Well, that was quite a turnaround.
To everyone who commented on last week's tirade against Andrew Garfield's lackluster episode that it was about time I gave up on SNL: this episode right here is why I still love this show, and why I will never give up on it. The 90 minutes was about as solid as it gets, with a low-expectations host Charlize Theron blending in seamlessly with the cast, the writers performing on overdrive, and even a few head-turning live-TV moments. We haven't seen this level of consistency since Kerry Washington hosted in November — an episode with which this one shared a few interesting parallels, which we'll get to later.
Other than the uncharacteristically high quality of material (for this season, at least), what interested me the most about this episode was how much it showcased the women of the cast. Granted, SNL typically uses its Mother's Day episode to celebrate the ladies, which was certainly the case in past seasons with Kristen Wiig, Tina Fey, and Betty White (even Will Ferrell's episode in 2012 seemed geared towards the fairer sex). But what makes this season different is how much of a female-driven show SNL already seems, with Cecily Strong anchoring Weekend Update and Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant often running circles around their male counterparts in sketches. Fey and Wiig, along with Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and a number of others before them, paved the way for an era of SNL in which women running the show isn't too out of the ordinary. And despite some viewers' ire towards Leslie Jones' set during Update last week — which, offensive or not, was pretty damn funny and exactly the kind of thing SNL should be doing more often — it speaks volumes about the show's progressivism that its black women, who initially seemed like obligatory hires in January, are voices Lorne Michaels actually intends on putting front and center.
I wouldn't go as far as saying this episode was a success directly because it was a ladies night, but it's definitely a better sign that these days, SNL can have a ladies night without it being newsworthy.
Cold Open: Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton. The episode opened with a special Mother's Day message from the current and former First Ladies, played by Sasheer Zamata (her first appearance as Michelle Obama, surprisingly) and Vanessa Bayer. The sketched echoed Tina Fey and Amy Poehler's classic Sarah Palin / Hillary Clinton bit, however it fell far short. For one, neither of Zamata's or Bayer's impressions seemed to hit as hard as their predecessors' — Bayer's shout-y delivery seemed to veer into her Miley Cyrus at times — but what mostly held the piece back was the odd choice to present the two women as frienemies. Stuck in a disingenuous PSA is one thing, but passive aggressively taking shots at each other's accomplishments? I'm not sure if I buy that. Despite being the weakest moment of a strong night, the cold open was good for a few laughs, from Bayer's icy glares to the well-put line that summed up Hillary's frustration perfectly: "For years, I was flying all over the world, dealing with some of the worst humanitarian crises. But, you know, I suppose it's also tough to make a chubby kid eat an apple!"
Seeing Zamata play Michelle Obama made me recall another cold open — back in November of this season, when Kerry Washington helped SNL mock its own whitewashed cast by playing the First Lady (as well as Oprah and Beyonce, all in the same sketch). It's interesting to see the arc of the show's depiction of Mrs. Obama, from the joke being the fact that the show didn't have a cast member to play the part, to finally having a black female in the cast and being able to do a sketch that has nothing to do with SNL's diversity problem. Despite the sketch's comedic shortcomings, it was a satisfying image to begin the night.
Monologue. Like most of you, I imagine, I had completely forgotten that Charlize Theron had ever hosted SNL, even if I do remember the "Gemini's Twin" sketch from 2000 that she referenced. I'll admit that after a few years of writing these recaps, my arms fold pretty tightly when a host ramps into a musical monologue, even if the joke was that Theron couldn't sing. But by the end of it, I found myself enjoying the piece for its sharp execution and the fun side-jokes by the supporting cast members, with Beck Bennett shamelessly ogling her breasts and Kate McKinnon snapping at everyone for consoling the beautiful, jack-of-all-trades host: "What are we doing? She's fine."
Mom Game Show. As with the monologue, I groaned a bit when I saw SNL lead off with another familiar structure of subverted game show — a very mom-ish mom creates a game show to keep in touch with her grown children — a simple enough concept that should please the heartland viewers. But again, the flawless execution made this sketch sing, with the writers packing the script with jokes and McKinnon's hokey delivery keeping things moving along nicely. I particularly enjoyed the round of "Which Emails Did I Send?" with clues such as "Uncle Dick Passed" and "Fw: Fw: Fw: Fw: celery salad." A case study in making even the broadest of concepts work by filling it with as many jokes as possible.
