A forgettable Saturday Night Live squanders Don Cheadle, for god's sake – The A.V. Club

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Don Cheadle
Screenshot: Saturday Night Live

Let’s all give it up with some percussive recognition.

“I’m not an actor, I’m an [unrealistically expectations-raising] star!”

In a bad season of Saturday Night Live, maybe it’s best not to get our host hopes up. Is this a bad season of SNL? It’s shaping up that way, yeah. Officially past the midway point in its 44th season, SNL pulls the fate-sealing great host squander here, with a game and seemingly slam-dunk Don Cheadle frittered away on a wheezy roster of tired premises (even the non-recycled ones) and indifferent execution. The likely post mortem on this season will pick out the writing for the real cause of death, and this episode, wasting a great, funny star in tepid sketches whose scattered, wan chuckles existed in lonely isolation, will be held up as the point of no return.

And Cheadle is great. In his energetic, confident monologue, the actor connected with the audience in relaxed, promising fashion, doing fine little stand-up bits that are far preferable to the pre-programmed “let’s get this over with” vibe that’s infected most of this season’s perfunctory openers. Cheadle’s a star, an effortlessly magnetic actor whose presence is strikingly alive, whether he’s goofing around with his Oceans pals or going intense and weighty. (The joke about him telling where fans recognize him from is a killer, with the little reverent prayer-hands of Hotel Rwanda contrasted with the sly, cocky Boogie Nights finger guns.) But, like I said, some seasons just court disappointment in booking a host who raises our expectations too high. (Here’s to seeing whether upcoming second-time host John Mulaney can be the exception that proves that rule I just made up.)

The first proper sketch of the night is always a bellwether, and the return of high school freshman talk show Fresh Takes struck a dispiritingly ominous tone. Sure, the requisite Alec Baldwin-Trump cold open got itself out of the way, setting the bar for the season’s political comedy directly at medium height, but surely the episode would come out of Cheadle’s fine monologue with an energetic killer, right? Or, you know, what about a follow-up to a limp and forgotten bit that wasn’t great the first time, to really signal to viewers that you’re hitting the ground already running on fumes. It’s not a bad sketch, I guess. Cheadle has fun as the school’s “cool” gossip-mongering teacher, and Kate McKinnon channels a teenage girl (just freed of her braces) with customarily acute little touches. I liked the way Kyle Mooney’s reporter imploded in fleeing humiliation after his elaborately planned viewscreen request for a date with McKinnon goes down in flames, Mooney slinking away claiming he was just kidding while his celebratory “She said yes!” graphic spools out behind him with pre-loaded unintentional mockery. It’s a slight, cute little piece with about two laughs in it. Sense the theme. It’s coming back.

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Best/Worst sketch of the night

This is one of those shows where a guy’s gotta check his notes. Out of a singularly unmemorable lot, at least the roadhouse fight sketch had an infectious sense of fun about it. As a pair of tough guys itching for a punch-up at their low-down watering hole, Cheadle and Beck Bennett’s biker are the kind of trash-talking bozos who have their favorite fistfight jukebox anthems all ready to go. But when Bennett’s pal Mikey Day accidentally puts on Mika’s appropriately titled earworm “Lollipop,” the blustering pair find themselves unable to take a swing, instead succumbing to the song’s infectiously silly rhythm. There’s no real joke other than that, although both dudes can’t help but betray how much they’re totally going to download that song later, and Cheadle’s bruiser keeps up his trash talking even as his hips twitch in happy abandon. (Your dumb ass probably thought it was about candy!”) And the way the entire bar breaks into sudden, choreographed exuberance once the song hits the big finish is, indeed, a big finish of the dippy, grin-inducing type any episode should have room for. Even for a high point, though, there isn’t enough pop—it’s a fun little sketch that engenders goodwill, but not a showstopper. That it’s the best sketch of the night is not a good thing.

