Whenever the holiday season begins, a strange vibe settles in at SNL. The weeks blend together as sketches revolve around seasonal themes, with few exciting fresh ideas and a lineup of decent hosts with unmemorable episodes. Fall of last year was no different — Bruno Mars and Louis CK were highlights in what was otherwise a forgettable stretch including Daniel Craig, Christina Applegate, and Jeremy Renner. On the viewer side, this drop in enthusiasm is likely the result of the start-of-season excitement wearing off as we see the cast members fall into a familiar rotation. On the writers' side, perhaps it's a matter of fatigue, or limited options from whoever the host happens to be that week. Whatever it is, it seems like you could trade out Halloween with Thanksgiving or Christmas or the general "autumn," and these would all be the same episode.
Last weekend's episode, hosted by Edward Norton, satisfied despite few memorable thrills, with Norton relying heavily on his impressions and character-actor chops to carry less-than-inspired material. Often, the choices were a little baffling ("I guess I can do a good Rain Man," one could imagine Norton suggesting to a quiet writers room), though they were about as odd as Norton's hosting the episode in the first place. The actor has had no movies coming out in 2013, with his recent working relationship with Wes Anderson (in last year's Moonrise Kingdom and next year's The Grand Budapest Hotel) serving as the only source material worth referencing. Of course, we don't always need a host to be plugging a movie or Oscar campaign; in fact, it usually works better when that's not the case (Alec Baldwin certainly doesn't need his MSNBC show to get in the door). However, it does feel a little strange to go from watching an inescapably popular idol like Miley Cyrus to a well-regarded but currently sidelined actor like Edward Norton. The viewing experience is less about what he will do next than it is where the hell he's been lately and why he's doing a Rain Man impression.
Obamacare Website Cold Open. SNL may be a little late to the game when it comes to the Obamacare website jokes, but this was yet another successful cold open (4 out of 4 so far this season, by my count), with Kate McKinnon hamming it up as a thrown-under-the-bus Kathleen Sebelius trying to navigate a bug-ridden HealthCare.gov. Although a lot of the laughs came from the multimedia visual gags (a low-res version of the site that asks "U WANT DOCTR?"), McKinnon's charms worked well here, proving the actress can carry a solo cold open… perhaps one day as Hillary Clinton.
Monologue. Also keeping with tradition this season, the monologue was totally unnecessary, featuring random cameos by Alec Baldwin (cool!) and Miley Cyrus (wait, no!) and a few awkward impressions by Edward Norton. Baldwin did provide us with an apt description of the SNL experience — "a three-wheeled bus careening toward a blown-out bridge" — which felt abundantly true at several points throughout the night.
Autumn's Eve. The commercial parody was as amusing as always this week — just in time for the fall season, a pumpkin-spiced douche.
Shalon. I can't remember the last time a Nasim Pedrad character vehicle made it into the front half of the show — let alone in the centerpiece slot — but the episode was all the stronger for it. Pedrad played Shalon, a candy-loving kid who leads her class in their misinterpretation of a safety inspector's warnings about strangers in vans. Pedrad's character work was about as funny as the heightening of confusion throughout the rest of the class, leading to Bobby Moynihan's hilarious outburst: "Be a man and take responsibility for your child!"
The Steve Harvey Show III. Kenan Thompson won't be winning any fans with this tired impression that amuses him more than anyone else. Here, Norton played a costume designer who tried to stump Harvey with punny costumes. To his credit, Thompson did manage a few laughs: "We've got one of those in my neighborhood. That's ol' Book Head!"
Wes Anderson Horror Film. One of the stronger sketches of the night was this parody trailer of a fake Wes Anderson horror film called "The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders." As we can come to expect these days, the execution was flawless, with the directors nailing Anderson's whimsical aesthetic and hipster details: a tent set up as a panic room, using a ship in a bottle and a picture of Edith Piaf as weapons, etc. The speed and specificity resulted in it receiving far fewer laughs than it deserved; then again, perhaps audiences are less familiar with Anderson's work to appreciate the references.