Girlfriends Talk Show VI. This overused recurring sketch still seems to be doing just fine with the studio audience, despite more or less hitting the same beats every time. While Cecily Strong's Kira hasn't managed to do anything funnier than chirp "Awesome!" and go into uncomfortable detail about her psychopath boyfriends, Aidy Bryant's Morgan remains an amusing source of one-liners, particularly when she gawked at the word "anus" being spoken on TV: "It's near the underneath, and it's the worst part of the privates." Meanwhile, Charlize Theron seemed completely at ease as Miss Christine, the girl's former drama teacher: "She wears jeans… and she's a teacher. Only in America."
Dragon Babies. The episode picked up the pace with this HBO First Look following voiceover actor Rick Shoulders (dumb name alert!), a retired Chicago police officer, doing the voices on a kids' animated dragon movie. Mike O'Brien dished out some killer character work, with gruff line reads, confused ad-libs, and frequent wheezing, which made for a perfect clash of context when played over the images of adorable cartoon dragons. I especially enjoyed the exploration of Shoulders' grim backstory: "Unarmed guy, going for his wallet… couldn't tell what he had. Shot him 10 times." It's remarkable the lengths SNL's film crew will go to for a simple character piece — according to Seth Meyers' tweet, the sketch was written when he was still working on the show, meaning it took 2-3 months (at least) to put together all those animated sequences. Well worth the trouble, I would say.
Heshi II. Yet another parallel between this episode and Kerry Washington's was the appearance of Nasim Pedrad's motivational speaker Heshi, a recently nationalized foreigner who shares upbeat anecdotes from her lonely life and pumps things up with gunfire hip-thrusts. This second installment may have been an improvement on the first, with a smart peas-in-a-pod adjustment of Charlize Theron joining Pedrad as Gail, which built up to a pretty hilarious HESHI/GAIL-off. Whatever your thoughts are on the bit, it at least provides a nice burst of energy to the lineup, which works just fine so long as SNL doesn't overuse the character too much.
Weekend Update. The news segment was back with another installment of solid jokes delivered by anchors who have virtually no chemistry with each other, even with that odd "breaking nudes" gag. With Barbara Walters heading into retirement, SNL honored the journalist/View cohost by showing a quick reel of the past cast members who have impersonated her (Gilda Radner, Rachel Dratch, Nasim Pedrad, and Cherri O'Teri), then by inviting Walters out to the desk to do a few tired jokes about soft lens focus. Walters managed, but Lorne showed a pretty risky level of trust giving her such a substantial block of jokes to get through. Bobby Moynihan closed things out with another enjoyable return of Drunk Uncle (IX), ranting about graduation season — "When I graduated from exterminator school, all I got was keys to a dirty van and fibromyalgia!" – and singing gibberish lyrics to "I Believe I Can Fly" before breaking down into tears. While Drunk Uncle seems to have the Update desk staying power of Stefon, I wouldn't mind if the writers mixed up the structure of the bit every now and then — for example, I don't think it's out of the realm of possibility that he would physically threaten Harvard-boy Colin or try to make a move on Cecily.
Bikini Beach Party. The writers must have been pining for a bizarre, explosive moment as much as I have been… what other reason to do this insanely wonderful scene? From an analytical standpoint, this sketch was all over the map — a parody of campy '60s surf movies, the random bullying of Aidy Bryant's Gretchen ("You've ruined your own summer. Don't ruin ours." "I got Scarlet Fever!"), and of course, the whole gas-filled beached whale thing — but screw it. I loved everything about ballsy, elaborate setup, and any logical issues were worth the payoff of Taran Killam and Charlize Theron getting covered with bloody whale guts… twice. Having a bloodsoaked Theron come back out to introduce the Black Keys was a fun "Hey, this is live TV" touch. Is it too much to shower your host in whale guts every episode, SNL? Best of the Night.
