“Saturday Night Live” always feels most vital during an election year — and on the last Saturday before Election Day 2016, Guy Fawkes Day, it was pretty clear that collectively, as a nation, we need a fresh and entertaining “SNL.”
Happily, the cast delivered: A solid episode with a few bumpy moments and even more than a little bit of the incoming weirdness promised last week with Tom Hanks (David S. Pumpkins, of course, but with more than a dash of sweetness from his “America’s Dad” monologue, too).
Best Gotcha Optimism
In the week leading up, the post-World Series national mood had turned to a certain sourness — a sense of anxiety and fatigue, matched with a general how-did-we-end-up-here bewilderment — and it was this mood the show first chose to channel: Like almost every episode this season, beginning with a cold open between the candidates, and this time without the frame of the debates to constrain them.
First, hats off to Alec Baldwin’s impression — it’s one of the only things keeping us sane in these final hours: Perfectly mocking the perma-scowl and squinty eyes, the disembodied gestures… Baldwin manages to make it satisfying and horrifying at the same time, which is no easy feat. The writing was also on point, satirizing the media’s obsession with presenting false equivalencies by returning again and again to the joke of putting the issues of both candidates on an equal playing field in the name of fairness (and, eventually, explicitly in service to the news cycle).
But two-thirds through, “SNL” broke through that national cliche to a deeper truth: Baldwin dropped character, admitted he’s been worn out by the election — and that doing the job weekly has made him feel “gross.” Baldwin and McKinnon embarked on a tour of Times Square to hug the other’s candidates’ supporters in the face of division.
Though there were no big laughs here, but it’s a smart and timely move to address our election fatigue while also demonstrating once again the overall younger cast’s millennial move — toward earnestness, kindness and compassion in the face of irony — that will define the franchise for the next decade. It’s still rare to see the show this sincere, but getting less so, and they chose the perfect moment to demonstrate it: Just before she and Baldwin chanted the show’s eponymous opening, McKinnon dropped the prankster mask:
“We can’t tell you who to vote for, but on Tuesday, we all get to choose what kind of country we want to live in.”
Best Returning Character
This episode also saw the return of Pete Davidson’s Chad, the dumb 20-year-old adults fall in love with and proceed to melodramatically monologize about their infatuation. We last saw him as pool boy to Julia Louis Dreyfuss — and in this iteration, Chad takes a meeting with his philosophy professor, played beautifully by host Benedict Cumberbatch, who can’t help but profess his love and the connection he feels — as the unflappable Zen master Chad just stares at him blankly.
80 percent of what Davidson does is stare with his mouth half open and respond “okay” — and in contrast to how verbose his paramours are, it just kills every time. Cumberbatch, of course, perfect milking the drama of someone so infatuated they can’t see what’s actually in front of them.
Best Surprise Moment of Genius
A quick meta sketch with what at first seemed a flimsy premise was unexpectedly great, as Beck Bennett hosted a show on Game Show Network, as himself, with contestants Aidy Bryant and Vanessa Bayer, also playing themselves.
First coyly describing it only as, “The show where I try to get to the bottom of something that’s been throwing me for a loop all week,” eventually Beck admits his confusion regarding Benedict Cumberbatch’s alleged attractiveness. (“Oh, Beck,” Benedict moans when he figures out where it’s headed: A sort of gloomy Eeyore sorrow on Bennett’s behalf that is much, much funnier than the squicked-out mortification anyone would have the right to feel.)
With neither Vanessa nor L’il Baby Aidy capable of articulating a coherent thought or even actual words when describing their attraction right in front of Cumberbatch, they got to act out a generalized, paralyzing horniness — while also waving in the general direction of something even Cumberbatch himself has to be baffled by.
Saturday Night’s MVP
The best sketch of the night was Grammy’s “Surprise Bachelorette” at 83, with Aidy Bryant’s Grammy about to get married while truly on her last leg of life. I won’t spoil the wonderful physical comedy, but let me just leave it as: Benedict Cumberbatch and newcomer Mikey Day as strippers, later joined by Anthony Rizzo, David Ross and Dexter Fowler, of the Cubs. And while everyone involved gives according to their ability, it’s Aidy in the middle of it all, somehow bringing hilarity to a situation where even her eyes are covered up, that takes the cake.
Honorable Mention: Most Church Lady Sketch
Weekend Update came out strong this week, with Colin Jost finally approaching Michael Che’s level of chill at the anchor desk, and a focus on this week’s election headlines. Comparisons between the Presidential candidates were factual and on point, and then the real star of the segment appeared: Dana Carvey’s apparently relevant Church Lady, joining an already particularly alum-heavy episode (and “Update” — as Bill Murray’s mordant mug reminded us, he’s a hometown boy too). No real surprises here, although you’ll be excited to learn that, much like every other white person in America, Church Lady has no problem opening up about “Westworld,” her theories about “Westworld,” and how much she loves “Westworld.”
Best Use of the Stage Since Maybe Kanye
Solange performed “Cranes in the Sky” with a stunningly design concept and choreography that matched the song’s minimalism — Solange’s greatest appeal has always been her way of finding the ease in the situation, coming off less with her sister’s expert sprezzatura than an unrehearsed inner peace, and this performance really showed that off. Like Solange herself, the effect was relaxed, ethereal, and dreamy.
Most Incomprehensible Concept / Best Possible Result
The first “winners” of “Weekend Update’s The Voice contest” — a thing not even the show feels like figuring out — were the Cubs again, this time with superfan Bill Murray, singing the Cubs’ victory song “Go Cubs Go.” Whether you enjoy watching Dave Ross be adorable, or somehow really love the sight of Bill Murray resentfully slumping his way through life — or even if you just love bouncing-ball singalongs, which we all do — you will enjoy this.
Ten Minutes to One A.M. Award
The second half of the show was rockier and uneven, which isn’t unusual at the clock ticks later, but you know the weirdest slot of the night usually goes to the last spot: “Meeting Mr. Shaw” certainly delivered, while still being funny. What made this one was Cumberbatch sincerely acting with an eagle statue in a suit, and would be enough to win this coveted award…
Except for this digital short early in the night, an Apple-lampooning ad for a cool toilet with the bold look of Kohler, which starts at the lowest common concept but then gives itself just enough room to breathe that it develops from a sub-par one-joke wonder to something altogether stranger and better:
“Saturday Night Live” airs its 2016 Election Special Monday, Nov. 7 at 10 p.m. PT/ET on NBC. Its next new regular episode is Nov. 12, at 11:29 p.m. PT/ET, and will feature Dave Chappelle and A Tribe Called Quest.