Saturday Night Live: Oscar Isaac makes for game host in mixed bag episode

The actor performs his duties with gusto in a range of patchy sketches that include a home improvement TV show and a Paw Patrol parody

Saturday Night Live opens on Fox News’s Ukrainian Invasion Celebration Spectacular, hosted by Tucker Carlson (Alex Moffat) and Laura Ingraham (Kate McKinnon), both of whom recently got a lot of heat for their pro-Russian punditry. Carlson kept asking “Why do we hate Putin? Aren’t liberals in America worse?” while Ingraham called the Ukrainian president “pathetic”.

Raising funds for Russian oligarchs affected by the west’s sanctions, the duo introduce a number of special guests, including former president Donald Trump (James Austin Johnson), who mans the phone lines, ranting to a dial tone about Rhianna, whales, bread, beyond burgers and “reboot of Fresh Prince”; as well as naturalized Russian citizen and “puffiest action star in the world” Steven Seagal (Bowen Yang) and “America’s first couple” Kimberly Guilfoyle (Cecily Strong) and Donald Trump Jr (Mikey Day). The latter duo perform a Russian-themed version of Lady Gaga’s Shallow, before Trump Sr sends everyone home with a rendition of Sinatra’s My Funny Valentine dedicated to Vladimir Putin.

As a satirical commentary on the war in Ukraine and American conservatives’ collusion with Putin, the sketch leaves a lot – everything, in fact – to be desired, while the impersonations prove a mixed bag: Moffat does a very good Tucker Carlson, Johnson’s Trump continues to impress and the show’s depiction of Don Jr as a pathetic cokehead is a vast improvement over its former presentation of him as the smarmy brains of the family; but McKinnon’s Ingraham and Bowen’s Seagal are utterly bland and immediately forgettable.

Actor Oscar Isaac hosts for the first time. The “ethnically ambiguous” star – real name Oscar Isaac Hernández Estrada (“I said to Hollywood, you can pick two of these names. Guess what they went with? The white ones”) – is excited to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe with his upcoming series Moon Knight. This leads him to reminisce about his very first film, The Avenger – not Marvel’s The Avengers, but a surprisingly bloody home movie he and his buddy shot in their backyards when they were 10 years old. We get to watch clips of the young Isaac practicing Kung Fu, violently dispatching his masked nemesis and licking blood off a prop sword, a scene he recreates on the studio 8H stage.

In his first sketch, Isaac plays a politician attempting to recall the mayor of Adventure Bay, the fictional city that the popular kids’ show Paw Patrol is set in. Using testimony from concerned citizens and 9/11 recordings, he blasts the mayor’s Paw Patrol initiative, which “fired all of our city’s police officers, fire fighters and paramedics and replaced them with a group of six talking dogs”. It’s a chuckle-worthy, but also one-note premise, although Isaac’s bizarre accent and intentionally stunted delivery, along with a good last-minute reveal about his relationship to the mayor, keeps things entertaining.

Next, Chloe Fineman finds inspiration in the Netflix series Inventing Anna. Adopting the high fashion sense, ambiguous European accent and icy confidence of convicted con artist Anna Delvey, she runs up an expense on a poor page’s dime, berates her co-workers, and steals high-profile roles – including President Biden from Austin and Weekend Update hosting duties – for herself. However popular Inventing Anna is, it’s hardly a pop cultural phenomenon, so I’d bet that a large number of viewers were probably left completely cold by this very specific parody.

Isaac and Strong play the world’s worst HR representatives, holding an annual harassment seminar at a pharmaceutical company. They test the staff on the appropriateness of blatantly offensive scenarios (one example sees an employee ask their co-worker, “Hey N-word, are you going to the gym later? Or am I gonna have to drag your thick ass there myself?”) and aggressively detailing their own sexual relationship – the words “raw intercourse” get thrown around a lot – before revealing that they’re not actually HR representatives, but performers from a performance group called It Could Be Worse. There are a few laughs throughout, but it’s all very convoluted, especially an unnecessary stinger that reveals the whole scene is from a workplace sitcom.