Critter Control. Brooks Wheelan and Edward Norton teamed up to play a pair of slack-jawed exterminators interrupting a business meeting with their glee at the sight of super-civilized opossums living in the vents. Despite the performances earning laughs, the game was a little unclear — the opossums' burial rituals being so absurdly advanced made Wheelan and Norton's also-absurd characters confusing in this scenario, leaving the businesspeople with nothing other than to make detached observations.
Drug Deal. This brings us to one of the most confusing sketches of the night, wherein Edward Norton played Hank, an as-good-as-anyone-can-do-it impression of Raymond Babbitt from Rain Man, counting money for a drug deal. The performances by Mike O'Brien and the rest of the cast were entertaining, and there were some fun lines about Hank's background work in Transformers, but it was never very clear why Hank was so similar to the Dustin Hoffman character, or how sharp his counting skills actually were.
Weekend Update. Weekend Update ran extremely short this week, with only one character segment: Bobby Moynihan's best-yet appearance of Secondhand News Correspondent Anthony Crispino (VIII), whose first "I'm pretty sure…" set the octave bar pretty high. By now, we can see the shoddy information jokes coming a mile away — Gray Marriage, Government Touchdown, etc. — but Moynihan sells this character so effectively that he keeps the audience rolling. It's interesting to see how comedically potent the actor has become on SNL, especially when he's behind the Update desk.
12 Days Not A Slave. If you want proof that SNL is totally blind to any of the racial controversy surrounding the show, look no further than this cringeworthy sketch in which Jay Pharoah played a recently freed slave in 1863 blissfully galavanting around a saloon filled with white racists. With neither the script nor Pharoah able to lift this premise out of the awkward gloom, this sketch sunk — though it was briefly saved by an awesome moment in which Aidy Bryant gushed about all the action she's now getting: "These have been the best 12 days of my life!"
Ruth's Chris. In this enjoyable premise that never quite took off, Edward Norton, Mike O'Brien, Nasim Pedrad, and Cecily Strong played a group of virgin waiters trying to sound cool while talking about sex. With O'Brien appearing the most comfortable in the role, it seemed like an idea of his that the other three weren't 100% up to speed with.
Halloween Candy. As is often the case with episodes like these, the best came last, with Edward Norton playing a creepy father randomly giving us a non-sequitur inventory of his Halloween candy. Reminiscent of Steve Buscemi's "Ornaments" two seasons ago, Norton nailed the John Waters-y delivery and gave his finest performance of the night: "What would I do for a Klondike Bar? I'd suck anything in front of me. I'm serious. I don't care. I love Klondike Bars." Best of the Night.
- Big nights for Bobby Moynihan, Nasim Pedrad, and Kate McKinnon; meanwhile, relatively quiet nights for Vanessa Bayer, Kyle Mooney, and Taran Killam, the latter of whom missed out perhaps because his digital short, Don't Smash My Pumpkin, was cut after dress. I hate to say it, because I truly do love everyone in this cast, but the episode could have used some of Killam's star power.
- Best — Halloween Candy; Worst — 12 Days Not A Slave; You'll See It On Facebook — Wes Anderson Horror Film; Worth It For the Jokes — Obamacare Website Cold Open, Weekend Update.
- Count Aidy Bryant as another returning cast member who is becoming increasingly valuable each week. Time after time throughout the night (and this season so far), the actress has found herself in less-than-successful sketches and has managed to find her way to a laugh.
- Was it just me, or was Edward Norton aiming for a Christoph Waltz impression in "12 Days Not A Slave"? He'll try anything, that guy!
- "Is there ever a point where you're behind the guy, but it's not worth it because that's nothing, right?"
- A few additions to Stupid Names this week, all courtesy of Anthony Crispino: Flammable Dan, Abrakadouglas, Edward the Snowman.
- There was a weird moment toward the end of the show in which we saw the guitarist jamming during a commercial break peek-in. (It was not, as this article previously stated, Edward Norton.) Makes you wonder if another sketch could have fit somewhere in there.
I'll see you next week, when Kerry Washington will host with musical guest Eminem.
Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He hosts the Evil Blond Kid podcast and performs improv on the Harold team The Cartel at the iO West Theater.