Whiskers R We. Those who were less smitten with exploding whales as I was should have at least been overjoyed with this hilarious infomercial with Kate McKinnon and Charlize Theron as crazed cat-lovers. You can't go wrong when you feature live animals in a sketch, especially when you frame up the camera tight on an adorable kitten and call him a "little dumbass" or a "feline sociopath." McKinnon and Theron's deliveries were simply too good here, with endless funny exchanges: "I would adopt her myself, but I guess I should start with trying to get my kids back first." "Probably… good goal!"
Tourists. The night ended with an enjoyable man-on-the-street video (a nice change of pace from the obviously composed reaction shots the show would do earlier in the season), with cast members playing foreign tourists asking New Yorkers bizarre questions, Borat-style. While I'm not totally convinced Charlize Theron, Jay Pharoah, and Bobby Moynihan would go unrecognized around town (even in costume), assuming the interactions we saw were genuine, it was an interesting stunt for SNL to pull with its cast members that produced a number of funny moments, from Theron slowly walking away after giving people her camera to Beck Bennett asking people where he is on a map of Chicago.
Cut from Dress: Cocktail Hour. If you judged an episode by the quality of the sketches that didn't make it into the live broadcast, this episode would top the season. This beautifully shot Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? parody featured an excellent build of sight gags that make it a massive shame television audiences missed out. Like last week's "Wing," this short film deserves as many views and shares as we can give it.
Cut from Dress: Mornin' Miami III. With the live episode only containing 10 comedy segments instead of the normal 11 or 12, it's not surprising we'd be left with so much show-ready material. Case in point: this strong return of one of the better recurring sketches this season, featuring Bobby Moynihan, Kate McKinnon, and Charlize Theron as life-hating morning news anchors recording bizarre promos. (Watch the video here.)
Cut from Dress: Viper. Poor John Milhiser was completely shut out of the episode when this character sketch didn't make it into the live broadcast — the fact that he was front and center waving during the goodbyes implies that it may have been cut last minute… damn. Here, Milhiser played Viper, a tough-guy boyfriend completely unaware of his petiteness… until we get to a fun late-in-the-scene reveal.
- It may seem unwarranted to give an episode so much praise when it contained few season-best highlights, but this episode had all the goods: consistency throughout the night, risk, a ridiculously high joke count, strong videos, fine performances by the cast, and a truly stellar host. Charlize Theron was at the top of her game, completely disappearing into roles and seemingly detached from cue cards. A host like Theron is the intangible factor that separates a great episode from the merely good ones. I may feel differently in a week, but this… was a great episode.
- Hillary Clinton is a pretty significant get for Vanessa Bayer, considering it seemed as if she was up against Kate McKinnon for the role of the presumptive 2016 candidate. Assuming Bayer continues in the role, that alone could secure her spot in the cast for at least the next three seasons.
- Best: "Bikini Beach Party," "Kittens R We." Worst: Cold Open. You'll See It Online: "Dragon Babies," (hopefully) "Cocktail Hour." Worth It For The Jokes: "Mom Game Show."
- Kate McKinnon topped the screen time leaderboard this week, with big roles in "Mom Game Show" and "Kittens R We." And as much as I hate to rub it in, John Milhiser once again came in at the bottom, with only what sounded like his voice in "Dragon Babies."
- Morgan from "Girlfriends Talk Show" got grounded from using Google after searching for "Ron Weasley topless." The obvious assumption was that she actually meant "Rupert Grint topless," but I like to think she was in the mood for some hot fan-made drawings of the literary character.
- In the latest example of writers just not giving a damn how they end their live sketches so long as they just end with something, here is Vanessa Bayer's wonderful closing line to "Heshi": "Hi there. They're towing everyone's cars."
- "Bikini Beach Party" was packed with great throwaway lines. My favorite: "I love surf music! It's just kind of nothing!"
- I really just can't get enough of Kate McKinnon and Charlize Theron's awkward sexual chemistry in "Kittens R We": "That's my arm and I think you know that."
- Finally, for anyone keeping track (I think it's just you and me at this point, Megh Wright), this episode was pretty generous when it came to new additions for this season's Stupid Name List: Rick Shoulders, Gadget, Barbara Jer-Drew, and Cat Muller, whose name used to be Jackie, but she changed it to reflect her interests.
I'll see you next week, when Andy Samberg will host the season finale with musical guest St. Vincent.
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 Theater.