Season 39 has not exactly been kind to SNL. As we explained in our midseason review, the show seems to have surrendered to its "transition year" label, playing it safe as if dragging a stone of shame, rather than saying "screw it" and taking creative risks as if dragging a stone of triumph. Not all of it has been bad — in fact, a lot of it has been quite good — but we've been waiting for the show to win us back with a resounding victory. December's midseason finale with Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake came close, in that it provided the show with a jolt of energy it had been missing over the past months, but fans still complained that the sketches weren't up to par. Indeed, with so many bits from past seasons and impression-based pieces, the episode was far from a testament to originality.
Last weekend's episode, hosted and musical-guested by Drake, might have given us that win. SNL has had a recent love affair with booking music stars to pull double duty — this being the third instance this season, after Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga. Drake certainly outperformed those two — unlike Cyrus and Gaga, he avoided pandering to the frantic fans in the crowd, and he brought supportive energy to every sketch without upstaging the premise — though I remain hesitant to give him a standing ovation after prematurely doing so for Adam Levine this time last year.
The bigger story this week was the addition of Sasheer Zamata, the show's first black female cast member in seven years. While I always thought the accusations of racism toward SNL a little overblown, I have to admit that Zamata's presence seemed to set the cast and writers a little at ease. This wasn't a showcase episode for the actress — her frequent appearances in minor roles were enough to remind viewers of her existence without exploiting her token status, as a meta gag in the cold open or Weekend Update would have done. But seeing Zamata get laughs as Rihanna, dancing in opening credits of Blossom (or "B'Lossom"), gave me hope that SNL is once again a show that can make fun of celebrities like Rihanna (or Michelle Obama, Beyonce, Will Smith in drag, etc.), and do sketches where a black host can play a father to a daughter who's having a slumber party… without everyone feeling awkward.
Aside from Drake and Zamata, this episode gave us plenty of reasons to celebrate, from Kate McKinnon's hilarious take on Justin Bieber to Aidy Bryant's crushing slumber party girl to Vanessa Bayer's fun Jacqueline Bisset bit during Weekend Update to the delightful return of Mornin' Miami. SNL began the new year with a fresh start, giving us a night that we might as well remember as a season premiere — that is, if the show sticks to its resolutions.
Cold Open — Piers Morgan VI. The writers have become a little too reliant on these Piers Morgan Live parodies, using the format to loosely address several unrelated news topics without expressing a real point of view on any of them. At this point, the sketch can only be judged by the quality of its jokes and the cameos — which in this case, fared well. I was hoping we'd see a funnier take on the Chris Christie bridgegate scandal than Bobby Moynihan's brief appearance, but that news story doesn't seem to be fading any time soon, so it's likely not the last we'll see of him. The sketch picked up steam with Drake's litigious Alex Rodriguez ("I'm also suing steroids for being inside me"), who humorously blamed his shady texts on auto-correct. The highlight of the sketch was Kate McKinnon's impression of Justin Bieber, with hilarious dreamy poses and nonsensical excuses for egging his neighbor's house: "I think I'm 40. Maybe I'm 5. I don't know, my brain is broken."
Monologue. I appreciate any monologue that breaks from the expected on-stage musical schtick, so this flashback to Drake's Bar Mitzvah was a fun exploration of the singer's black/Jewish upbringing in Canada. The sketch stayed for a beat too long in the scene, however; the best jokes came from Drake's awesome hip-hop cover of Hava Nagila: "I play basketball like Lebron and I know what a W2 is."
Before They Were Stars. SNL mocked Drake's Degrassi roots with this amusing impression-based piece that placed hip hop artists in 80s/90s sitcoms, with Taran Killam's Eminem on Felicity and Drake's Lil' Wayne as Steve Urkel on Family Matters. The sketch probably didn't need half of those bits, especially with Kenan Thompson playing four different characters, but his Flava Flav voice-over yelling at Kevin Arnold in The Wonder Years was a fun closer: "Give her your coat! Give her your coat!"
Nancy Grace. Noel Wells helmed her first live sketch of the season as Nancy Grace, railing against Colorado's legalization of recreational marijuana. This sketch hung largely on Wells' impression, which unfortunately didn't gain much traction with the studio audience after the initial "WHO'S GONNA TAKE CARE OF THE BABIES?" line. Perhaps it did better in dress rehearsal, but the rhythm seemed off here, with jokes as forced as they would be in a Studio 60 sketch. I'm not sure the "Baking Bad" joke was intended to be as hacky as McKinnon played it off to be.
Resolution Revolution. Taran Killam and Jay Pharoah released their latest obvious ploy for viral glory (see: H&M, What Does My Girl Say, Boy Dance Party) with this New Years resolution-themed music video about guys who immediately cave to their vices — donuts, drinking, sex toys, etc. While this season's music videos have rarely been hugely successful (Twin Bed being an exception), Resolution Revolution had its moments — specifically the hilarious long take of Killam, Pharoah, and Drake cosplaying: "Lightning strike!" "Deflect!"
