Like everything else in 2020, Season 45 of “Saturday Night Live” had to go through some abrupt changes. After canceling a few episodes and airing reruns, they aired three episodes in a new format: “Saturday Night Live at Home.” These episodes involved minimal production, with the cast acting alone or with their families. Sketches were performed either via video chat, or by one actor in their own house. All things considered; these episodes were pretty successful. The ratings weren’t amazing, but there were some gems. The MasterClass sketches, for one thing, were great. Pete Davidson’s “Danny Trejo Song” spiced up a home video with elaborate editing. Kenan Thompson’s classic recurring sketch, “What’s Up With That,” became “What’s Up With That: At Home,” and through some tweaking, came through as well. Overall, the cast and crew of “SNL” showed perseverance and scrappiness in the face of a surprise pandemic that halted everything.
There was no need for scrappiness in this season premiere, however. Last week, “SNL” did everything possible to pretend COVID-19 doesn’t exist — including paying their audience in order to skirt by regulations put in place by New York state. This resulted in an extremely normal Season 46 premiere. So normal, in fact, I wouldn’t know that it wasn’t from Season 45.
In particular, the Donald Trump-Joe Biden cold open felt like a continuation of last season’s train of thought. There was more focus on Biden’s tendency to be quick to anger, rather than the well-meaning but confused old man we got from Jason Sudeikis and Woody Harrelson. I find the show’s recent trend of casting A-list celebrities and alums to be somewhat tired. Exploring their talent is a bigger risk, but the status quo contributes to the feeling that “SNL” is getting old. The political cold opens have become such a huge part of the show that they almost swallow the first portion of the episode. Because of this, established actors like Alec Baldwin and now Jim Carrey become quasi-cast members, which is fine if I’m feeling nostalgic, but “SNL” is designed to showcase newcomers.
Chris Rock is also not a new or fresh choice to host. This is his third time doing so, and he’s one of the show’s most famous alumni. His monologue was a long-winded commentary on the government and COVID-19. There were funny moments, but Rock’s level of engagement felt minimal. One of the best parts of “SNL” is watching hosts act outside of their comfort zones or break people’s perceptions of them – in other words, get their hands dirty with absurd characters and scenarios. In the roles he occupied this episode, Rock was simply not performing at his best or doing anything new. In “Superspreader Event” and “NBA Bubble” he acted as, if not the straight man, definitely not a big part of the joke. In the musical sketch, “Bottom of Your Face,” he was once again just playing himself, ranting and making jokes in his classic stand-up persona. The only sketch where he got a little weird was “Future Ghost,” but his character wasn’t developed enough really for it to be a meaningful moment in his episode.
The episode had its ups and downs. “Superspreader Event” was a sketch that took place at a name-change office; the running gag was that all the people there that day had silly names they wanted to change. It went on a bit too long, and the names never got funnier. There are only so many times I’ll laugh at an innuendo paired with the name “Mike Litt.” “NBA Bubble” was a low for me. “SNL” has always used misogyny to try to get laughs to some degree, but sometimes those jokes end up being funny. The joke in this game show sketch is that these contestants are dumb girls who sleep around. It was a little disappointing considering their great female cast this season.
Continuing the trend of continuing past jokes, Weekend Update had only recurring characters on (Aidy Bryant’s Carrie Krum and Bowen Yang’s Chen Biao), but I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it (though I have always enjoyed the Colin Jost-Michael Che Weekend Updates). “The Drew Barrymore Show” was funny enough, but ultimately it was Chloe Fineman doing a celebrity impression, which we saw a lot of last season with the MasterClass sketches and her appearances on Weekend Update. “SNL” often puts actors like Mikey Day in a corner, and it would be a shame if Fineman continued to be boxed in, as she is very funny and a promising talent.
There were some highlights in the show. “Stunt Performers” was short and clever, utilizing Bryant and Kate McKinnon to a great effect. Neither Rock, Che or Jost minced words about Trump’s current health situation, either. The show can sometimes cower away from hot-button topics and try to remain “tasteful” – I’m glad went for the jokes.
“SNL” works best when it’s unapologetic. The best part of this episode, though, was definitely Megan Thee Stallion. She cameoed twice in sketches, and her performance in “Bottom of Your Face” definitely heightened what can be an annoying sketch format. She was charming throughout the whole show, and her performances were lively and memorable. Her dancing, attitude and live rapping made her impossible not to watch. Her sets were great and fit her personality perfectly. The show’s most powerful moment came during her performance of “Savage.” She abruptly stopped the performance for a tribute to Breonna Taylor and a call to action featuring a recording of Malcolm X and fake bullet holes in the stage walls. There’s nothing to say about it except for that it was powerful, intense and incredibly important.
Megan Thee Stallion stole the show. She was the perfect performer to have on as a musical guest, considering her incredible rise to success this year and her immense impact on pop culture. I think the show could have gone even further and made her the host. Let’s just hope they freshen it up a bit this week, while being able to maintain the absurdly high viewership they received last time.
Lily Farizon can be reached at [email protected]