What makes a good “SNL?” We know what makes a not-good one — the pointless sketch or “Weekend Update” that feels like it fell out of the back of a truck. Success is about ratios, too, with most elements working while only a couple of them misfire. What made Saturday’s Natalie Portman-hosted episode so good? The ratios obviously worked out in her favor:
Tina Fey and Rachel Dratch appeared in a sketch that perfectly captured the rest of the country’s feelings about an Eagles/Patriots Super Bowl. The cold open yoked two favorites — “Fox & Friends” with Alec Baldwin — with a surprise twist. “Weekend Update” launched a new Kate McKinnon character — Brigitte Bardot — that was about as funny as anything or anyone she’s ever done.
There was just one truly terrible sketch — “Alien Lover” — but we’ve forgotten about that one already. Again, the ratios were in Portman’s favor, and with two winners in a row, “SNL” feels like a show that’s finally back on track.
Let’s go through the key elements:
Portman: For some crazy reason, Portman, who grew up in Jericho and was valedictorian at Syosset High in 1999, hasn’t hosted “SNL” since the March 4, 2006 edition. But “SNL” made the return easy and effortless. She barely had to break a sweat in the cold open (sweat as one of the jokes, in fact) because her monologue did what “SNL” now regularly does with these. They’re more frequently elaborate set pieces that feature the cast as much as the guest, but this one went a funny step further, by parodying NBC’s endless Winter Olympics’ self-promotion. (Her monologue itself was a sporting event, subject to analysis and slow-motion.)
But the big deal last night was “Natalie’s Second Rap,” the digital short that recalled the classic she did all those years ago with Andy Samberg. This rap — explicit and bleeped — was stuffed with plenty of current Portman references, and pop culture ones too. (“Tide Pods, the only [expletive] thing I snack on / Black out and go [expletive] ‘Black Swan’ / My brain gone on that [expletive] Ayahuasca, boy / Tell your tourist parents I’m gonna turn you to a foster boy.”) Then Samberg also returned — surprise! This was maybe the single best digital short of the entire season.
Cold open: “Fox & Friends” has largely disappeared from “SNL” but last night marked the return of an old fave, with Alex Moffat, Heidi Gardner and Beck Bennett (as Steve Doocy, Ainsley Earhardt and Brian Kilmeade) in place of the classic trio, Taran Killam, Bobby Moynihan and Vanessa Bayer. Still empty-headed and cluelessly upbeat, these three stooges got in references to the Devin Nunes memo, Hope Hicks and SOTU, then . . . cut to the White House and POTUS.
Prior to this edition, Baldwin was one of those will-he-be-or-won’t-he-be-back question marks. He hasn’t been on this year, and he’s also forcibly injected himself into the #MeToo movement in support of Woody Allen. That doesn’t necessarily compromise his Donald Trump but it does complicate it. Culture’s most famous Trump impersonator is now also culture’s most famous Woody Allen supporter, and “SNL” has struggled with #MeToo all season. What does that mean and would his Baldwin/POTUS just compound the struggle?
Nah. As usual, we may have overthought this one. With Baldwin luxuriating in bed, a hamburger wrapper in hand, this “open” managed to be a funny, inventive twist on what otherwise could have been an obvious and overdone late-night target (the speech). On balance, it was a winner — a solid one.
“Revolutionary War”: The best sketch of the night was one of the best of the entire season, but opinions on this may vary, depending on whether viewers live in either Philadelphia or Boston. Turning a “revolutionary war” sketch into a mockery of Patriots fan swagger and Eagles fan bluster by way of regional character traits was inspired — mean, but inspired. We all know that Colin Jost (now one of the head-writers) is a die-hard Giants fans, and this sketch was a gift to all the rest of them — still savoring the helmet catch (10 years ago exactly, by the way) and awaiting the next legit Super Bowl (with a Giants team). Best of Fey’s solid Philly-strong accent and prediction that “Philly’s gonna win and one o’ dem guys is gonna punch a police horse.”
“Weekend Update”: Let’s cut straight to the special guests Bardot (McKinnon) and Catherine Deneuve (Cecily Strong), appearing on behalf of French actors protesting #MeToo. In full makeup, mostly confined to a neck of double and triple chins, McKinnon found a new target and wasted no ammunition in reducing poor Bardot to a chain-smoking half-wit. “Free Harvey Weinstein,” she fist-pumped, and even Strong’s Deneuve had to admit their movement may have gone too far. Perfect. Really.
Bottom line: Solid “SNL” that easily made up for Portman’s long (long) absence.