The Cold Open
Beck Bennett's shirtless Vladmir Putin is basically a smooth talking, chillingly tone deaf Bond villain. Since Trump's victory, his Putin has appeared almost every week to gloat about how he fixed the American election for a buffoon whom he controls. Kate McKinnon's "Weekend Update" fixture, an impoverished, low-expectation realist named Olya, appeared for a couple of quick jokes. The show was fresh enough to make fun of the Trump team's inauguration attendance fiasco, and highlight the massive numbers for the Women's March earlier in the day. As a topical cold open, this hit the mark.
Seasoned standup Aziz Ansari looked cool and composed, clutching a handheld mic and delivering a sharp, topical monologue about the state of the union. Remarking that "an entire gender protested" Trump, Ansari outlined America's litany of problems, like its new "lower case kkk" brand of casual racism, its cultural depictions of Muslims, and the fact that President Trump makes him wistful for the comparably moderate "uniter," George W. Bush. This was sharp, clever, and a well-paced tight ten.
Beat the Bookworm
Anzari plays a condescending nerd in a game show featuring Vanessa Bayer as a contestant named Cindy and Mikey Day as host Keaton Seasons. Though a proclaimed prodigious genius on myriad topics, the Bookworm's Achilles heel turns out to be '90s pop culture; he malfunctions so bad, his answer to a fill in the blank, "Michael Jackson was the king of the?" is "Jews?" This was funny and, significantly for a show whose writing was wildly undisciplined last week, wisely super short.
Bennett and Cecily Strong play hardass cops who've detained a character played by Ansari. The twist is that they're furious at him after Ansari's character is caught on tape, lightly criticizing La La Land. As it unfolded, it became clear that these two investigators were also very opinionated film and pop culture fans, hell-bent on converting doubters of universally beloved fare.
The Lead with Jake Tapper
Set up as a CNN interview, this quickly morphed into a musical piece in which McKinnon plays a confessional Kellyanne Conway. With elements of Chicago's Roxie in play, the bit outlines Conway's naked, self-serving ambition in working for Trump just to further her own career. A well-executed remote in some ways but look it, they won, and watching a satire of Conway at this point wasn't as satisfying as it might have been a few months ago.
Borderick and Ganz
A pretty funny spoof of those horrible personal injury lawyer ads, a gaggle of happy clients testify to the riches they've received with Broderick representing them. Of course, Ansari was represented by Ganz (Bobby Moynihan, playing ultra dumb like only he can) who is clearly dangerously inept and unfit to practice law. Ansari's raging and amazing script made this the show's unexpected first half highlight.
A talent who can burn you with a feature on your own track, Big Sean was still something of a surprise to get his own spot on SNL. In a way, he brought it during the relatively upbeat "Bounce Back" and then got introspective and philosophical on "Sunday Morning Jetpack." And yet, in the end, it still really wasn't all that charismatic an appearance, as a hyped artist came across low-key. Big Sean seemed like the opening act for a headliner who never turned up.
Michael Che highlighted the shade Michelle Obama seemed to be throwing over most aspects of the inauguration, Colin Jost suggested the D-list artist-led inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial was the "second worst live performance Lincoln ever saw," and they even got in sharp digs at new White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer's hours-old, truly bizarre press conference where he vainly tried to distort the press's impression of attendance numbers during the inauguration (by disputing evidence in photographs everyone with eyesight could plainly see). Leslie Jones was introduced for an editorial piece about Hidden Figures but instead slayed with a bit about unheralded black inventors and their inventions. Che and Jost didn't have one bummer all segment; every news headline and topical joke landed heavy. And a remote with Mikey Day as Jake, who's stuck in the "Friend Zone" with a girl paid off in the end too.
Rookie cast member Melissa Villaseñor is really funny and a uniquely odd presence. She and Ansari play lovers who try to engage in dirty talk and role-playing but she, with her strange, too real lines, keeps spoiling the mood. This killed in the room with Ansari playing the exasperated straight man to Villaseñor's oblivious joke generator; this was her most impactful moment yet on her first season on SNL.
Bobby Moynihan plays Petros, an Uber driver, and Ansari is his fare. Each are attempting to earn a five star Uber review and attempt to outdo each other in kindness and things get very awkwardly amusing. A sort of dark but rewarding remote.
The recent spate of animatronic character sketches keeps getting more and more out there and ridiculous. A pair of cops busting a criminal in a closed kids-themed pizza parlour accidentally triggers the Peppy Ronnies, an animatronic band with a recurring song about liking pizza pies. As a sketch, it's the David S. Pumpkins formula applied to anything random and, thus far, everyone is getting away with these things. It helps when you have a game, dedicated host like Ansari to really put this across.
A Tribute to President Barack Obama
Cecily Strong and Sasheer Zamata paid an admittedly pitchy but sincerely touching musical tribute to outgoing President Barack Obama with a version of "To Sir, With Love." "Don't go?' Zamata pleaded at the end of the performance, which was basically the only joke in this send-off.