Coming off of a streak of a few very solid episodes featuring hosts with real acting chops (Kerry Washington; Edward Norton), Saturday Night Live gets stuck in neutral, though that's not really the fault of a game Lady Gaga.
There's something altogether ungraceful about Lady Gaga, which places the ongoing art-school project on fame that is her career in an interesting light. More polished and she'd be a more uncomplicatedly enjoyable popstress, but every time she makes an ungainly transition onstage or makes a completely dunderheaded, Jo-Calderone-style spectacle of herself, there's at least an implicit acknowledgement that she's making this up as she goes along, and that can be rather exciting. The same, honestly, could be said about Saturday Night Live, which regularly gets shown up for not being as polished as something like Comedy Central's Key & Peele, but which, in all it's bloated, hit-or-miss, cue-card-reading awkwardness, is all the more interesting for the fact that they're essentially winging it for 90 minutes on a Saturday night.
Lady Gaga made for a decent fit as a guest host this week, breaking out a host of silly accents, taking more than her share of opportunities to make fun of herself (hey, when the public says you copy Madonna and may have a penis, you steer into that skid for comedy sometimes), and, perhaps in exchange, finding all sorts of excuses to play her music. Ultimately, it wasn't Gaga who kept this week's episode stuck in a middle ground of amusing-but-not-uproarious. Precious few sketches has the energy of some of the better moments of the last two weeks. Some cast members fared better than others, and a week when we get Jay Pharoah and Nasim Pedrad busting out their Kanye-and-Kim can never be considered a lost cause, but nothing felt indelibly great.
Considering, however, that SNL can often be received by its audience as a competition between cast members -- was this a Vanessa Bayer week or a Kate McKinnon week? -- we've decided to bestow a weekly MVP designation, in order to properly recognize extraordinary performances that rise above, and to better track throughout the season who is bringing it. I think we all know in our hearts that last season was dominated by McKinnon and Cecily Strong, but this year, we can prove that with math!
We ended up with a tie among our runners-up, so we're giving out honors to both Vanessa Bayer and Taran Killam. After a few weeks of settling into a rut of playing bland setup characters, Killam re-asserted himself this week, donning the requisite bad wigs/facial hair to play Adam Duritz in the sketch about terrible cover songs that will never see the light of day, because music rights are a cloud over the land (but they made the weather, and they stand in the rain and say SHIT, IT'S RAININ'). But the real reason Killam finds himself in the MVP race this week is his Weekend Update appearance as Jebidiah Atkinson, bitchy 1860s Presidential speech critic and runaway train of nastiness that even a semi-major flub near the end couldn't derail.
Bayer, meanwhile, only had one real chance to impress, with Spotlightz Acting Camp, a Stagedoor Manor spoof wherein unbearably precocious kid ack-tors ham it up while reenacting scenes from grown-up movies. Bayer's overeager actress had some vocal similarities to Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy, though none of that kid's nervousness about performing.
Lady Gaga, for all her awkwardness, proved to be a game SNL host. Defying expectations, she appeared in nearly every sketch and was more than willing to participate in jokes at her expense. In the cover song sketch, she poked fun at the "Born This Way" vs. "Express Yourself" controversy from a few years ago, which was well-executed and well-placed if not timely. (Also strange considering the Katy Perry vs. Sara Bareilles controversy was only passively mentioned a few weeks ago.) Her best sketch, though, was when she played a desperate, old spinster version of herself. She led Kenan Thompson around her apartment, desperately trying to jog his memory so he'd remember her. It balanced her desperate self-promotion with enough jokes at her expense to work. The sketch ended on one of the saddest notes SNL will air all season.
Hulu pulled her best sketch, of course, so instead here's her strange performance with a surprise guest, R. Kelly:
From his first appearance as Rick Ross performing "Cups" from Pitch Perfect to the very end of the show, Kenan Thompson dominated this episode with a strong veteran performance. He's finally settled into the role Jason Sudeikis occupied last season as a strong utility player supporting sketches without hogging the spotlight, and his turn as Lady Gaga's super in the future only reminded us how desperately we need Jean K. Jean to return to the Update desk. Last night's breakout moment, though, was the pre-taped "Mr. Senior" segment on Weekend Update, the grouchy old man crusading against early Christmas celebrations. Thompson had a strong performance shuffling around like an old man, stealing and crushing candy canes in front of two kids, and shouting at a Salvation Army volunteer and stealing her bell. If this doesn't fill you with Christmas cheer, nothing will.