Of the same flavor, for good and bad, was the Extreme Baking Championship sketch. As I only have eyes for The Great British Baking Show in my life, I’ll defer to fans as to verisimilitude, but the sketch itself was basically just a “look at our terrible cakes” gag elevated a bit by the absurdist left turn that flustered baker Cheadle’s Cookie Monster monstrosity is so terrible that it comes to unholy life to plead to be consigned back to the sugary hell from whence it was spawned. Complete with blue-barf cannon (and Kenan Thompson’s voice), the sheer weirdness of the joke worked to take the predictable premise somewhere unexpectedly funny. (I loved the joke that Cheadle can’t explain why he scrawled the name “Sean” in icing on his abomination of a cake.) And Aidy Bryant ran a fine line of deadpan underplaying as one of the show’s unflappable but baffled hosts. (“Weird way to get there, but okay,” she responds to Cheadle’s convoluted explanation of which Muppet he chose to make.) Again, it was cute, pleasant, and just inventive enough to rise above what it seemed to be.

And that’s about it, really. SNL commercial parodies are usually better than Pound Puppies—oversized dog costumes you can bone in so as not to freak out your dog—especially ending as it did with the acceptable-to-someone tagline “Your dog will smile while you doggy-style.”

On the other hand, the roach spray ad near the end of the show went for weird, got there, and fled, leaving the sight of a sleazy, antennaed Don Cheadle dead in a twitching fetal position on the floor. The way the ad goes from the traditional overdramatic voiceover about bugs invading your home into the full-on melodrama of one of said roaches horning in on the head of household’s family and eventually bedding his wife is at least a strange comic choice, well acted by all (Cheadle, Day, and Heidi Gardner) involved. The standoff with Cheadle putting the trembling, cuckolded Day’s can of poison up to his own head and demanding that he pull the trigger is worthy of, well, a Clio, if not an Emmy. (Cheadle’s wry nod to Day’s young son after the lad finally does the deed himself is worthy of a bizarro award of some kind.) And the icky vibes of the “white suburban family being disrupted by a black man dressed as a cockroach” concept at least seem to be knowingly playing around with the whole trope of home security as white fear narrative common to such ads. At least let’s assume it’s knowing and move on.

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Weekend Update update

At the start of his half of Update, Michael Che rolled his eyes and proclaimed, “I am so tired of doing Donald Trump jokes.” In his somnambulant cold open, Alec Baldwin similarly and self-referentially stated as Trump that the onrushing Russia investigation means, “my personal
hell of playing president will finally be over.” Hey, SNL, we get it, nobody there is really into the weekly slog that is political satire in the age of Trump. But, just as a thought, if you’re reaping Emmy awards, ratings, and plenty of lucrative clicks (and hate-clicks) from doing Trump material, could you at least go through the motions of giving a crap?

We’ll get to Baldwin in a bit, but tonight’s Update did an even less comprehensive than usual job of running down the week in nakedly corrupt white supremacist buffoonery. That in a week where the concepts of “constitutional emergency” flashed bright, radioactive red in the form of a fake national emergency, the installation of a Trump-puppet Attorney General to oversee the investigation of whether Donald Trump is a Russian asset, and the usual odds and ends of a dying democracy. Look, nobody’s saying it’s easy. On the other hand, don’t take lazy half-swings at the job and then joke about how tired you are. Neither the cold open nor Jost’s bit here came close to encapsulating the sheer lunatic spectacle of Trump’s Friday press conference, although, to be fair, the strategy of simply letting Trump’s unhinged, incoherent, abusive rambling make itself its own spectacle is tough to resist. Jost’s smirky wiseassery alone isn’t itself especially persuasive in selling the joke that the president appeared coked out of his gourd, or that his apparent grasp of government comes out as if “Schoolhouse Rock had a stroke.” (Plus, if you’re going to make a joke about climate change being the real national emergency, it’s shamefully lazy to use the same “gee, it’s warm outside in February” logic that climate change deniers use to demonstrate that it’s either ignorant or intellectually dishonest to conflate climate with weather.)

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Che fared a little better. The odd angles he takes in his more head-on attacks on an issue combine with his innate no-bullshit persona to give Che’s lines meatier punch. Talking about Trump’s wall fantasy as “clearly racist” is bracing, in an “of course it is,” cathartic way on national TV, and Che’s take that the real problem with drug trafficking is Americans’ insatiable desire to do all those drugs carries a lot more perspective than the usual SNL jokes on the subject. Che describing Trump’s Game Of Thrones fantasy wall as “another way for middle America to blame brown people on their new heroin habit” and calling for a more complicated but effective war on the reasons why Americans want/need to escape through drug use is a whole lot better, too.

