It’s not difficult to analyze a great episode of Saturday Night Live. It’s equally easy to analyze a terrible episode of the show. Both have obvious strengths and weaknesses, and identifying those doesn’t require much effort. But middle-of-the-road shows? Those are a different beast altogether. They just…exist. While host Chris Pine gave it his all (usually in musical form) throughout the evening, most of the material fell into a solidly middle ground.
Luckily, there were still a few segments that stood out from the pack. In a week in which the most overtly political material failed to land, there were still a few segments that formed a subtle cry for joy in a time in which angst seems to be the dominant emotion.
The ability to look absolutely ridiculous on live television should not be overestimated. It’s a skill unto itself, and it’s the basis for this lighter-than-a-feather sketch that produces absolute peals of laughter throughout its running time.
Two S.W.A.T. members are staking out a criminal’s apartment from across the street, when they realize two men next door are engaging in an escalating series of strange but joyous activities. From dancing while eating cotton candy, putting on a backpack fashion show, to ultimately participating in what one of the S.W.A.T. members dubs a “circus of confusion,” these guys seem insane at first but ultimately are shown to have the right idea about life. Helping the increasing insanity is some really sharp writing for Kenan Thompson and Beck Bennett, who articulate the events in a hyper-specific manner than also betrays their jealousy.
It’s silly to dub this a political sketch, but it does speak to the desire for more innocent times, because who wouldn’t rather be having a backpack fashion party rather than constantly scrolling through their Twitter feed right now?
Keeping up with “enthusiasm is great, state of the world be damned” theme of the night is this entertaining sketch in which five mechanics slowly confess their love for RuPaul’s Drag Race. This one skirts a fine line between inclusivity and outright offensiveness for the first third before ultimately sticking the landing.
The source of comedic tension – “manly men don’t watch RuPaul’s Drag Race” – would be problematic if that’s all that were going on here. That probably wouldn’t have been funny in the 1980’s, never mind now. But what helps this rise above that lazy set-up is the total embracement of the self-expression that Drag Race celebrates, and the positive impact it has on men that clearly talk about little other than the snacks in the break room. These guys are DYING to talk about the show, and once the ice is broken, they are all happier for it.
Topping it all off, Bobby Moynihan’s mid-lip sync twirl is one of the best celebrations of pure joy on the show since the legendary “Chippendale’s” sketch in which Chris Farley cemented his place in SNL‘s legacy. Give us the .GIF of that as soon as humanly possible.
Star Trek Lost Episode
Is a Star Trek sketch in a show hosted by a Star Trek actor slightly lazy? Sure, but it’s also in the fine SNL tradition of having hosts puncture holes in their own IMDB page. It helps that Pine isn’t playing his own version of Captain Kirk here, but rather the Shatner version. Now, Shatner impressions are a dime a dozen, but his is still quite good here.
Still, the star of this sketch is Moynihan, whose nightclub singer storms onto an unaired episode as “Spocko,” Spock’s previously unknown half-brother. It’s a character Moynihan has played a dozen times on the show, but it’s also the type of character that no one else on the show can do remotely as well as he can. The character’s catchphrase – “Now that’s a Star Trek!” – is both incredibly vague and also feels like something that probably ended up on the first draft of a billboard for the show.
One more item of note: Rather than have a cast member play Sulu, the show cast an actor outside the show to play the part. It was an interesting choice: The show rarely shies away from casting famous roles with Not Ready For Primetime Players that don’t match either the gender or ethnicity of the person they are portraying. It’s not worth reading a lot into it, especially as the sketch leaned into the fact that this person clearly wasn’t part of the cast. But it raises a potentially interesting issue that’s always lurked below the surface: Why should SNL limit itself to its own cast if/when a casting need clearly falls outside of its in-house talent? This isn’t an argument that the show’s cast should be “every available actor,” but a recognition that occasionally it would help more than it would hurt.