A hot date between a new couple (Sarah Sherman and Chris Redd) takes a turn for the bizarre when Redd’s character asks Sherman’s why she always wears a green ribbon around her neck. After begging him not to let it change the way he sees her, she removes the ribbon to reveal a singing and dancing “little meatball guy” growing out the side of her neck. Redd is initially cool with the deformity, until she reveals she has musical meatballs growing all over her body. Together, they harmonize and perform a trippy little ditty and, with the help of musical guest Charli XCX, a sad piano ballad. Those familiar with Sherman prior to her time on SNL know that she made a name for herself performing surreal, body horror comedy. This sketch isn’t as disturbing as her earlier work, but it’s still good to see Sherman letting her freak flag fly.

On Weekend Update, the hosts discuss the war in Ukraine and its ramifications on American politics, with Colin Jost describing Senator Lindsey Graham’s suggestion that Russian citizens should assassinate Vladimir Putin as “a shocking, disgusting example of Lindsey Graham kind of being right about something”.

Jost then welcomes McKinnon to the desk to comment on the Texas senate’s passing of the horrendous Don’t Say Gay Bill. Assuming the bill bans the use of the word gay as pejorative in schools, she’s initially in favor of it. But when Jost informs her that it actually bans “acknowledging gay at all”, she tries to make sense of the law’s purpose: “So, like, one kid can say ‘I live with my parents,’ but another one has to say ‘I live in a house with two adult men who bought me when I was young’?”

She is followed by Pauline, a Weary Mother in Her Darkest Hour (Ego Nwodim). Ostensibly on to discuss Rhianna’s high-profile pregnancy, Pauline runs through a litany of her own trials and tribulations: “I’ve had babies before, but this my worst pregnancy yet. It’s making me want to eat all kinds of things – pickles, peanut butter, the barrel of a shotgun.” No one in the cast plays hilariously weary and defeated as well as Nwodim.

Aidy Bryant introduces the next sketch, which she was given free rein to write in order to show a new side of herself (her reward for playing over 150 “teachers, principals, mothers, women named Dianne, Susan or Teacher”). In The Sexual Woman, Bryant plays a seductress swooned over by Isaac at his most over-the-top dashing. Between the actual sketch – involving a spaghetti dinner and lots of “boner” talk – and various breakings of the fourth wall (including cuts to Bryant’s pre-recorded video message), it’s another case of too many things going on at once. It also very much wants to make a statement about the types of roles certain women get to play, and while it never gets didactic, it also never gets funny.

In Over Your Head is a home improvement talk show featuring “folks who got a little overconfident taking on projects around the house”. Host Gus (Kenan Thompson) interviews Tommy (Kyle Mooney), who tried to build his own pool to save some money, only to puncture his septic tank; Felix (Isaac, doing a believably lispy Latin accent) who, while attempting to install his own circuit breaker, electrocuted himself so badly that he had an out of body experience and realized “there’s no God”; and finally, Gus’s long-suffering wife Clarissa (Nwodim, naturally), who reveals that their own home – as well as their home life – is falling apart due to his idiocy and incompetence.

The show closes out with a sketch set in a fiction writing workshop. Isaac plays a shy, bookworm janitor invited to join in on the class and read some of his own writing. His story starts out as an elegant work of autofiction, before it turns the corner into creepy erotic fantasy centered around pop star Dua Lipa, much to the discomfort of the women in the class and the interest of the men.

Although an uneven episode on the whole, this week’s SNL had slightly more ups than downs. If there weren’t any big standout moments, neither were there any big embarrassments. Isaac made a game host, throwing himself into his parts with noticeable gusto. The show would be wise to bring him back soon, as he has a real knack for comedy. Meanwhile, SNL remains on the (gradual) upswing.


Zach Vasquez

The GuardianTramp

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