As we launch more full force into the holiday season, I think we’ve established one thing about the SNL cast and writers: they know the strengths of their current players. This week, I think the weakness fell in figuring out how to work Martin Freeman’s comedic sensibility into this world. What started as an otherwise strong episode fell flat, and it was very clear that the writing worked well for all the other players, but maybe not so much for Martin Freeman, at least in the live sketches. It’s hard for a host to carry an episode that doesn’t quite fit who he is, and we otherwise watched week by week sketches that felt more aligned with the featured hosts, for better or worse. Let’s take a look.
Cold Open: Charlie Rose & CIA Torture. This is by far the smartest written commentary on current affairs this season, next to the Schoolhouse Rock bill. The jokes didn’t have to be knee slappers. Every punch line was genius. Granted, I do think a number of the jokes are more NY-centric (I don’t know how much the rest of America would get the 1-877-Kars-4-Kids as a form of torture, but I most certainly do!) And we tied in autocorrect (You ducking believe it!) and even the Sony hacks as a final jab. Well played, guys.
Monologue: Obviously Martin Freeman isn’t a comedian by trade. This is definitely one of the shortest monologues this season, too. What works for this is we have a simple punchline: an otherwise renown British actor cracks a joke that his American-recognized achievements are the ones that will get him the most attention. It was really great how he cracked a whole joke about an American-fantasized British celebrity hangout. It did fall off a bit with the Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman impressions (I love Taran Killam but his Alan Rickman was a little too awkward-nasally to be accurate or believable) but we got the point. He didn’t need to embellish with anything else. Noble effort. Not fantastic, but not awful.
Best Digital Sketch: The Office: Middle Earth. Here is a near-perfect parody, and Martin Freeman sells it because this seems to be more his jam (not just content-wise, but the fact that it was pre-recorded). The LOTR character pairings with the Office character personas was so spot on, and twisted in fun ways. Gollum as Dwight totally makes sense, and Gandalf as a cheeky Michael Scott was so spot on. This was very elaborate, yes, but clearly we see Martin Freeman in his element, which is nice for an earlier sketch of the night. Even if you’re not a crazy superfan of LOTR, there’s lots to appreciate about how they tie in the two worlds.
I’ll give an honorable mention to Sump’n Clause if only for making a joke out of something we might not often think about – what happens to the “naughty” people on Christmas? It’s so worth it to see Vanessa Bayer go batshit over her boyfriend, and again Martin Freeman worked well here in a pre-recorded sketch flipping out in an office setting.
Best Fake Ad: The St. Joseph’s Christmas Mass Spectacular. Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney’s stamp is all over this homage to a Christian Christmas tradition. Maybe I enjoyed this because I totally get EVERYTHING this sketch is jabbing at. It goes on a little too long, but it was fun to poke at all these little foibles about most church masses. Mad props to Cecily Strong as the over-passionate liturgical reader here.
Worst Sketch: Right Side of the Bed. This was really just a sounding board for a flamboyant couple (played by Taran Killam and Cecily Strong) to make awkward couple-y, sex jokes to each other, and making Martin Freeman act awkward. Nothing really enjoyable here.
The Holiday Gig was also very weird and totally incomplete. It definitely played out like half an idea, and the writers were confused which direction to follow. The idea of Martin Freeman as this mysterious sax player whose dirty laundry is involuntarily being shown to the audience could have been good, but it was like they didn’t know how else to end than with Taran Killam showing up in Kenan’s red boots. It felt more an excuse for Kenan to say weird shit and sing nonsense.
Notable Weekend Update Moments: I wouldn’t say this was a stellar Weekend Update, but I do give props to two new guests they tried out. Sasheer Zamata, whose comedy I had seen otherwise outside SNL, took a shot a la Leslie Jones at her own commentary bit. It was very daring to tackle the emojis and crack jokes about the lack of racially diverse ones. The best part of her bit was her tossing to Michael Che for his input. The One Dimensional Female Character was also a great turn for Cecily Strong as a Weekend Update character. Every line really worked with commenting on the typical supporting female roles in major blockbuster movies. Some of it did feel a bit dated, though, but it still worked.
Players of the Week: This week, I’ll give it up for Cecily Strong and Taran Killam. Outside of being the ones that appeared the most throughout the episode, they gave each of their characters such a fun, distinctive stamp. Cecily went from sassy backup singer to Kenan’s Sump’n Clause to passionate churchgoer, hopeless yet dumb WNBA player, flamboyant Southern-ish talk show wife, and really understated One Dimensional Female character. Taran, even if all his characters didn’t work, just always stands out. His Dwight Shrute-y Gollum killed it.
There was a lot of potential in the writing here, but most scenes fell flat. Again, I think it was just a mismatch of ideas and comedic punches to the host, since this has otherwise been a decent season. Hopefully Amy Adams’ episode will leave us with good tidings into the new year.