Like that first, after-monologue sketch, the correspondent pieces are something of an indicator of just how deep the SNL writing room well is running. Sometimes they’re the highlight of an episode, a showcase for talented and inspired writers and performers to toss out some of the short-form stuff they can’t get on otherwise. Other times, you bring back Jules. Why Jules? I’m asking. The first time this deliberately infuriating “cultural renegade” blowhard showed up, it bombed, Beck Bennett’s commitment to playing an insufferable, self-important gasbag working so well as to nearly put the audience into a contempt-coma. Here, extolling a worldview so woke as to be punch-worthy, he does the same, but with the added irritant of his inexplicable, needless reemergence.

The best thing I can think to say about Mikey Day’s bit as “super-centennial” Mort Fellner is that the pinched little old man voice he used made me think fondly of the days of Tim Kazurinsky. The one joke is that Mort’s report on how he and his fellow over-110s are still seizing the day is just a list of obituaries, because old people die. I mean, sure. I suppose it could have been livelier with a more inhabited, energetic performance, but the fact that Mort got on air at all shows that that correspondent piece bucket is scraping bottom.

Kate McKinnon and Alex Moffat generated a few giggles as their Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer tried and failed to refrain from gloating over just how badly Trump fucked up his wall-funding government shutdown tantrum. (“Two percent—that seems like a lot to me!,” McKinnon’s Pelosi beams in mock encouragement after Jost reveals just how little Trump got compared to his initial, red-faced demands.) It’s cute enough—SNL taking advantage of Trump’s guaranteed hate-watch to poke a stick into his new feud with former fellow white supremacist booster Ann Coulter is as gleeful as this Pelosi and Schumer’s. Just let those two crazy, racist kids (and their equally intractable and vindictive followers) rip into each other.

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“What do you call that act?” “The Californians!”—Recurring sketch report

Family Feud is yet another reliable indicator of where SNL’s talent pool is low, in this case with regard to the show’s timelessly insatiable need for celebrity impersonations. With Kenan’s ever-ebullient Steve Harvey riding herd, this time over an all Oscar-nominee crop of stars, the sketch showed just how few chameleons SNL has to work with these days. The best was the least-known, as Cecily Strong’s giddy, drunken take on The Favourite’s Olivia Coleman delighted in how little she’s got to lose in a country where her (remarkable) talents go largely unrecognized. Kate McKinnon’s always a gamer, here full-throatedly going ultra-dramatic as The Wife’s Glenn Close. It’s a funny bit (Close slips good-naturedly back out of her self-indulgent rants to deliver a guess), but it sounds precisely nothing like Close. Pete Davidson wisely lets his heavy-lidded resemblance do the lifting for his Rami Malek. Melissa Villaseñor got to reprise her justly lauded Lady Gaga from last week, albeit in a more truncated form. Sam Elliott’s inimitable (but quite imitateable) drawl proves too much for Beck Bennett, Cheadle doesn’t even try for a Spike Lee that’s not in his quiver, and on down the line. And the capper about Steve Harvey worrying about Monique’s people waiting for him in the parking garage reduces the substance of Harvey’s recent, heated debate about race and show business ethics with that particular Oscar nominee to a glib joke about her being just another crazy woman. The idea of doing a Steve Harvey sketch in this week of all weeks and just churning out another underwhelming Family Feud bit is of a piece with this season’s meager ambition.