Slumber Party. The best sketch of the night featured Aidy Bryant as Melanie, a girl at a slumber party who falls for her friend's lame dad (played by Drake): "I need to fall asleep hands-down on a bean bag right now." While the character was a little reminiscent of Nasim Pedrad's Bedelia, an awkward teen whose parents are her best friends, Bryant's horny delivery made this sketch all her own. Also, the sketch contained the night's finest writing, with fun lines like: "Kyle is a whisper of a boy. Mr. Gorman is a shout of a man." Best of the Night.
Weekend Update. The jokes were surprisingly uneven on Weekend Update this week, but they were saved by some entertaining character bits. Vanessa Bayer played speechless Golden Globe winner Jacqueline Bisset, who slowly made her way up to the desk from the back of the studio audience while Seth Meyers and Cecily Strong begged her to hurry up: "Don't comb your hair up, it's making you look crazy!" It's not common for Weekend Udpate to include crowd bits with actual audience members, and it was a delight to watch. Meanwhile, Nasim Pedrad stopped by as Arianna Huffington (IV), touching on Hillary Clinton's presidential chances and Chris Christie throwing his female aide under the bus: "If a woman was behind this, she wouldn't have closed a couple lanes. She would have closed the entire bridge and put up a sign that says, 'YOU KNOW WHAT YOU DID!'"
Indiana Jones Stunt Show. Drake did his best to keep this sketch alive as the peppy host of the Indiana Jones stunt show at Disney World, dealing with a foreign audience volunteer named Rahat (Pedrad) who spoke broken English and got lost in the motions of the show. While I enjoyed the details of Rahat clinging to her tupperware and worshipping the statue, the physical gags of her swinging on vines and getting crushed by foam boulders felt pretty broad. It wouldn't have hurt to give Rahat a little more dialogue and attitude.
Miss Meadows II. SNL's classroom set is getting a lot of airtime between Nasim Pedrad's Shalon character and Vanessa Bayer's enjoyable return as Miss Meadows, a hippy substitute poetry teacher. The humor of Miss Meadows comes in between the lines, with Bayer's little mumbled knowwhatI'msayin's and sudden barks, or as Mike O'Brien's teacher put it before breaking: "It's starting to sound like someone is punching a dolphin."
Mornin' Miami II. I was thrilled to see the return of one of my favorite sketches from this season, with Bobby Moynihan, Kate McKinnon, and Drake playing pissed-off hosts recording the week's promos for a lively morning show. Moynihan's "BF" is always fun here, but the real heart of the sketch comes in the jokes: "One fish, two fish, red fish, Jew fish. Orthodox fisherman Schmuley Majors wins us over with his kosher tilapia." Nice to hear Topher Grace is coming back to share his thoughts on whether getting hit in the nuts is good for you… he's becoming Mornin' Miami's Spud Webb.
I Know. The latest video from the Good Neighbor guys — with Kyle Mooney playing a know-it-all who slips and momentarily dies — moved too fast with too subtle humor to land as successfully as their past installments.
- While Sasheer Zamata wasn't given much to do outside of being disgusted in Slumber Party, dancing as Rihanna's B'Lossom, and repeating the chorus of Resolution Revolution ad finitum, her success in the brief roles gave her a promising start. What's most encouraging is the fact that the show cast her in more roles than the typical "black girl" types. I particularly enjoyed her line read in Miss Meadows: "I took the photo! Heheheh!" And for no other reason than I'm sure it's significant for her, at least… Sasheer Zamata's first line on SNL: "Mazel tov!"
- Best: Slumber Party. Worst: Nancy Grace. You'll See It On Facebook: Resolution Revolution. Worth It For The Jokes: Mornin' Miami.
- Aidy Bryant's description of her father in Slumber Party: "My dad is 78. He's like a hamburger with eyes."
- Vanessa Bayer topped the screen time leaderboard this week, with big appearances as Jacqueline Bisset and Miss Meadows. Meanwhile John Milhiser came in last, with one appearance, in Miss Meadows: "I'm here for the company!"
- I imagine the writers of Slumber Party must have had quite a bit of fun writing filler dialogue for the girls' descriptions of Kyle: "Plus his laugh? He's so sincere." "He's so tall. He's like, 4'10"." "His lips are always so red from Gatorade."
- Another benefit to having a more diverse cast is that SNL is one step closer to being able to do a full Family Matters parody. That's very exciting to me.
- Mike O'Brien had a few fun throwaway lines in Miss Meadows. "When I was your age, I wanted to make a living making hilarious prank phone calls, but apparently caller ID had other plans." And then later, he makes fun of a student for having banged the school librarian: "Yeah, she's 68 years old."
- Beck Bennett typically gets one great off-game moment in the Good Neighbor sketches: "What do you say you stop being a know-it-all and get back in that cute body of yours?"
- This week's entries to the Weird Names List all come from Mornin' Miami: Trey-sha Yearwood, Lena Towerofpizza, and of course, Burt Fingerblast.
I'll see you next week, when Jonah Hill will host with musical guest Bastille.
Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He hosts the Evil Blond Kid podcast and performs on the house team Wheelhouse at the iO West Theater.