SSaturday Night Live returns from holiday hiatus with an NFL on Fox postgame roundtable discussion. Hosts Curt Menefee (Kenan Thompson), Howie Long (Mikey Day), Jimmy Johnson (James Austin Johnson), Michael Strahan (Devon Walker), Terry Bradshaw (Molly Kearney), and the newly sentient dancing robot mascot welcome their new star reporter, “Heisman trophy winner” George Santos (Bowen Yang).
The huckster representative from New York attempts to take credit for the Philadelphia Eagle’s victory, running down his “36 completions … 12 touchdowns, 17 rebounds and 10 RBIs,” while also denying reports that he used to don drag when he lived in Florida. Once the hosts realize that every word coming out of his mouth is a lie, they cut away from him, but he quickly shows back up as his drag queen alter ego, Kitara Ravache.
As a skewering of Santos – who, let’s face it, is beyond ridicule – it’s not particularly sharp, but by focusing on the congressman exclusively, it makes for a far stronger cold open than the standard news show template that tries to cram a week’s worth of headlines into a five-minute sketch.
Aubrey Plaza hosts for the first time. Fresh off memorable turns in the new season of HBO’s The White Lotus and acclaimed indie thriller Emily the Criminal, the actor celebrates having recently been voted the most famous person from her home state of Delaware. She even managed to beat out President Biden, who shows up – via a prerecorded message – to congratulate her.
She then reminisces about her time working as an NBC page, donning her old page jacket, and leading us on a backstage tour of Studio 8H, where she runs into former Parks and Recreation co-star Amy Poehler. A literal victory lap and a well deserved one at that, Plaza feels right at home both backstage and front of stage.
At the Miss Universe pageant—”one of several shows still on the air where we rank women”—the seven finalists remind viewers what country they represent by screeching its name at the top of their lungs (Plaza plays the French contestant from the viral video the sketch is parodying). What threatens to be a dire one-joke affair is redeemed by Plaza’s weirdo energy, Kearney’s very funny non-sequitur about dying in a skydiving accident, and surprise cameos from both Property Brothers and a very excited Tony Hawk.
SNL finally bucks the noticeable trend of refusing to parody the host’s latest projects with a commercial for HBO’s new series, Black Lotus (“All the decadence, all the intrigue, none of the foolishness”). The wealthy, spoiled tourists of White Lotus – including characters played by Jennifer Coolidge (Chloe Fineman) and Michael Imperioli (Johnson) – find themselves butting up against a no-nonsense, all Black (save Plaza’s fiery Latina) staff that refuses to indulge their nonsense.
Next, at a cul-de-sac game night, a group of neighbors welcomes the new couple that’s moved next door. But a friendly game of Taboo reveals them to be violent psychopaths. There’s no real escalation and it all peters out in short order.
At a Catholic high school, head nuns Sister Clarence and Sister Cecelia (Kearney and Plaza) welcome students back from the three-day MLK Day break. The usually wacky Cecelia is all frayed nerves, eventually revealing that over the weekend “A hairdryer accidently fell into the bathtub while I was in it. I died for two minutes and now I’m questioning everything. She furiously renounces her faith and embraces sin, before Sister Clarence wins her back with a rendition of Lady Gaga’s Shallow (a call back to an earlier joke). The premise is solid enough, but the writers can’t figure out how to run with it, nor how to wrap it up.
A trailer for M3gan 2.0 embraces the popular new horror villain’s status as a new queer icon by setting the sequel in a gay club. M3gan star Allison Williams shows up to put a stop to things, only to change course and embrace the fun after all the clubgoers fawn over her for having “her as ate” on Girls.
George Santos pops up yet again, this time intruding upon Weekend Update pretending to be a nuclear fusion expert. Colin Jost isn’t buying it, and grills Santos over his lies about working at Goldman Sacks (“I filled the gold man-sacks”), his mom dying in 9/11 (“I think I said 7-11”), and being Jewish (“I said Jew-ishwhich is honestly, icon-ic”). Santos never cops to the truth, and ends up adding to his list of fabrications. Probably Yang’s best turn on the show yet, it’s also a welcome case of SNL letting a bit play out over the course of half an episode.
Later, Plaza joins the desk as her moody, smart-ass Parks and Recreation character April Ludgate. There to talk about the job market, she can’t be bothered by Jost’s questions, so she turns things over to her boss, Leslie Knope. But the sunny Knope would rather pick Jost’s brain about his job (Poehler gets a big laugh when she talks about watching Update “when Seth Meyers did it by himself with no one else”). She briefly takes the reins herself, delivering a groaner about a dog bus service. A fun return for the characters, as well as Poehler to Update.
We then find ourselves in the world of Pandora, as a group of Navi commiserate over rumors of humans living among their tribe disguised as Avatars. It’s very obvious to everyone except leader Jake Sully (Day) that the spies are two members who are clearly “butch ladies from Arizona” (Heidi Gardner and Plaza).
This is followed by Sam Smith’s performance of a Gregorian chant number, which they perform with the help of a full robed chorus and a dramatically recumbent (and silent) Sharon Stone of all people. It’s about as close to a piece of performance art as any SNL musical number has been in recent memory (if not ever). wild stuff.
Then, Plaza plays a TV director shooting a commercial for the HIV treatment Lovato. Things get off track when one of the actors keeps ad-libbing his lines to make it clear that he’s not gay (“Fact: you can get HIV from a girl – that’s how I did it”). It’s another case where a good, edgy setup is hampered by a lack of narrative focus, with this one noticeably sputtering out during its conclusion.
Luckily, the show goes out on a much stronger note with a scene from an old black-and-white mystery movie that sees Johnson’s hardboiled PI accuse Plaza’s sultry widow of murdering several aged husbands. As it turns out, they all died of natural causes, and she just has a thing for the kind old man who “never uses his turn signal and screams at racoons in his yards.” Johnson and Plaza are both highly adept at delivering the rapid-fire noir dialog, with a cameoing Stone adding to the meta-fun of it all.
Between the sheer star wattage on display in this episode, Smith’s go-for-broke performance, and Plaza’s ace hosting – she wasn’t just a natural, she made it seem like she’d done this a dozen times before – this turned out to be a surprisingly excellent return, the best episode of the season so far by a wide margin. But more than that, it was also the most rounded SNL has felt in years, thanks to the use of George Santos as a through line, as well as an overriding focus on queer humor. Hopefully, this speaks to a new sense of focus for the show.