How can you tell when Saturday Night Live is having a good season? It’s easy to peg when SNL is in a slump or in transition; all you have to do is say, “who the hell is that guy?” after tuning in and seeing a new cast member who is still figuring it out, or catch an episode with a buzzy host that ends up being a multi-level debacle (a la Donald Trump).
It’s far more difficult to tell when the show has turned a corner. People don’t usually start to appreciate the best cast members until they’re already in movies or on their way out. (I was exhausted by Will Ferrell's Spartan Cheerleaders and Kristen Wiig's Target Lady, but loved Old School and Bridesmaids.) Everyone wants to be the person makes the judgment that “SNL sucks now,” but no one wants to step up to the plate and praise the show when it’s solid.
So I’ll be that guy. Saturday Night Live is pretty good these days.
Here’s the secret to knowing when the show is above average: it’s not when they have a trademark recurring character or when there’s an ascendant movie star on the cast, but when they consistently do weird things well. Many of the best sketches this season have been insane one-note premises (Upright Citizens Brigade alums would call it the “one unusual thing”) executed to their logical extreme.
The current SNL cast actually has very few high-profile recurring sketches (depending on how you feel about Riblet or Jebidiah Atkinson). However, what this cast lacks in big, broad characters, it makes up for in oddities: one-off ideas that are more likely to make comedy nerds happy, but won’t necessary make table conversation with your parents over Sunday morning pancakes.
Enjoy it, folks. Before you know it, these guys will be jumping to movies and sitcoms and we’ll be remembering the glory days of Leslie Jones.
Here are some of the episode's highlights:
Space pants? Space pants. SPACE PANTS!
We weren’t going to start anywhere but here. This sketch takes a minute to get started, but once it does, it turns into something very weird and very funny. What could have ostensibly been a sketch where someone plays Dinklage’s Devo-esque lounge singer (“Jonathan Comets”) very broadly instead becomes something very specific: a guy who only wants to sing about his space-print pants. Dinklage deserves all the credit, too; he commits so passionately to the character that even with some minor flubs from Stefani and the cast, his performance still shines through.
Peter Dinklage and Leslie Jones are naked, but only one of them is afraid.
Naked and Afraid: Celebrity Edition is such a fun idea that as the sketch began, I thought we were were up for another parade of celebrity impressions this cast is known for (e.g. Jay Pharoah as Jay-Z and Taran Killam as Brad Pitt, but this time on a reality show!). But they wisely focused on the funniest possible pairing they could think of: Peter Dinklage and Leslie Jones, playing themselves. By the end of the sketch, when the two embrace, you can’t help but start to ‘ship this very odd pairing.
A sneak peek at Game of Thrones.
Bobby Moynihan plays the guy responsible for playing a dragon in Game of Thrones during a special behind-the-scenes HBO featurette. We were already treated to Moynihan’s fantastic “impression” of George R.R. Martin during this episode’s monologue, but he might be better here playing a dragon. (Also, Kate McKinnon’s Emilia Clarke is eerie.)
Surprise in the underwater honeymoon suite.
This is another sketch that features a simple idea executed skillfully, starring Cecily Strong and Beck Bennett as a couple that finds a dead body floating outside their honeymoon suite (Taran Killam). Killam, the cast’s most versatile performer, is such a talented physical comedian that he steals this entire sketch without saying a word.
Trendy New York restaurant.
This sketch is filthy enough that I can’t explain exactly what’s happening here, but its disgusting premise requires enough silliness from Dinklage and Aidy Bryant that it feels like the cast is constantly teetering on the edge of losing their shit.
Next week’s episode features Russell Crowe with musical guest 30 Odd Foot of Grunts. (Just kidding, it’s Margo Price.)