For a show whose cultural relevance oscillates almost entirely set against a certain four-year cycle, the thinkpieces are coming fast and hard about whether the show contributed to our collectively cartoonish ideas about the nuanced issues that came to a head this week, which it definitely did. And while it seems obvious to some, defensible by others, the show ultimately falls back on the same excuse every late-night pundit-in-wocka-wocka-clothing — from John Oliver to Jon Stewart — thinks will absolve them:
That engaging with an audience in peril, on a real-life level, is a pick-and-choose; that you can throw the rock and hide your hand, in the name of the same cultural satire you’re variably afraid and proud to acknowledge. You cannot give us a sophisticated, insightful takedown and later pretend it was just a silly fart joke. Any pretense at even-handedness that’s nothing more than a cynical ploy for the ad dollars of that minority of Americans who voted against the show’s leftward leanings cannot stand up under its own weight. It becomes less and less impressive the savvier we, as people, become about our entertainment.
Which is to say: There was no way for the show to win this week, having played its usual bizarrely limited, urban-mythical cultural role in helping create the way the world sees us, and the way we see ourselves — but to its credit, almost the entire 90 minutes this week was… literally about that. Which is probably the only thing they could have done, but definitely is also the best way.
Kate McKinnon has ably and adeptly played Hillary Clinton all season, imbuing her with a goofy and endearing humanity beneath the tough facade. McKinnon’s impression isn’t always dead-on physically, but she has managed to give us real-feeling glimpses at Clinton’s interior life, her portrayal less imitation than character study.
As Hillary, McKinnon played the piano for this week’s cold open, singing select verses of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” ending on this one:
I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but “Hallelujah!”
…And with a simple “I’m not giving up, and neither should you,” a clearly emotional McKinnon threw us to the opening credits. It was spare, haunting, and beautiful — and just as boundary-breaking as McKinnon’s portrayal of Clinton has been throughout.
Most Enthusiastic Reception
Dave Chappelle was greeted by one of the loudest and longest applause breaks we can remember on the show, as he appeared for his opening monologue. (The crowd’s love for Chris Rock in a later sketch, of course, was just as comforting — but that pre-monologue stretch of laughter felt truly like love.)
As expected, Chappelle did standup, but true to form he didn’t avoid mining dark topics for humor, from the recent election and its aftermath to the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. As he went on, he became less scripted and more off the cuff. A magnetizing presence, even after eschewing the spotlight for several years: He’s powerful to watch.
Most Accurate Portrayal of Decompensating Whiteness
In this sketch, a group of predominantly white friends gather to watch the election results, confident of Hillary’s victory — and as her chances dwindle, their hopelessness and frustration grows.
The only unsurprised guests? Dave Chappelle, and special guest Chris Rock, who are somewhat less surprised America might elect an open, proud bigot.
Best Way To Address The Elephant In The Room
Dave Chappelle created so many indelible characters during the run of “Chappelle’s Show,” there was no doubt the “SNL” audience would be expecting to see them during this episode.
Chappelle neatly incorporated them into one sketch, a pre-taped riff on “The Walking Dead” where he, as Negan, threatens a motley crew of “Chappelle’s Show” characters L’il Jon, Chuck Taylor, and Tyrone Biggums.
Fans of “Chappelle’s Show” got to see some of their favorite characters again — but wisely, Chappelle and “SNL” contained them all in the world of this sketch, so Chappelle was free to really do his own thing elsewhere.
Most Touching Tribute
Musical guest A Tribe Called Quest came out strong with dope leather jackets and a ton of energy. They still sound amazing and ferocious, and their tribute to the late Phife Dawg (a flag with his likeness unfurling dramatically during the verse he rapped on one of their new tracks) heightened an already powerful performance.
Best Weekend Update Moment
Kate McKinnon as Ruth Bader Ginsberg pouring powdered Emergen-C straight into her mouth so she can live forever — and gamely powering through the rest of her appearance with a mouthful of gummy orange powder.
Best Sketch Of The Night
When the Jheri’s Place sketch gets started, it’s got all the cringeworthy hallmarks of an underwritten, too-weird sketch. Between Leslie Jones relying heavily on cue cards, most of the rest of the cast compulsively spraying their wigs down, and Kyle Mooney’s bizarre over-the-top accent choice for his health inspector character, you might think it’s a good time for a snack break…
But the sketch-within-the-sketch abruptly ends, cutting to the real premise: A great joke about modern sports coverage. In a post-play breakdown called “Inside SNL,” reporters ask defensive cast members questions about what went wrong. Following in the clever meta footsteps of last week’s brilliantly awkward “Why Is Benedict Cumberbatch Hot?” — while also making great use of its subject’s own tropes, from the slow-motion bumper of Leslie fumbling a play to the bummed-out, angry responses of every actor on the panel.
Most Throwaway Sketch
Kids talk about Donald Trump for less than ninety seconds in this pre-taped bit with Vanessa Bayer — who is, of course, a delight — with potential to be interesting, but there was really no follow-through. “Everything is weird” is a lame endpoint for any sketch, especially this week, but one wonders how the studio audience must have responded in dress rehearsal, to get this clip on the airwaves.
We have a suspicion it’s the final exchanges and liberal use of the p-word that made this one a “hit” — or possibly the saccharine, pointless final admonition — either way, inappropriate and gross is not the same thing as self-indicting, and sure as hell isn’t an apology. Bad fumble here.
Kate McKinnon’s blowsy barfly Sheila Sovage is the same sketch every time: What’s always entertaining is how far she and her last call hookup of the night will go to be completely gross, the random references (“Detectives are waiting for me at my house”) and watching Kenan Thompson’s increasingly hilarious reactions:
Kenan so rarely seems to enjoy being on the show — which isn’t a burn, he’s a workhorse, competent and capable with a recognizable (“zut alors!“) touch — that it’s nice to see him this gleeful…
…Which can also be said for Leslie Jones — who is having just a hell of a year, all things told — and still seems quietly close to tears of joy throughout the intensely bizarre sketch below, featuring Dave Chappelle as a 43-year old man who still breastfeeds:
Most Obviously Starstruck: Entire “SNL” Cast
The sketch isn’t necessarily the funniest, but watching Leslie Jones, Kenan Thompson, Beck Bennett and Pete Davidson all trying to hide their laughter behind blankets and cookies is pretty amazing — not to mention Kyle Mooney’s completely unflappable reactions — but this sketch is the only one that also managed to give us a feeling that we get vanishingly rarely with this show:
That anyone in the cast of this institution has walked through fire and hell, and cut off a lot of the pieces of themselves, and suffered a lot of improv and standup, to take part. What that means is that every one of them spent last night sharing a stage with some of the most formative humans, in Rock and Chappelle, in creating their careers, personalities, and lives.
You can be proud to hit the bigtime, but that ego boost doesn’t last very long: It’s rubbing shoulders with your heroes that reminds them while they’re there. And though we can assume this in theory, it’s moment like this — their childlike, furious excitement — that tells us there’s still a little magic left in old 8-H, even four decades on.
One more episode of “SNL” airs before the winter break: Nov. 19, with Kristen Wiig and The xx, 11:30 ET/PT on NBC.