This is one of the rare episodes that I’m actually largely indifferent to both the host and the musical guest. That doesn’t mean I dislike them, don’t get me wrong. I’m just not totally enamored. For Taraji P. Henson, this largely stems from the fact that I have viewed very little of her acting history. The one film I have definitely seen her in was The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which netted her an Academy Award nomination so that is a good jumping off point. I do know that Henson is an extremely talented actress who has received consistent praise for Empire. This will definitely help her through her first hosting gig.
As for Mumford & Sons, I enjoy their music when I hear it played in my vicinity. I don’t own any of their albums though. Their performances will likely be a lot of fun, but won’t suddenly make me toss their library on my iPod for commute enjoyment.
Rumor has that Hillary Clinton is announcing her plans to run for President on Sunday (or already has, depending on when you’re reading this), which makes me very happy for one reason. It will allow us to watch Kate McKinnon portray a power hungry caricature for quite some time. Last night’s Cold Open had McKinnon playing the former First Lady and Secretary of State for the second time and it was still hilarious. Darrell Hammond even dropped by reprising his role as Bill Clinton, which helped boost the skit’s already high quality. I can’t wait to see McKinnon’s Clinton on the campaign trail, hopefully thinking of diabolical ways to destroy her opponents in her unrelenting climb to the top.
In fact, I might as well declare McKinnon as the big winner of the night. It still amazes me that, despite Saturday Night Live being an ensemble program, there are clearly bigger cast members than others. McKinnon is unquestionably on an entirely different level. She was in practically every sketch during the night and completely made her presence known, even if she was only a woman angrily crying on a courtroom bench. This is an actress who is just at the top of her game. I have no idea when McKinnon will leave the show (hopefully not for a long time), but it’s so clear that she has already made her mark on this program’s long history.
Seeing as Henson is now best known for her role as Cookie Lyon, I’m grateful that this night wasn’t just a constant tribute to Empire. It honestly wouldn’t be the first time SNL made an entire episode revolve around a single theme. Though when the required Empire skit actually happened later in the night, I was pleasantly surprised to find it mashed up with Sesame Street for hilarious effect. The sheer thought of the ruthless Cookie strolling down Sesame Street is enough to generate a few laughs. My favorite part was when they discovered she had skinned Elmo and was using his fur as a coat. If Peta was there, the show would have been brought to by the letter M. FOR MURDER.
It’s merciful that this 40th season hasn’t subjected us to weekly skits where cast members come out to do impressions at random. This is definitely one of the benefits to losing a good handful of cast members after last year. It was inevitable that this would come back though, and it happened with a “sneak peek” of Home 2. Once actor impersonations started to get read off like a grocery list, I rolled my eyes in preparation for a bunch of one off portrayals. Few were good, few were bad, but none really made me buckle over with laughter. It sucks that these skits still happen but I guess there’s nothing we can do. At least the later aired bit about Hollywood Game Night was funnier as those impressions actually made an impact. This is in despite of it being cut from the same cloth as every other recent SNL game show.
I don’t exactly know what was going on with the “Connectatron” segment. Not only was this the one sketch where Henson noticeably flubbed a line, it just wasn’t good. The jokes didn’t make an impact and the premise was lacking. Henson’s character is angry because Taran Killam’s character slighted her in the hallway? This is what caused the leg portion of a Voltron style robot to not connect? It would have been more fun to watch Connectatron actually fight the shark monster. At least that has the campy factor going for it.
The “Depends Legends” segment had initial promise. To make Depends undergarments more interesting, you get Depends Legends with famous faces on them. It’s completely silly, but sometimes silly is exactly what you need. For most of the sketch I chuckled and generally enjoyed the humor. Then we had a close up shot of an old man shaking his Depends with a celebrity’s face plastered on his ass. It was such a low brow and obvious beat that it completely ruined the sketch for me.
As Henson declared during her very soulful monologue, she is a longtime professional who has “made it” because white people recognize her. As uncomfortable as the claim is (I’m a white person who barely knew who Henson was until Empire), it boasts the truth that this woman is immensely talented at her craft. This is honestly what carried her throughout the night. Henson wasn’t given the prime cut of many sketches, but she did very well with what she was given. It didn’t matter if she was portraying Wanda Sykes or a female prosecutor in teacher/student sex trial that only served to move the skit along. She handled everything with undeniable poise and skill.
Billy Crystal dropped by too, which was a pleasant surprise. He played the very Jewish father of Vanessa Bayer’s Jacob during Weekend Update. It’s no secret that Jacob isn’t my thing, but seeing Crystal there was a nice addition that stopped it from being stale. In fact, the Update itself has been noticeably better as of late. Glad to see Colin Jost and Michael Che have reached some sort of groove.
Unfortunately the show itself was mostly average, furthering proving that the final episode in a three-week stint is always the weakest. A lot of skits suffered from poor writing and unoriginal concepts. There were three recurring segments (Sasheer Zamata’s teen dance video, Kenan Thompson’s “Cinema Classics”, and McKinnon’s Hollywood Game Night), all which suffered from diminished returns. I’ve already covered the two celebrity impersonation sketches as well, likely borne from tired writers who said, “Let’s just have them play random people to fill time.” SNL even tapped into the neverending source for comedy that is a female teacher banging a male student. Granted, that segment was funny thanks to Pete Davidson, but it was still blatantly one-note. A Game of Thrones segment called “South Centros” aired too with a John Singleton inspired twist, which was a great premise, and yet it failed to grow beyond its concept as a black version of this HBO hit. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau deserved better with his SNL cameo, and Henson deserved more with her first gig at 8H.
Luke Kalamar is Pop-Break.com’s television and every Saturday afternoon you can read his retro video game column, Remembering the Classics. He covers Game of Thrones, Saturday Night Live and The Walking Dead (amongst others) every week. As for as his career and literary standing goes — take the best parts of Spider-man, Captain America and Luke Skywalker and you will fully understand his origin story.