25 May 2016

SNL Season 41 in Review

Another season of Saturday Night Live has come and gone, and after thinking about it for a week, it's time to dive a little bit more into the season and chat about those great hosts and sketches that we'll be Googling to waste time for years to come. In general we're at a weird time for SNL. It's still re-building after losing the bulk of its main late-2000s cast the last few seasons, although at what point does re-building wear off? This was Jay Pharaoh, Taran Killam, and Vanessa Bayer's sixth season and somehow Bobby Moynihan's eighth. I'm fans of all these people, isn't it time they broke out?

The season MVP is assuredly Kate McKinnon. It's about damn time she got some movie roles and I'm hoping she's the breakout star of Ghosbusters (2016). She draws the eye in any sketch she's in and has mastered the odd yet confident delivery with a wide range of insane roles, always barely hiding a knowing smirk.

The only rookie this year was Jon Rudnitsky, who seemed to try awfully hard, although wasn't seen too much. Still, that Dirty Dancing bit was inspired (pulled off NBC, but here's him doing it as part of his stand-up) and given the opportunity I think he could succeed off his earnestness and ability to mug without being obnoxious about it. As far as other newbies go, I'm all-in with the Kyle Mooney / Beck Bennett anti-humour, and Bennett has become an incredible utility player. Pete Davidson plays like a 2016 version of Adam Sandler.

Cecily Strong and Aidy Bryant have well-developed comic personas and are also ready to break-out. Last year I cringed whenever Update came along, but Colin Jost and Michael Che seemed to retool their chemistry this year and it became the highlight of nearly any show. This is in part due to Che perfecting his delivery. Thankfully Leslie Jones is also getting more comfortable live, and her persona is so definitive. Sasheer Zamata seemed to vanish by the latter half of the season for reasons I don't really understand. Sure her bit on update towards the end of the year seemed awkward and unsure of herself, but she typically kills it in sketches. Still, it's clear she's a supporting player rather than a star.

Before we get into the best sketches, let's present a definitive ranking of every episode this year by host:

#1: Ariana Grande
Ryan Gosling
Adam Driver
Fred Armisen
Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Tracy Morgan
Larry David
Elizabeth Banks
Chris Hemsworth
Russell Crowe
Amy Schumer
Peter Dinklage
Matthew McConaughey
Ronda Rousey
Tina Fey & Amy Poehler
Melissa McCarthy
Brie Larson
Jonah Hill
Miley Cyrus
#Shit: Donald Drumpf

So, feel free to chew on that for a while. Let's get into my favourite sketches, which generally tend to lean real, real weird:

"Tidal" or "Sound of Music" or "Kids Choice Awards" from Ariana Grande

I couldn't decide between these three, but needless to say the Ariana Grande episode hit all the right notes with a host who was totally game for weird awkwardness, spot-on singing in almost every sketch, and a lot of very carefully set-up premises like these three.

"Brunch" from Chris Hemsworth

I really love how weird and willing to poke fun of himself Hemsworth is in this. And not typical celebrity self-awareness, the eventual revelation that Chris Hemsworth is possibly in sexual love with himself or just disguises himself as this woman, "Claire" supposedly for years, or as it turns out, just a day, in order to talk up how hot he is. It's an amazing deconstruction of celebrity egoism that goes into surreal territory that's spectacular.

"The Champ" from Jonah Hill

This is another really surreal sketch about a hapless weirdo whose rug is pulled out from under him. This bit just revels in setting up Jonah to impossible elation and then slams him down into a pit of pathetic despair. It's fantastic.

"Movie Night" from Melissa McCarthy

There wasn't a better "watch sex with your parents" sketch this year, and the level of increased awkwardness on all three sides is brilliant. Incest is almost always funny, no matter what your friends say and the revelation of subtext is great, especially when the Dad just starts repeating the Farmers Insurance theme as Pete gets more and more desperate.

"Thanksgiving Miracle" from Matthew McConaughey

Maybe just because it was the most timely sketch ever, from refugees, ISIS, transgender people, Adele - it's so damn November 2015 it's crazy. It's also spot-on accurate that Adele unites everyone, bringing out their inner-fur coat wearer. It descends into looniness and parody but really everything works here.

"Bern your Enthusiasm" from Larry David

The whole Larry David = Bernie Sanders thing was a brilliant observation someone made last year, and SNL cunningly made it happen. It all came together here in the smartest sketch of the year, which I'm sure has all to do with its Curb Your Enthusiasm ties. It's truly a 5-minute version of Curb starring Bernie Sanders, which is stunning to pull off.

"Meet Your Second Wife" from Tina Fey & Amy Poehler

The Tina & Amy episode was a little disappointing until this sketch delivered a perfect premise that cuts through a social issue that's typically ignored beyond regular muffled disgust. It's a perfect spin on the game show premise that SNL has been keen to play with lately; using the format to spin on issues or concepts rather than making jokes out of the gameshow itself. It's a biting bit and when soon-to-be impregnated Cecily Strong walks out, it reaches perfection.

"Close Encounter" from Ryan Gosling

The premise of this is really "Just let Kate go nuts." Her character is artfully crafted and soon became classic McKinnon. Every other cast member does their best to not crack up as they serve her softballs. The jokes, timing, and wary conclusions her frazzled character draws are genuinely hilarious. This works by being the wall-to-wall funniest sketch of the year.

"Farewell Mr. Bunting" from Fred Armisen

They assuredly saved the best sketch for last. From last week's Fred Armisen episode, this pre-recorded goof on Dead Poets Society (1989) has such a long, drawn-out set-up that's dramatically captivating with very little jokes (besides that Jay Pharaoh hat bit, and the general hyperbole of Bennett's reading about poetry ["The arts in general are for women and homosexuals"]). Then that ending. Wow. If you haven't seen it, press play right above and treat yourself.

As for "Space Pants", yeah it's great, but the mis-timing by Rudnitsky and then Gwen Stefani always throws me. It's also a bit too weird without the regular amount of surreality, subtle subtext, or aggressive unexpectedness that I usually dig about the show's more absurd sketches.

So that's a wrap for the year. Do you agree with these sketches? Sound off below, loyal citizen.

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