SNL Couldn’t Be Bothered

In its penultimate episode of the season, the show delivered a sleepy collection of surface-level sketches.

Selena Gomez hosts 'SNL.'
Whatever steam had propelled recent standout episodes dissipated. (Will Heath / NBC)

Playing a prince tasked with choosing a bride from among three princesses on Saturday Night Live last night, Mikey Day asked a question that turned out to define the episode well: “Okay, is that it?” He raised the inquiry in a sketch poking fun at the rule of three in folklore. His options included a beautiful princess and a smart princess, which meant that something had to have been wrong with the third princess. The prince kept waiting for some unexpected twist, but each princess kept her answers brief—and bland—in the buildup to the quick prop gag that concluded the scene. The colorless bit highlighted SNL’s recent difficulty with developing memorable sociocultural comedy alongside timelier fare.

Throughout this season, the show has struggled to find the humor in newsworthy matters, like the Oscars slap. Yet at times it has managed to sharpen its efforts on evergreen sketches that have been either refreshingly layered or genuinely delightful. With the penultimate episode of its 47th season, though, SNL delivered a sleepy collection of surface-level sketches content to aim for the obvious. Whatever steam had propelled recent standout episodes, such as the ones hosted by Jake Gyllenhaal and Benedict Cumberbatch, dissipated. Last night, the show felt closer to one big yawn.

SNL updated Netflix’s Japanese reality show Old Enough!, in which toddlers run errands on their own. But because that plot wouldn’t translate in the U.S., according to the spin-off show’s host, SNL turned it into a gender spoof by sending long-term boyfriends out instead. The setup drew a clear parallel between young children and grown men whose lengthy relationships had coddled them, teasing out a boyfriend’s inability to follow instructions or make his way in the world without his partner’s help. The commentary felt a little too easy, as though the writers didn’t seem interested in pushing the premise, or punch lines, in a more compelling direction, as they did earlier this season with “Man Park,” a scene in which beleaguered girlfriends dropped off their boyfriend at a park to make friends.

Part of the problem with yesterday’s episode may have stemmed from the first-time host, Selena Gomez. As the wry Millennial character on Hulu’s true-crime comedy series Only Murders in the Building, she offsets Steve Martin and Martin Short’s senior-age vitality with sardonic realism. But her demeanor last night, oscillating between quiet politeness or chilled disregard, didn’t map neatly onto the range of character work that SNL typically requires.

Still, SNL didn’t give Gomez too much heavy lifting. A brief blip of a sketch titled “Guidance Counselors” concluded shortly after it began, with little in the way of setup or purpose. Two high-school guidance counselors, played by Ego Nwodim and Bowen Yang, encouraged graduating seniors to model instead of pursue loftier endeavors. In an effort to further their agenda, they brought out a 2017 graduate (Gomez) who’d gone on to model and could do “80 poses in five seconds.” The conceit, about giving students the exact opposite advice they’re used to hearing, reached for evident, lackluster jokes. Learning that one girl at the gathered assembly was 17, Gomez’s model lifelessly said, “That’s perfect. Stay that age forever.”

The episode’s low-key tone worked well for “A Peek at Pico,” a talk show set in Pico Rivera, California. The show’s hosts, Vanessa (Melissa Villaseñor) and Sofia (Gomez), refused to let any segment or guest’s story fully develop, cutting off each one with one of two comments: “That’s sad” or “That’s good.” The sketch felt like a cross between the classic “Bronx Beat” and the jewelry commercial “Hoops,” which both smartly explored neighborhood-specific personalities. In this case, Gomez’s reserved, indifferent delivery enhanced the talk show’s aimless attitude.

The sketch with the most potential, and energy, came at the very end. It featured Sarah Sherman, who earlier during “Weekend Update” seemed determined to inject some life into the evening when she continued her ongoing roast of Colin Jost—this time as a field correspondent. In the final bit, Sherman and Yang played twin babies who, watched over by their teenage sister (Gomez) and her friends on a baby monitor, put on a wild show made funnier because of the life-size crib the two adult comedians inhabited. The sketch was animated and absurd thanks to Yang and Sherman, two of the show’s most distinctively funny cast members. But like “Guidance Counselors,” it ended before it could fully unfurl.

It’s undoubtedly been a trying season for SNL, including an interrupted Christmas episode, when Paul Rudd hosted a particularly empty show because the Omicron variant forced most of the cast to stay home, and news headlines too serious to mock. With one episode to go, last night’s diminished energy and half-hearted sketch work revealed that the show, like so many of us these days, is limping to the finish line.