Saturday Night Live: West Side Story’s Ariana DeBose hosts underwhelming episode | Saturday Night Live

Saturday Night Live returns from hiatus with a message from Joe Biden (James Austin Johnson). The President is exhausted and frustrated by our “cold, dark winter” of Covid resurgence, but he knows how to make the virus go away: “STOP. SEEING. SPIDER-MAN. Think about it: when did Spider-Man come out? December 17th. When did every single person get Omicron? The week after December 17th. Stop seeing Spider-Man!”

Fielding questions from a skeptical press corps, Biden ties all of our continuing crises on Spider-Man: Inflation? “Spider-Man!” Voting rights? “You think people can focus on voting rights when Spider-Man’s Aunt May is a smokeshow?” Russian troops moving on the Ukrainian border? “If that doesn’t sound like a job for Spider-Man, I don’t know what is!”

We’re then visited from an alternate version of Joe Biden (Pete Davidson) from a different world within the multiverse, who reveals that our collapsing timelines was started as “a joke in 2016 when the Chicago Cubs won the World Series”. He also reveals that everyone in the “real world” is better off … except for Pete Davidson. “Your world is maybe more fun for him,” he says, offering zero in the way explanation (or punchline).

While not a great cold open by any means, it at least has an actual narrative arc. It certainly beats the rambling, walk-on riddled cold opens we were getting prior to the break. That makes it a step in the right direction.

West Side Story co-star and Golden Globe winner Ariana DeBose hosts for the first time. The young breakout actor is proud to represent not only the Afro-Latino community, but the Broadway community. Feeling like everyone “needs a little Broadway right now”, she sings a medley of songs from her film alongside West Side Story super-fan Kate McKinnon (who, like general audiences, stayed away from the movie while it was in theaters). DeBose nails the classic tunes, but the whole thing is unfortunately hampered by McKinnon, who does nothing but sing slightly off key and wriggle her limbs. As far as West Side Story sketches go, the show has given us much better.

An NBA halftime show on TNT covers a game between the Brooklyn Nets and Sacramento Kings, currently scored at 268 -1. Sacramento’s players and coaches all tested positive for Covid right as the game was about to start and had to be replaced by fans and custodial staff. The interviews with the brutalized Kings stand-ins hit the same beats and grow tiresome fast, but the back and forth between show hosts Charles Barkley (Kenan Thompson) and Yao Ming (Bowen Yang, playing Yang by way of Lurch from The Addams Family) is a constant source of amusement.

Following up on the recently released trailer their forthcoming series Bel-Air – a dramatic reimagining of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air — Peacock debuts a teaser for “the next 90s show about the black experience to be given a serious, high stakes remake”: Family Matters. This new version, titled simply Urkel, gives audiences “the goofy characters you loved in the 90s with absolutely none of the fun or charm”. Steve Urkel (Chris Redd) is now an angry nerd from a broken home, trying to stay alive on the mean streets of “Chi-raq”, while neighbor Carl (Thompson) is gritty cop with a hair trigger temper. It’s almost impossible for SNL to properly parody Bel-Air, given how preposterous it already is, but they do a solid job here.

This is followed by a commercial for Ron and Donna Lacatza’s Formal Emporium, in which the husband and wife owners (Davidson and Sarah Sherman) of a girls’ dress rental shop spend all their time humiliating their teenage son Donovan (Andrew Dismukes), an awkward nerd with constantly smeared lips, a “soupy, wet ass”, and a violently unhinged love of the song Get Low. The sketch is admirably gross showcase for Dismukes – quickly eclipsing Kyle Mooney as the SNL’s go-to dweeb – but the other cast members don’t acquit themselves quite so well. Davidson’s Adam Sandler impersonation is so blatant its distracting, while Sherman’s one-note performance is utterly indistinguishable from every other character she’s portrayed thus far (including herself during her Weekend Update appearance).

Next, Redd plays new NYC mayor and “friskiest uncle at the barbeque” Eric Adams, who’s obsessed with bringing “swagger” back to his city. Antagonistically fielding questions from the press, he defends the various controversies already plaguing his administration, such as his decision to keep schools open amidst the Omicron surge (“There are too many swagless parents out there giving their kids no swagger at home”), his insults towards “unskilled” workers (“By unskilled workers, I meant folks with trash jobs”) and appointing his brother as head of his security detail (“JFK appointed his brother … but unlike JFK, I’m not gonna get popped in the head, I’m gonna receive some!”). Redd brings a little too much legitimate swagger to his characterization of Adams, but the impersonation is dead-on.

The night’s musical guest is Bleachers, who performs How Dare You Want More. On Weekend Update, Michael Che invites Sesame Street’s Elmo (Chloe Fineman) to comment about his rivalry with pet rock Rocko. Elmo apologizes and attempts to move on, until Che brings on Rocko, sending Elmo into a jealous rage.

This segment represents that absolute worst quality of the show today: its shameless regurgitation of popular social media memes. For Saturday Night Live to swoop in and try to squeeze some more relevance out ready-made jokes is downright insulting. The only thing keeping a sketch like this from being outright plagiarism is the lack of authorship inherent to memes.

In the fourth Sound of Music parody the show has done since 2016, DeBose plays the new nanny of the von Trapp children. She attempts to teach the kids how to sing using a random array of references to Homer Simpson, Queen Latifah, Peter Gabriel, IUDs and more. There’s a palpable theater kid energy to the proceedings that should entertain Broadway nerds even as it bores everyone else.

Bleachers returns to the stage to perform Chinatown. Then, Debose and McKinnon play married academic giving a “sold out free lecture” at Cornell University on the ancient Greek poet Sappho. Their peers question whether their translations of newly discovered poems have been influenced by their personal lives, given that the verses contain arguments with a former lover named Nancy, references to “Helen of Generes” and Gillian Anderson, and Indigo Girl lyrics.

The closing sketch is set at Texarkana chain restaurant Longhorns on New Year’s Eve. The frustrated kitchen staff question why their shift manager adds “lurrr” to the end of every sentence, leading to a fight and then a reconciliation. An utterly laugh-free sketch where the only aim seems to be finding out which cast member can do the worst accent (DeBose takes it by a mile). It’s not particularly offensive in and of itself, but coming as it does at the end of an episode that fairly reeked of East Coast superiority – what with the toothless sketches centered around Broadway shows, New York politics and liberal academia – it can’t help but leave a bad taste in the mouth. It feels like were watching a bunch of smug high school theater kids poking fun at the poor, dumb hayseeds at their school.

The episode had a few redeeming moments – mostly courtesy of Redd, who continues to grow into one of the show’s most reliable performers – but it saw a noticeable drop-off in quality around the half-way mark from which it never recovered.

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