It's great when an SNL host has nothing to prove.
Sure, it's fun to play into expectations surrounding a new host, and to wonder how his or her specific skill sets might factor into an episode: Will Bruno Mars do anything other than sing in sketches? Will Louis CK's style work in the SNL format? Meanwhile, with a repeat host, those concerns are lifted. Whether it's a former cast member (Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler), or a longtime friend of the show (Alec Baldwin, Jon Hamm, and now with three episodes under her belt, Anne Hathaway), a host who is familiar with the process can ease back and have a bit more fun. The night becomes less about what the host needs to do to survive and more about letting the writers and cast members work their magic.
Some of my favorite SNL episodes over the years have celebrated the ensemble, and that only happens when you have a host who is a collaborative team player, a rising tide that lifts all ships. Last episode — with its high frequency of big-cast sketches and generous screen time for all cast members (especially recently underused ones like Taran Killam and Aidy Bryant) — was just that. The Dark Knight Rises and Les Miserables star banked on her impersonation prowess and moment-to-moment chemistry to bring out the best of the SNL staff without letting any A-list ego get in the way. Hell, she even thanked the pages during the goodbyes! Most celebrities can't even see those mythical, blazer-wearing sub-humans.
While at times the parodies felt too broad and the premises too thin, Anne Hathaway won the night with a team-player performance, securing the actress as a reliable go-to SNL host.
Romney Cold Open. In what must be one of the final appearances of Jason Sudeikis' Mitt Romney on SNL, the cold open brought us the presidential hopeful lamenting his loss on his balcony over a few quarts of milk. Easy, Mitt. The piece felt like an excuse to get in a few last digs at the disillusioned Romney campaign and family, with the gag of Taran Killam playing three of the Romney sons hitting the hardest. The script could have used more jokes, but the sketch accurately reflected the country's somber, post-election mood.
Monologue. In a not-so-subtle nod to her role in the upcoming Les Miserables film, the whole cast joined Anne Hathaway on stage for a parody of the show-stopping "One Day More." Yes, the song is one of the most parodied Broadway hits of all time, and I'm not so sure the "castmembers looking forward to Sunday" jokes made it past the harmonious belting. But musical monologues can get away with being more "fun" than "funny," and the cast's always-surprising voices and Tim Robinson waving the Mexican flag were satisfying enough.
Girlfriends Talk Show. The highlight of the night was this sketch featuring best friends (Aidy Bryant and Cecily Strong) hosting a girls talk show, with Bryant jealous of Strong's new, cooler best friend (Hathaway). SNL has scored big in recent years by subverting the talk show format with grounded relationships (Abby Elliot's hilarious "What Is This?" comes to mind), and seeing this friend-triangle unfold was a delight, especially Bryant's insecurity and pathetic attempts at cool-ness: "Looks like clothes dead women are found in!"
Mokiki Sloppy Swish. In SNL's first real attempt at a music video in the post-Lonely Island era, Kenan Thompson sang a reggae rap about the feral New York drifter Mokiki (Taran Killam) and his signature dance, the "Sloppy Swish." Another musical bit that's more "fun" than "funny," I wouldn't hold my breath for the Sloppy Swish to go viral. That said, Killam's physical comedy is always great, and the solid directing helped elevate this song about an acid-vomiting drifter to a worthy SNL digital short.
Homeland. Depending on whether or not you watch Homeland, this sketch was either hilarious or confusing, and that's because there was no game other than a broad parody of the show and the impersonations of the characters. The gamble seemed to pay off, due I suspect to Homeland's steady growth in popularity and the strength of the performances. Hathaway's unstable Carrie and Bill Hader's forgiving Saul were standouts, and Nasim Pedrad's slowly-crossing-frame move worked nicely in her cameo as the teenage daughter.
McDonalds Firing. In another full-ensemble sketch, Bobby Moynihan and Cecily Strong played brash soon-to-be-fired McDonalds employees telling off their coworkers. At times the rant felt a little mean-spirited, but most of the jokes and the honest reactions by the rest of the cast were amusing — especially when the two performed a choreographed high-five and Hader asked, "Did you guys rehearse this?"
Weekend Update. Seth Meyers charmed us with some great jokes about David Petraeus' book title, the pantsuit industry, and watching sports at home… with wives. Jay Pharoah got a segment as President Obama (after seeing his Obama cold open cut last week), taking a cocky victory lap. The jokes were great ("A Hispanic gay woman is born every eight seconds") and Pharoah's Obama has improved… though the frequent grinning was distracting. Bill Hader and Fred Armisen appeared as gay fishermen from Maine in a segment that didn't get laughs until the two started seductively teasing each other. Bobby Moynihan returned to the Update Desk this season with a delightful post-election rant about "Jewspapers" and trying to "vote with a Groupon." We laugh at him now, but in a few weeks the real drunk uncles of America will unleash their rambling wrath upon us all.
Allergies Ad. The 10-to-1 this week was an ad for Flaritin, a fake-Claritin for people who make up allergies to get attention. The premise was funny but a little one-note… likely justifying its placement at the end of the show rather than after the monologue.
Ellen. Kate McKinnon gave us a sample of her excellent Ellen Degeneres impression a few weeks ago in the Bond Girls video, but unfortunately it wasn't strong enough to sustain a whole sketch, especially when that sketch is a game-less broad parody and too many lines are getting stifled by loud music. There were a few silver linings, notably Taran Killam's audience fan wearing the same outfit as Ellen and Anne Hathaway's cameo as a pitch-perfect Katie Holmes. You can't find the sketch in its entirety on NBC.com or Hulu due to its use of licensed music (a legal issue that ironically got the real Ellen in hot water a few years ago), but you can watch a clip of the sketch here.
American Gothic. Hathaway joined Jason Sudeikis as the subjects of the famous Grant Wood painting in a mission-impossible sketch in which they couldn't pose correctly. To be fair, many of the physical gags were entertaining — the corn puppet, the back-to-back news anchor pose, etc. — but the premise felt a little easy and Hathaway wore down my tolerance for silly faces during the Homeland sketch.
While I considered this episode to be better-than-average, I can't say it was particularly memorable. Save for the amazing Girlfriend Talk Show sketch, most of the sketches were simply pleasant and a little one-note. Nevertheless, Anne Hathaway was a powerhouse talent, and it was great to see her blend so effortlessly with the rest of the cast. This was a real team win for SNL.
What did you think? Were all the big-cast sketches a reflection of Anne Hathaway's team-player style, or were they a sign of weakness that the host couldn't carry sketches on her own? Have we seen the last of Jason Sudeikis' Mitt Romney? After that line in the monologue about being on the show for eight seasons, do you think Sudeikis is working on his exit strategy? And now that the election is over, do you think the spike in appearances by Aidy Bryant and Cecily Strong is a signal that the newer cast members will finally get some more screen time?
I’ll see you next week, when Jeremy Renner will host with musical guest Maroon 5.
Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He performs improv on the Harold team The Cartel at the iO West Theater.