tight we worried she might bleed, she cheerfully explains why it’s fine she was denied a once in a lifetime opportunity because “the space shirt and pants were the wrong size.” Her missive to little girls letting them know they can do anything they dream of “just not at the same time” is funny, yet full of justified righteous fury.
The final star out of the night was the digital short “Cheques,” a noir-inflected tribute to the dramatic power of paying for something tawdry via check. Getting rid of your daughter’s black boyfriend, buying poison, a gigolo; McKinnon, Bryant, Oh, and Ego Nwodim take turns paying off their troubles with flowery calligraphy. Its self-serious nature makes a final joke about Duffy Duck land that much harder.
That brings us to the stuff that didn’t work, or at least didn’t land. Nothing this week was particularly worth going after. Sometimes bits just don’t work. The Us inspired Discover ad gets points for Nwodim’s incredible Lupita Nyong impression, but the jokes require too much knowledge of the movie to work. “Network Meeting” is a lazy take on Jussie Smollett that feels like a college conservative sketch comedy group. It’s not offensive because it’s bold, it’s just boring jokes that have already been played out in countless FOX News comment sections.
“Electric Shoes” is silly comfort food, seeing Kenan Thompson as a 60s soul singer who won’t stop playing his hit song on a British pop show. It’s fun, but it also just makes you wish they’d bring “Whats Up With That” back if they’re going to run with this format.
“Test Prep,” is rightfully stuck in the last sketch of the show spot, a weirdo experiment brought to life by incredible performances but lacking in coherency. Oh plays a substitute teacher to a bunch of angsty movie-monologing teens, who respond to her every question with revelations about their lives. It’s goofy fun, with McKinnon and Bryant stealing the scene as a dyslexic teenage bad boy and the angsty teen writer who pines for him. There are great moments, but it never builds to anything. It just sort of happens and then ends.
I still like watching Saturday Night Live after all these years, especially on nights like tonight. Part of the charm is seeing if the cast and writers can pull it off week after week, and seeing the moments they fly is exhilarating. When they have a prepared and game host like Oh, it can create some truly entertaining TV. Provided you tune in at 11:35 and miss the cold open.