Saturday Night Live recap: Sandra Oh leads a surreal and confused episode

Ahead of the highly anticipated second season of Killing Eve, Sandra Oh took on hosting duties for Saturday Night Live this week — making her only the fourth Asian celebrity ever to do so. She was accompanied by musical guest Tame Impala.

Read on for our full recap, as SNL reckoned with the big news events of the past few weeks.

Cold open

These last few weeks were a funny time for Saturday Night Live to be off the airwaves. A lot has happened! But of all the news stories that have dominated the discourse this March, none has greater consequences for SNL’s current humor than the conclusion to the Mueller probe. After almost a year of regular skits featuring Robert De Niro as the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, the show was forced to reckon with the fact that Robert Mueller has anticlimactically delivered his report to Attorney General William Barr without any accompanying indictments.

No one outside of the Justice Department has yet been able to read Mueller’s report, which apparently runs more than 300 pages. So SNL seized on that uncertainty, playing the cold open like a three-way game of telephone between De Niro’s Mueller submitting his report with careful language, Aidy Bryant’s Barr interpreting that language in the most advantageous way possible, and then Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump taking that as proof of total exoneration. The three-way split was clever, though De Niro hasn’t gotten any better at hitting his lines (his mostly pained Mueller impression won’t exactly be missed). But this writer felt personally targeted both by Baldwin’s Trump triumphantly singing the lyrics to Smash Mouth’s “All Star” and his paraphrasing of The Wire’s Omar Little: “If you shoot at the devil, you best not miss.”

Going forward, though, it’s clear SNL will have to figure out a new cold-open strategy now that they aren’t able to rely on incremental developments in the Mueller investigation for fodder.

Monologue

Whether you know her better as Grey’s Anatomy’s Cristina Yang or Killing Eve’s Eve Polastri, Sandra Oh is undeniably one of the most charming TV presences of the last decade. Her monologue was an on-brand extension of that personal charisma. Oh explained her heritage as an Asian Canadian, and how those identities have combined to make her a perpetually apologetic and humble person. Now that she’s officially become an American citizen, though, Oh needs help figuring out how to “toot her own horn.” So she brought Leslie Jones to the stage for some tips in self-confidence.

Clearly, Jones was the right person to ask. After a few pointers, she was able to help Oh triumphantly declare “I’m Sandra Oh, and I’m hosting Saturday Night Live!” without hesitation or apology. A cute and to-the-point host introduction that didn’t overstay its welcome.

Best sketch: ‘Network Meeting’

Though SNL was clearly caught off guard by the recent Mueller news, the show did figure out a properly calibrated response to the Jussie Smollett case. In the wake of Chicago prosecutors dropping charges against the Empire actor (to the chagrin of the city’s mayor), SNL decided to play up the boy-who-cried-wolf aspect of the story. At a meeting with network executives including Lee Daniels (Kenan Thompson), Jussie (Chris Redd) kept trying to come up with excuses for his failures. Why’s he late to the meeting, you ask? Because he was attacked again! This time, by a “killer” who left him with a bag of clues, including Crest whitening strips, three blocks of the letter K, and a receipt… wait, whoops!

The best through-line in the skit was Jussie constantly trying to exaggerate his status as a gay icon by comparing himself to other famous people. First he was the gay Tupac, then he was the gay Mike Tyson. It hilariously culminated with Jussie calling himself the gay Lee Daniels, prompting Thompson to respond, “I’m the gay Lee Daniels.”

Worst sketch: ‘Kremlin Meeting’

It probably speaks to this episode’s lack of imagination that the best and worst sketches both revolved around boardroom meetings. The lesser one was basically a companion piece to the cold open in terms of SNL reckoning with the end of the Mueller investigation. Aside from De Niro’s impression of the special counsel, the show’s other line of approach to the Russian influence story was to have Beck Bennett’s Vladimir Putin constantly rip his shirt off and brag about having total control over the American president. Now that such a relationship has been officially revealed as fictional, this sketch was basically SNL’s way of walking it back. Bennett’s Putin was forced to sheepishly apologize to his advisers for exaggerating his influence, and could only pathetically insist that the Cold War fantasy he embodied was “cool” rather than “dumb.”

A rare onscreen appearance from SNL writer Bowen Yang (as North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un) wasn’t enough to save this sketch, which proved that the show has not yet thought of what to say about the fact that its main line of humorous attack on President Trump was significantly undermined this month.

Digital short: ‘The Duel’

I must admit, at first I thought this short was going to be a parody of The Favourite. Alas, despite the period costumes, it was only a violent riff on the thin premise, “What if Hamilton and Burr’s duel caused collateral damage?” Pete Davidson and Beck Bennett have taken up pistols at dawn to defend their respective romantic claims to Oh, but once they start firing, the bullets only end up hitting Oh. The bloody spectacle of Oh getting gradually blown apart reinforces the absurdity of her attitude that the men should look after themselves rather than her… but if this episode left you wanting some political and cultural satire with actual teeth, don’t forget to check out The Favourite, EW’s favorite film of 2018.

‘Weekend Update’

A perpetual struggle for Colin Jost and Michael Che these days is writing topical humor that can stand up to the hilarious things that the actual President of the United States says on a regular basis in real life. Case in point: At one point during this “Weekend Update,” Jost played footage from Trump’s recent Michigan rally, where the president went on a surreal tangent about the Great Lakes. Feel free to look up the video yourself of Trump praising Lake Michigan’s “record deepness.” What can you write that’s funnier or more surreal than that? Jost certainly doesn’t know; the only thing he could think to say after playing the clip was “He’s back, baby!”

Luckily for the anchors, their guests brought the heat this week. Cecily Strong really went for it as Jeanine Pirro, celebrating the Fox host’s return to air with an almost horny adulation for recent Trump statements. As Jost explained that a post-Mueller Trump was now confidently declaring his intent to permanently close the Mexican border and initiate his own investigation of Democratic leaders like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Strong would yelp “what?!” before falling over in hilariously exaggerated style.

Then there was Aidy Bryant. Fresh off a boatload of critical acclaim for her leading performance on Hulu’s Shrill, Bryant was consistently excellent this episode, never more so than her performance as astronaut Anne McClain, who was prevented from going on an all-woman space walk because NASA only had one spacesuit capable of fitting her and her colleague Christina Koch. Try as she might to be polite, Bryant’s character couldn’t help but express the absurdity of the situation: “They can make a special spacesuit for a dog or monkey, but human girl? Only one get to be moon queen!” Extra props for this line capturing heartbreak in emo sci-fi fashion: “The cool thing about crying in space, Michael, is your tears keep floating around hours after you cried them!”

Musical guest: Tame Impala

Music was this episode’s saving grace. Kevin Parker’s psychedelic rock band is a significant notch above most of the musical guests SNL has had this season. The band’s last album, 2015’s Currents, was a masterwork that even seeped into mainstream pop when Rihanna covered “New Person, Same Old Mistakes.” Don’t be surprised if Tame Impala’s new songs like “Patience” end up following a similar path into the zeitgeist.

Verdict

Oh tried her affable best, but SNL is spinning its wheels in the wake of the Mueller report. Whether it was the exaggerated “Weekend Update” impressions or Oh being blown apart in period-piece costuming, the episode was at its best when it went as absurd as possible. Conversely, it was at its worst when it tried to balance its previous takes on Trump with the sobering reality. The Russia reckoning finally arrived. C+

Coming up

Tune in next week when Kit Harington celebrates the final season of Game of Thrones, accompanied by Waitress maestro Sara Bareilles.

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