Beyond watching Che and Jost fumble their way through the most lackluster “Weekend Update” yet, this week’s “Saturday Night Live” was the first home run for the show in 2017. While host Kristen Stewart comes with a whole bunch of baggage, of course, it’s nice to see “SNL” get America up to speed on what she’s been up to, and who she’s been becoming, since she retreated from megastardom and went back to just being a working actress and full-time interesting person.
For example: It wasn’t mentioned on the show — although Stewart did mention the project itself in passing — but one of the most fascinating twists of late has been the actress’s interest in artificial intelligence, stemming from a short film she directed which used cutting-edge “machine learning” tech… And about which she coauthored a paper on using advanced AI techniques to create impressionism in film.
GUESS WHAT, KRISTEN STEWART IS AWESOME
On the show, however, we got a decent string of sketches, starting with one of the best monologues all season, highlighting just how off our collective perception of Stewart has been for a while:
Down to the flub-and-recovery at the end, which we must rewound at least five times, she’s a charmer — we say we want ladies who don’t play the game, who are unafraid to be exactly who they are in the public eye… And for a show that features both Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones, the time couldn’t be better.
What we got is a little nervous, a little unrehearsed, and very much the Kristen that fans understand her to be. Delightful, smart, rightfully pissed and more than a little dismayed at the distance between herself and her public image, no matter what she tries to do. Just wonderful.
Stewart’s main live sketch of the night came a little too close to the beginning, it seems, for comfort: Those nerves hadn’t quite calmed down by the time she was called upon to do the most talking she’d do all night, and it shows.
The “Dry Fridays” sketch itself hews pretty close to this ensemble’s best go-to — the random list of absurdities leading into near-nihilist horror that we see in McKinnon’s “alien abduction” and “last call” sketches; really in all the other mainstays that hearken back to Bill Hader’s Stefon — and while Mikey Day is the MVP here, Kristen acquits herself well.
While “SNL” spent the lame duck period either backing away or pandering to a nonexistent base, now that our president is here to stay, the show’s found a new vigor. As the saying goes, “Satire without humor is invective,” and you can’t blame them for taking time to find the sweet spot. But even as “Update” gets worse and worse, the show’s ability to refract real-world facts through righteous anger into barely partisan laser brightness hasn’t been this powerful since the Tina Fey Palin days. The administration may make it easy, but it took a moment.
Of course the real political superstar, as we come to the end of Alec Baldwin’s limitations, is Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer: Not only an instant classic but a fresh tone and voice for the show’s relationship to politics. McCarthy’s Spicer is a walking tantrum, bloated and mean-eyed, leaning on fuzzy logic when he can’t find a way to lie, desperate for respect he hasn’t earned.
Honestly, the only sour note in the whole thing — besides a prop-comic riff that goes a beat too long — is the fact that McCarthy’s suit fits too well.
MY HUNGRY GUYS
While Spicer is a four-quadrant hit, it probably won’t find much more virality or traction than the episode’s only major Superbowl reference: The inarguable best-in-show for Vanessa Bayer’s annual, running trilogy of Totino’s pizza-rolls ads.
In case you missed them, then:
2015 (JK “Whiplash” Simmons) gave us the first, in which Bayer’s wildly smiling housewife contents herself in a wickedly, depressingly infantilized reflection of basic-ass gender performances:
2016’s installment, with Larry David, saw an even more incisive satire of both the enforced rituals of male bonding and the inherently problematic (and creepy af) performative requirements of sports fandom, as what is generally portrayed as a sort of “Forty-Year-Old Virgin” desperation to belong is instead twisted into something supernatural and paranoid:
And then there’s this year’s beautifully produced, achingly ironic version, in which “Sabine,” played by Kristen Stewart, leads Bayer on a journey of discovery as startlingly moving as it is surprisingly erotic:
It’s not just the shock value, or the titillation/validation of seeing Stewart with a woman: It’s Bayer’s endless, awkward need, here weaponized (over the course of three years!) to contrast against the artificiality and silliness of these oddly exclusionary little rituals we have.
Cecily Strong might present us with a “Gone Girl”-style “cool girl” setup, in which a woman goes over the top proclaiming her love for beer and football and farts and so on. Kate McKinnon would foreground literally anything else, in a Superbowl sketch, to scribble over its aggressive indulgence — the cultural manspreading that turns even children’s games into matters of great import, once men have spent enough money making it feel special. Leslie Jones, I have no idea, but I hope it would involve the national shame of traumatic brain injury and/or the way professional sports commodifies black bodies.
Bayer’s vulnerable, crazy-eyed housewife has always been a willing collaborator — stuck on the outside, looking in, just barely keeping it together for her hungry guys. To see her awakening — from both the lushly filmed subjective inside and the absurdly grim, male-gaze outside — is to experience this dual perception (and her contradictory roles) so powerfully it evokes a real response.
If Emma Stone’s brilliant “Well for Boys” was the show’s first foray into identity in the age of Tumblr — and make no mistake, that won’t be the last, no matter how much pissy fun Michael Che and Colin Jost try to make — then this short film, which is almost entirely about how laughable men’s fears can be — and make no mistake, admitting the rest of us exist even when men close their eyes is an act of aggression, just as all equality seems like oppression to the beneficiary — is the show’s ticket out for all of us. Ladies kissing is exciting, sure, and it’ll get you noticed — but poking fun at archaic structures, with plausible deniability, is the very definition of satire.
Pay attention this week. As you watch the undeniable butts of the joke try to minimize it by talking about their own boners, listen close — you just might hear the world changing.
“Saturday Night Live” airs at 11:29 p.m. ET/PT on NBC. Feb. 11 brings us Alec Baldwin, with Ed Sheeran.