‘SNL’ Rings in 2017 With (Just a Little) Help From Felicity Jones

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Saturday Night Live’s 2017 debut was, well, very 2017: lacking a strong lead and generally underwhelming, but with a few shining moments. (Kind of like how so far, this year is already pretty grim, but at least Raekwon just announced a new album. Or am I stretching a comparison here?)

Felicity Jones, heroine of the latest Star Wars trilogy, was a smart pick for the year’s kick-off episode – on paper, at least. Rogue One has earned nearly one billion dollars since its holiday release, so Jones isn’t just a rising star, she’s a sci-fi icon. But she’s also, it seems, acutely, adorably British (or she’s reaaaally perfected her manic pixie drama girl vibe), which is cute and playful when played up in a jokey monologue. But it’s a shame when Jones ends up getting pushed to the side of every scene she’s in, because she’s playing the handful of straight-women she’s been assigned with the same studied seriousness that makes her shine in more dramatic roles. Her painstakingly researched portrayal of Jane Hawking in The Theory of Everything rightly earned dozens of awards, and over the years, she’s brought new depths to difficult roles (like Anne Frank’s sister, Margot, in a 2009 BBC miniseries, and the titular Tempest in the star-studded 2011 Shakespearean adaptation). All of this is to say: sometimes, amazing actors just aren’t suited for sketch comedy.

Also, since SNL angel Tina Fey appeared with some helpful advice during Jones’ monologue – advice that included “don’t worry what the reviews say” – I feel the need to just really stress that Jones is great and SNL is great and we’re all great!

Donald Trump Press Conference Cold Open

In ten years, some brilliant poli-sci major will write a thesis comparing SNL’s parodied Trump speeches with the real thing, and it’ll be fucking fascinating. The line between “putting a wry spin on what happened” and “presenting exactly what happened with a wry smile” continues to blur – this time, with a cold open “re-airing” of a recent press conference, where the tycoon spent most of his time hurling playground insults rather than trying to win anyone’s approval. The man is so over the top, he’d be unbelievable if this really was scripted; I mean, was everyone’s first thought NOT that we’re basically living in a Black Mirror episode?

And his never-ending failures are so fucking funny that you don’t even need to embellish a thing – like, his much-hyped collection of blank pages is such an artful prop. Anyways, poli-sci majors of the future will have plenty to work with. Alec Baldwin opens, “I’d like to start by answering the question that’s on everyone’s mind: Yes, this is real life, this is really happening.” Four more years of Don cold opens is the least of our concerns so, let’s go ahead and add it to the growing pile of Dismal Shit we’ll be enduring.

Monologue

First-time host Jones is nervous (very nervous) and everyone knows that the absolute best medicine for jittery nerves is a quick visit from Tina Fey – who appears here in hologram form, honoring Jones’ latest hit. Fey’s cameos are always cause for celebration, but this one was a little heartbreaking, too – though her name never came up, it was impossible not to spend a lot of this episode thinking of the original Star Wars queen, a woman with a sense of humor rivaling any SNL cast member past or present: Carrie Fisher. Not to steal Jones’ thunder (which has, I’m sure, been happening a lot these days), but last week EW dug up some footage from Fisher’s 1978 SNL appearance, which is as nerdy and fun as you want it to be.

Beard Hunk

Attention world: I am a PROUD member of Bachelor Nation, and was thrilled to learn that someone in the writer’s room is, too – because there’s no way you can reference incredibly accurate details about the show’s utter lack of Asian contestants, former stars’ out of control Insta-endorsements, passive-aggressive attention stealing tactics, and all the bad ombres without watching a few dozen rose ceremonies. The reality show has a long list of ridiculous recurring themes, and this scene touches a lot of them as a frenzy of gowned contestants vie for one lucky man’s hand (Beck Bennett). The sketch earned the approval of ABC’s current Beard Hunk, four-time Bachelor contestant / basic hipster dreamboy, Nick Viall:

(Btw, I maintain and will forever defend my opinion that The Bachelor/ette is perhaps the greatest comedy on television – with Bachelor in Paradise taking the #1 spot – so if you’re looking for an unexpected laugh, give this season’s first ep a shot. Those producers and editors know exactly what they’re doing and they do it so gooood.)

Shondra & Malik

Dramatic, funny, endearing – this digital short has it all, even if the Twitter reaction was pretty evenly split between “that was amazing” and “what was that?” Shot beautifully (a characteristic that’s come to define the show’s increasingly artistic pre-taped sketches), “Shondra & Malik” starts as a dramatic scene – with Malik (Kenan Thompson) cruising down a magic-hour-lit city street, bent on hassling loitering Shondra (Leslie Jones) and her pal (Vanessa Bayer). As Malik shouts that he “best not catch (Shondra) slipping,” things seem to settle into a familiar street-tough trope – til Thompson blows his dramatic exit, sputtering half-threats as his junky car’s engine floods and fails. When handy Shondra comes to his rescue, the two strike up an unlikely friendship.

