11:32pm PT by Daniel Fienberg
Critic's Notebook: Dwayne Johnson Helps 'Saturday Night Live' Cap Strong Comeback Season
[Do we worry about Saturday Night Live spoilers? This story has them for the Saturday, May 20, season finale.]
"What an incredible season this cast has had!" crowed Dwayne Johnson, signing off at the end of the 42nd season finale of NBC's Saturday Night Live.
With Johnson earning induction into the increasingly crowded Five-Timers Club — it's like the way baseball's 500 homerun club started getting uncomfortably packed during the steroid era — the SNL finale paid tribute to the show itself, capping what many observers have called a comeback season.
The finale started with a cold open paying homage to perhaps the season's most discussed elements, replacing Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton mourning her electoral defeat by singing "Hallelujah" with Alec Baldwin's Donald Trump doing the same. With no new episodes until September, it's unclear if the opener was meant to predict former SNL host Trump's eventual removal from office or if it was meant as a final signoff for Baldwin, who can't be expected to keep doing SNL opening sketches for three to eight more years, should things not go as planned. The opener brought back many of the year's familiar figures in the SNL/Trump sphere, including McKinnon's Kellyanne Conway; Mikey Day and Alex Moffat as Don Jr. and Eric, respectively; the Grim Reaper character as Steve Bannon; surprise guest Scarlett Johansson as Ivanka; Cecily Strong as Melania; and Aidy Bryant as Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Presumably Melissa McCarthy figured enough was enough with her Sean Spicer imitation, or else she was hiding off in the bushes somewhere.
With Baldwin front-and-center, SNL made the most of lampooning the man whose presidential candidacy the show helped normalize just one season before. The Trump and Hillary impressions, likely to carry Baldwin and McKinnon to Emmy wins this fall, lifted the first half of the season. As fatigue began to set in a wee bit, McKinnon shifted gears to an evolving series of interpretations of Conway, and then just as that was running out of juice, McCarthy's Spicer proved surprisingly resilient, lasting far longer than anybody could possibly have expected Spicer would last.
Saturday's finale also found a way to nod to another of the season's biggest breakouts as Tom Hanks dropped by an overcrowded filmed music video as David S. Pumpkins, playing off of the viral sensation birthed in a pre-Halloween episode.
Hanks also appeared in Johnson's opening monologue in which the Baywatch star announced that he would be running for president in 2020 with Hanks as his running mate.
"The truth is, America needs us. No one can seem to agree on anything anymore except for two things," Hanks said.
"Pizza and us," Johnson agreed.
I think they would probably get a lot of support, and probably Lorne Michaels would like to have a second straight former host as president.
It was a really good finale because Johnson is and has been a really reliable SNL host over the years. On Saturday night, he gave the wig department a real workout, running through an astounding assortment of hairpieces in a string of sketches that offered a little something for everyone. You like fart jokes? Johnson and Vanessa Bayer had you covered. You like WWE humor? Johnson and Bobby Moynihan were there. Wanna see Johnson and a little pig? Well, Cecily Strong spent most of the time with a pig, but it definitely happened. And then there was the sketch with the evil scientist convention, which was one of the more subversive things SNL has done this year, combining a molesting robot and a White Castle product plug.
While strong episodes from Aziz Ansari and Kristen Stewart might have been minor surprises, SNL had its best episodes this season with stalwart hosts like Hanks and Johnson and McCarthy and Louis C.K., the old faithfuls. The writers seemed much less comfortable figuring out ways to work with first-timers like Octavia Spencer, Felicity Jones and Casey Affleck, as well as Chris Pine, whose non-stop sing-a-thon of an episode is still confusing me. Saturday Night Live was definitely more in the conversation this year, but as much as anything that's because political comedy was more in the conversation this year. I think if you look across the season as a whole, you'd see the usual hits and misses, but probably one of the stronger top-to-bottom casts the show has had for a while.
There will be some transition next season, since Saturday's other big emphasis was on the departures of Bayer and Moynihan, who have been on the show together since 2010 (with Moynihan joining two years earlier). That's a lot of institutional memory to replace and a lot of characters who really will be missed. Bayer and Moynihan fronted an unusual number of sketches throughout the night and they each appeared as "Weekend Update" guests, with Moynihan reprising Drunk Uncle, probably his most familiar regular character, and Bayer making a second appearance as aspiring weather woman Dawn Lazarus. I wouldn't have predicted we'd be seeing Dawn instead of Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy or Laura Parsons or Rachel Green, but the audience clearly liked that character. My sadness at not seeing Bayer and Strong do Former Porn Stars one last time knows no bounds, but I guess I'll get over it. Bayer and Moynihan also should gotten a final goodbye as the credits rolled instead of taking a backseat for Hanks and Johansson, but at least they got an appropriate last episode.
Now we'll have to sit back and see if it's only Bayer and Moynihan leaving or if there will be other shoes to drop. McKinnon has been so dominant at times over the past two seasons that other performers have struggled to get as much regular screentime. I wonder both how much longer McKinnon will want to be doing this eight months a year, and which of the underused supporting parts will get swapped out. It was a pretty successful year for new additions, with Day and Moffat both grabbing more regular exposure than your typical featured players. Melissa Villaseñor has been less visible, often popping up only once or twice per episode with an impression or as a straight-woman. I've felt that she and Sasheer Zamata have potential. How long Michaels waits to see that potential realized is something else.
Then there's the question of whether Michael Che and Colin Jost continue to occupy the "Weekend Update" chairs. I don't think there have been more polarizing "Weekend Update" figures since back when some people thought Colin Quinn was groaningly unfunny and other people insisted that he was a comic's comic and dumb people just didn't get him. I personally found Che and Jost polarizing from week-to-week. They'd bomb an episode or two, and I'd be getting my pitchfork and torch, and then they'd have good chemistry for a week and I'd think, "Maybe they're figuring it out!" SNL is doing "Weekend Updates" in primetime in August, and I doubt Michaels is going to use that as a time to break in new hosts, so a Che/Jost return is probable.
Baldwin's continued involvement may end up being the most important part of the show's continued relevance. It becomes moot if Trump is no longer president come September. Beck Bennett's Mike Pence is not a dynamic impression, but Pence is not a dynamic vice president. Trump has proven to be the kind of president who demands regular lampooning, in contrast to his predecessor, a POTUS the show only feigned interest in. If Baldwin decided he wanted to do other things with his life and Trump remained president, would you want to be the comic who followed him in this role? You might do a better Trump impression, but you wouldn't do a bigger Trump impression.
Bigger is probably better for Saturday Night Live, which has been enjoying its elevation in the conversation this year and probably will enjoy more Emmy attention than usual in September. Oh, and definitely keep going with the live West Coast airings, NBC. Nothing boosts the show's ability to be in the conversation like letting the whole country have the same conversation at the same time.
Not bad for 42.