Published Dec 10, 2017After a rough episode last week, James Franco and SZA helmed one of the finest shows of the season. Here's everything that happened on Saturday Night Live last night.
The cold open
Refreshingly, SNL tackled topical issues without trotting out Alec Baldwin's Donald Trump to kick off this week's show. Instead, in a funny premise, a mall Santa played by Kenan Thompson and his elf, played by Kate McKinnon, meet with kids to discuss their Xmas gift lists. But the enlightened, informed kids all end up wanting more than toys: they want answers to serious questions about socio-political issues, which flusters Thompson to no end. Even when the kids biff their lines, this worked well.
For his fourth hosting turn, James Franco decides to take questions from audience members. As it happens, he is soon surprised to learn that his pals Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill have seats among the crowd, and the pair gently roast Franco. Even Steve Martin gets in on the act, making for a hilariously hostile monologue.
Doug and Charlie
A corporate exec gathers and informs his staff that two male staff members have been fired for sexual harassment claims. Franco plays Doug, a smarmy, white suit, and Thompson plays Charlie, a sassy older black security guard, and both have been asked to address and apologize for their actions. Much to Doug's chagrin, the female staff members greet his own explanations with spiteful rejection while Charlie, whom they're charmed by, seems to be getting a pass for saying far worse things. While a strained statement about when such behaviour might or might not be permissible, Thompson made this unlikely thing very funny.
A classic prop piece that used to be the norm on this show, Franco plays an enthusiastic gift wrapper at Bloomingdale's. After he suffers a paper cut, his finger spews an unholy amount of blood all over the place. At one point he tries to curb the bleeding by sucking on his finger and ends up spitting almost a cup of blood into a customer's face (a hilariously disgusted Leslie Jones). At this point, Franco, his co-worker played by McKinnon, and Jones's partner played by Thompson, lose themselves in the mayhem of the sketch. They can barely keep it together as the sketch becomes more and more gruesome, placing it in the canon of timeless SNL Xmas bits.
A sort of contemporary play on Dickens' A Christmas Carol, a generous soul (Kyle Mooney) invites his insufferable roommate, Scrudge (Beck Bennett), to a friend's holiday party wherein he insults and belittles everyone. Some of the put-downs here were pretty sharp (SNL continues its periodic jabs at Wes Anderson and his fans) but it all seems to take a turn when Scrudge is offered life advice by a guy on the roof (Franco) who seems to be an angel. Has Scrudge changed his ways? No.
Iowa City Spelling Bee
With colour commentary by McKinnon and Alex Moffatt, a spelling bee goes sideways when its moderator, Kevin Black (Franco), uses relatively innocent words in unsettling sentences. The kids all seem instantly scarred by the experience and, by the time Pete Davidson has to spell an S&M-inspired term, "Little Pig Boy," Franco can no longer contain his laughter in this darkly funny sketch.
As expected, SZA was alluring as hell, mesmerizing viewers with a performance of "The Weekend." A mid-tempo piece, it was dynamic, featuring a choir and a set of old computer monitors, which flickered with a kind of menace as she dropped sultry lines. For "Love Galore," costume changes and a more upbeat, uplifting song showed off a different vibe for a young R&B star with an ear for sophisticated musicality and lyrical intensity. She even included an unreleased verse for this performance. Truly special.
Michael Che and Colin Jost rifled through the week in Trump and American politics, which continues to be an insane horror show with plenty of fodder for jokes about the crisis in the Middle East, sexual harassment, and racism. Good jokes, bad times. Che got in a noteworthy dig at Democrats for choosing the moral high ground over winning politically, while Jost pushed the envelope with jokes about alleged pedophile and Republican senatorial candidate, Roy Moore. Cecily Strong's loud-mouthed, strung-out Cathy Anne showed up to comment on the Al Franken resignation, which was an extension of Che's earlier joke about the Democrats' false calculus, and she wildly discussed the Moore stuff too. Unusually, Che starred in a remote piece called A White Woman Named Gretchen, in which he "pretended" to infiltrate the world of white, liberal women to better understand them. Mildly amusing but not as sharp as it could've been, this played up stereotypes without undercutting them.
The Za Trial
This thing was so preposterous that it worked. Franco plays a lawyer interrogating a suspected murderer, played by Pete Davidson, whose alibi is that he was eating a couple of slices of "za." Franco presents the restaurant menu, which features pizza but no lasagne, which he believes is what "za" stands for. It sets off a comedic display about homonyms, with Franco really digging in to distinguish between "za" and "suh" and his intense performance was really funny.
This tender remote features Cecily Strong playing a stressed business woman who spots a homeless man, played by Franco, and buys him food, clothes, and attempts to house and care for him. Trouble is, this homeless guy played by James Franco is actually James Franco playing a homeless guy for a movie part. Strong's character kicks him out of her apartment but there's still some sweetness between them by the end of this clever piece.
A showcase for Heidi Gardner, Franco's family reunion is upended by the appearance of his sketchy cousin, Pretty Mandy, who is just plain odd. Sporting a fanny pack and rambling on about darts, she's critical of Franco's career choices, saying he should be more like his brother Dave. Sure enough, Dave showed up to wrap up this cameo-filled and enjoyable episode.