Theatre Donor

It’s opening night at the Albee Durberry Theater, and fans of the stage are celebrating alongside the company’s 106-year-old namesake (Mikey Day). As the crowd attempts to enjoy a performance of “The Rainstorm,” the elderly man requires an unending series of medical adjustments from his bumbling nurse, Keely (Jones), who can’t quite get a handle on his high-tech hospital bed. Actors Bennett and Kate McKinnon bravely soldier through the distractions – which include some intense gymnastics from the bedridden Day – but one thing they won’t tolerate? Texting, duh.

The Princess and the Curse

This dismayingly realistic take on fairy tale romance asks the question: what’s really your dealbreaker? We’d all like to think our love is above superficial influence – that, Shreklike, we judge solely by What’s On The Inside. But if you fell for someone who was hiding a dark secret, would you really be able to shrug it off? Even if it meant watching your love transform into something truly horrifying: a slightly chubbier (or, alternately, a slightly less endowed) version of themselves?

Susan B. Anthony

When a group of gal pals take a gal trip to Susan B. Anthony’s homestead museum, they accidentally bring the suffragette’s ghost to life when they test out an old urban legend (like Bloody Mary, but for Susan B. Anthony, which is much less scary). The ladies beam and thank the suffragette’s ghost (McKinnon) for her historic service, and quickly move on to their next adventure: figuring out how to get home. While they bicker over Ubers, Anthony desperately tries to reclaim their attention; their impatient, condescending “woooooow”-ing is the conversational equivalent of pushing an eager puppy away. One could argue this is a fairly accurate representation of most people’s political engagement – distracted, rehearsed acknowledgment. It’s a strong point…til the sketch ends with a reminder that Anthony thought “abortion is murder.” Look, none of our heroes are perfect.

Weekend Update

Weekend Update is back and wishing a very happy new year to the Russian election hackers, a diarrhea-ridden Illinois high school, the Ford Bronco, and Richard Gere’s gerbil.

Standup comic / SNL resident millennial Pete Davidson frequently drops by the Update desk to give his youthful view on current events, and this year he’s getting a new segment: First Impressions, in which he dispenses biting personal judgments on a Tinder profile’s amount of background info.

Beck Bennett superfans have been wondering if / when the cast member’s Hannah Montana-esque secret life would finally be revealed. Turns out this is the week his inner Prince needed to break free (or, this is the week the writers needed an extra few minutes – either way, great). Last year, Bennett started the Instagram account “@songsbybeck” to share the tunes in his head, and though he’s only posted a handful, they’re all hits:

So we were very excited to see Bennett’s taking the next big step in his songwriting career by appearing on the country’s – no, the world’s – premier weekly fake news update. We wish Bennett the best in his songwriting career!

Movie Interview

The beautiful thing about art is that it can mean anything to everyone – one man’s Jackson Pollock mess is another’s eye-opening soul guide, somehow. That band you hate has inspired so many sincere lyric tattoos; the show you think is absolute trash is someone else’s proudest achievement. And that movie you thought was just a mindless bikinis-on-the-beach summer blockbuster? Nope, that’s art too, you’re just not looking smart enough – so let the creator (Kyle Mooney) and stars (Jones, Bennett) of the critically acclaimed protest film, Hot Robot 3: Journey To Boob Mountain, educate you.

Corporate Retreat

Forced vacations with your co-workers can be awful – unless, in the middle of an ice-breaking exercise led by desperately broke improv coaches, the entire accounting department starts telling jokes about assholes, and they end up bonding so hard they become best friends forever. Just like Jones, Cecily Strong, and Melissa Villasenor do in this kind of baffling final sketch.

Etc

    • New York Times editor Jason Zinoman published an excellent profile on writer Julio Torres, one of our faves and the mind behind sketches like “Wells for Boys” and “Diego Calls His Mom.”
    • Beck Bennett was this week’s big winner, in an episode that found him in a lot of dreamy roles – between being cast as the alpha Beard Hunk, playing the lead in “The Rainstorm,” and sharing the music in his soul, it was hard not to crush on Beck.
    • From Tina Fey’s unspoken Carrie Fisher ode to the post-credits nod to beloved former cast member Tony Rosato, there was a lot of love for missing friends to start 2017..
    • But no matter what happens this week, at least we KNOW we’ll have fun next Saturday night:

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