Kerry Washington hosting Saturday Night Live couldn't have come at a better time for the show -- cast members openly criticized the lack of diversity, and civil rights group wrote an open letter to producer Lorne Michaels leading into last night's episode.
So, to say Washington's position as host was important for the show would be an understatement. A massive casting exodus over the last two season left the show vulnerable -- Bill Hader, Fred Armisen and Jason Sudeikis left, following Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg's departure the previous season. SNL lost its five biggest names over the course of two seasons. So this year was meant to signal a new start, a refresh, with young performers finally grabbing onto the spotlight and new faces filling the holes. So producer Lorne Michaels set out to hire new performers this summer, and many noticed the new performers had one thing in common when their names were announced. On a show that has been historically criticized for its lack of diversity, on a cast dangerously low in color to begin with, the new performers turned out to be five white men and one white woman.
This didn't sit well with current feature performer Jay Pharoah, who let his feelings known during an interview with the Grio. "They need to pay attention," Pharoah said, before suggesting SNL producers hire comedian Darmirra Brunson, "because she’s black first of all, and she’s really talented. She’s amazing." His comments kicked off a fire storm of criticism over the show's lack of color, with many noting there's no black woman in the cast to play the Michelle Obama to Pharoah's Barack. After Rashad Robinson, the executive director of ColorOfChange.org, wrote an open letter criticizing Michaels, the longtime producer told the Associated Press, "It's not like it's not a priority for us. It will happen. I'm sure it will happen."
That's a lot of weight to put on Washington's shoulders. But if anyone can handle the pressure, it's the Olivia Pope, her wildly popular character from ABC's Scandal. And with that, the live referendum on SNL's diversity problem began.
And it took exactly 45 seconds for Kerry Washington to play Michelle Obama, opposite Pharoah. The couple was hosting a party at the White House and Oprah showed up, so Washington was forced to dash off screen and change. The cold open was a meta-commentary on the exact racial controversy the show was expected to address tonight, so at least they didn't waste any time before addressing it. But Washington spent a disappointing amount of the sketch off stage changing instead of, you know, being funny. Most of the sketch's comedic weight was left to a scrolling apology from the producers that had two targets: to Washington, for asking her to play so many black women tonight; and to viewers, for not having any black women cast members. The message was nice, sure, but the punchline -- trotting out all six new white male featured players, plus poor Bobby Moynihan, as Matthew McConaughey -- diminished it. Rev. Al Sharpton showed up at the end to tell the audience what we learned from the sketch: "Nothing."
The cold open featured current cast members asking Washington for help with their sometimes trivial, sometimes serious problems because she fixes things on TV. After Washington told Vanessa Bayer to leave town for still saying "da club," Bayer asked who would play Miley if she left. "Haven't you played Miley enough?" Washington asked, speaking for everyone watching at home.
Washginton carried the first sketch as a high school motivational speaker's sassy assistant, which didn't do wonders for the show's problems. If it wasn't for Washington making something from nothing here, this could and should largely be forgotten.
Speaking of things that should probably be forgotten...
Hey, they brought back "How's he Doing?" finally after what seems like forever. The bit about white people liking The Wire too much killed, and Christian Laettner jokes are always welcome. They snuck in some shots at television recaps, too. We still love you, SNL.
In the Miss Universe sketch, Washington played a confused African, because SNL doesn't have a race problem, guys. Again, Washington did what she could to get laughs with the little material she was given. But maybe someone should have looked at the script and tried harder to keep her "terrible stereotypes before Weekend Update" numbers down.
At the end of the year, they'll be able to make an entire "Best of..." Kate MacKinnon DVD just from moments this season. Her contribution from this episode was her Angela Merkel impression, which was delightful, but Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah stole Weekend Update with their appearance as Charles Barkley and Shaq. These two need to become regular fixtures on the Weekend Update scene, even if it's awkward to see Seth Meyers talk half seriously about sports.
Aidy Byrant has a small-penised philandering husband problem. Not to mention the fact that she's appearing on Cartoon Catchphrase, a day time cartoon game show. You'd think that would be rock bottom, but nope, because her husband is such a low-life. She was always better than him anyway.
Pharoah continued shining tonight during the high school fair sketch as the principal at Booker T. Washington High. Seeing him get a such prominent spot on the show was a nice change of pace. So, too, was seeing him make an appearance without doing an impression. The show needs more of that. Impressions are his bread and butter but he needs to stretch his wings more often. Unfortunately NBC didn't put that sketch online. Kerry Washington did a fantastic job as a teacher victimized by kids at a dunk tank in this sketch. Such a shame we can't watch it.
The show ended on a pre-produced sketch in line with most of the Digital Short-esque clips the show's done since the Lonely Island guys departed. It was weirder, darker and slightly off kilter from everything else on the show. That doesn't mean the sketch wasn't enjoyable, though.
Chances are your feelings about SNL's great race debate won't change after watching this episode. Kerry Washington couldn't pull an Olivia Pope and fix everything neatly inside the allotted ninety minutes. There will be think pieces written by Monday looking at the amount of screen time Washington was given, the characters she was asked to play, and what that all means for SNL as a whole. The show can still be great but there are clearly some issues in front of and behind the camera this year.
That said, seeing Jay Pharoah get so much screen time was a pleasant change. His impressions are always spot-on, but the show needs to let him branch out more.
Hopefully the writers realize Taran Killam (who is great!) and Bobby Moynihan (who is also great!) don't need to be in every sketch, and that the women are the show's core right now. Kate MacKinnon, Nasim Pedrad, Vanessa Bayer, Cecily Strong and Aidy Bryant all have the potential to be breakout stars if the show gives them the proper opportunities.
Correction: We apologize for misspelling Kenan Thompson's name.