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“It was my understanding there would be no math”—Political comedy report

More impressive than anything in Alec Baldwin’s increasingly sleepy Trump impression is the notion that everything his Trump said in the requisite cold open tonight was either taken directly from the aforementioned lunatic press conference by the actual guy with the nuclear codes, or tweaked just a few degrees up from verbatim. Yes, Trump did put on stereotypical Chinese syntax when imitating Chinese President Xi Jinping (when calling for the dictator-beloved death penalty for all drug dealers). And yes, Baldwin’s Trump dumbing down his pitch to the monosyllabic terror-chant “Wall make safe!” accurately parallels where administration messaging is headed. (It’s no “Be Best,” but it’s getting there.) And sure, actual Trump did berate reporters who dared question his brazen lying, babble contradictory nonsense about his “easy to win” trade war, and lapse into singsong reverie when tracing the probable path his farcically ginned-up fake national emergency will take through the courts. And, you betcha it’s tough to trump Trump’s incessant, disjointed hate-mongering and pathological duplicity, but just parroting the guy without a dynamic, inherently funny performer at the center is deadening. Baldwin seems drowsier than ever in the role, and that line about wanting a job he never thought would turn into a multi-year slog to end was the only one he really gave any oomph to. Trump’s tough to parody at this point, the “reality” and “parody” multiverses merging ever closer as they are, but it can be done, and done better. The fact that the real Trump’s “executive time” TV watching includes an infuriating weekly mirror of his own nonsense is something, I suppose, but it’s hardly enough to warrant much serious discussion of satirical merit.

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I am hip to the musics of today

Gary Clark Jr. rode his minimalist electric guitar virtuosity through a pair of stellar numbers. The first, “Pearl Cadillac,” matching his flying vee with a faultless Curtis Mayfield falsetto, was great. The second, the “Trump country” anti-anthem “This Land” is revelatory, swapping out for P-Funk fuzz and righteous rage. When people glibly joked about the solace of all the great music a Trump presidency would inspire, this is the no-joke best-case outcome. Nothing illustrates that better than the, one imagines, NBC-mandated elision of the word “nigger” from the chorus in which Clark imitates how those red state neighbors used to address the Texas-based singer before he became famous and wealthy. (Clark pointedly jerks his head to the left away from the mic where the word should be.)

Most/Least valuable Not Ready For Primetime Player

On a workmanlike night all around, I suppose Kate McKinnon rises to the top on principle and volume.

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Ego Nwodim got to do a British accent and have fake dog-suit sex with Don Cheadle, but is that all there is?

“What the hell is that thing?”—The Ten-To-Oneland Report

Kate and Aidy paired up as the married proprietors of the sort of all-purpose banquet halls unimpressive families hire out for special occasions. The joke works in the specifics, from the loose outlets (“You plug in your phone, it gonna fall right out”), to carpeting literally everywhere, to suspiciously young valets, and that one balloon stuck at the air vent. Neither Kate nor Aidy (nor Cheadle, as the venue’s all-purpose employee) seem to have a firm handle on their characters (or accents), but it’s the sort of likeable piece that’s hard to otherwise find fault with. And rising to the minimal level of oddness for a final sketch, it’s also a fitting capper to an amiably mediocre night.

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Stray observations

  • It seems from the inclusion of the silent title card at the end of tonight’s episode that Joe Dicso died recently. The long-serving, long-suffering SNL stage manager worked on the show from the start. And remember, he’s in with the mob. RIP.
  • The show didn’t let the outspoken Cheadle take part in anything resembling political comedy tonight, but Cheadle’s T-shirt game was strong. Introducing Clark’s second number, he wore a shirt reading “Protect Trans Kids,” while the goodnights saw him happily sporting an old-school Russian national hockey team jersey emblazoned with “Trump 45″ on the back.
  • Cheadle claims he’s the latest winner of the “Avengers SNL raffle.”
  • Cheadle’s teacher, teasing his blind item about a teacher who drives Uber on the weekends: “It will blow your mind. It will also make you sad.”
  • Jost’s joke about “sassy little bitch” Bernie Sanders inevitably cannonballing into the heretofore cozy and supportive Democratic presidential race elicited the sought-after groan-laughs.
  • Jost continues to champion the now-abandoned and controversial plan for Amazon to put a headquarters in Queens, joking that the plan would have created the equivalent of “all the jobs in Greece.” Not to hammer the point, but the issue was a lot more complicated. A better joke would be, too.
  • Che, asking why it took so long for Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” to be the first rap song to win the Grammy for Song Of The Year: “This is America.”
  • Cheadle’s wedding venue cook promises guests “the squeakiest green beans you’ll ever bite in your life.”

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