Neither rain nor snow nor a literal blizzard shutting down most of New York City could’ve stopped Saturday Night Live from going on at 11:30 p.m. ET. With most of Manhattan holed up in their apartments, the cast of SNL allowed NBC to take a break from its around-the-clock storm coverage to instead air Ronda Rousey’s decent but largely forgettable debut.
Rousey’s had a long and successful MMA career, but it’s really been her fights over the past few months with Bethe Correia and Holly Holm that have transformed her into a household name. (This marked one of Rousey’s first public appearances since she was defeated by Holm, and Rousey gave a very classy shout-out to her opponent in the monologue.)
But as her star has risen, Rousey has signed on to star in some high-profile movie projects, including an adaptation of her own autobiography (which she’ll star in), a remake of the 1989 Patrick Swayze classic Road House, and a new comedy with Tina Fey, written by former SNL scribe Paula Pell. Rousey seems to be making a straight-up bid for movie stardom, which is why her SNL debut was an opportunity for her to prove her worth as an actor and/or comedian. Sure, she’s had minor roles in things like Entourage, The Expendables 3, and Furious 7, but this should’ve been her chance to prove that she could carry an entire episode of television — as a star.
Instead, SNL took an overly cautious approach, relying heavily on pre-taped bits, and in many of the live sketches, Rousey barely spoke 15 words, if at all. For some hosts, that’s not always a bad thing, and SNL often takes this approach when non-actors (mainly athletes) visit Studio 8H. But Michael Phelps and Peyton Manning weren’t trying to launch a movie career. Rousey is.
Rousey’s star moment came pretty early in the night, and her monologue was one of the few times SNL allowed her to take center stage. Like all hosts without live TV experience, she leaned heavily on the cue cards, but if we’re grading on a non-actor curve, Rousey was actually pretty charming and capable. The show treated her monologue as a high-stakes fight, with Taran Killam and Beck Bennett serving as commentators. Coach Kenan Thompson encouraged her to go for the guaranteed crowd-pleasers, like shout-outs to New York City, Kate McKinnon/Justin Bieber cameos, and a musical finale by Selena Gomez. (A little bummed that “Bieber” and Gomez didn’t actually appear together on screen, and it felt like a missed opportunity.)
Still, aside from her monologue, Rousey didn’t make much of an impression, and some of the night’s most memorable moments didn’t feature her at all, like…
Tina Fey endorsing Donald Trump
Even though Sarah Palin hadn’t been in the news for a while, the show had no qualms about Tina Fey reprising her most famous impression when she hosted in December, so now that Palin’s actually relevant again, there’s no way Fey wouldn’t have showed up this weekend, blizzard be damned. Palin’s bizarre endorsement of Donald Trump this week has been mocked by everyone from Stephen Colbert to The New York Times, but no one gets at the heart of Alaska’s former governor like Fey. The writers didn’t even have to do much, as Fey just recited parts of Palin’s strange speech word for word. “I hope nobody’s allergic to nuts ‘cause we got a big one here,” Darrell Hammond (as Trump) proclaimed.
Still, it is a bit disappointing that some of the best political impressions in SNL’s arsenal right now don’t belong to current cast members. In fact, the big political impression of this election season belongs to Larry David, who’ll be bringing his Bernie Sanders back when he hosts in two weeks. I’ll never complain about an appearance from David/Sanders, Fey/Palin, or Hammond/Trump, but it’d be nice to see some current cast members land a breakout political impression, too.
(Also, props to the SNL costume department for nailing Palin’s sparkly fringe jacket.)
SNL took on the Oscars diversity controversy with the “Screen Guild Awards,” recognizing exclusively white actors over their black costars, no matter how minor their role. It’s a pretty straightforward parody, but pitch-perfect imitations of films like Creed, Straight Outta Compton, and Beasts of No Nation, bolstered by some excellent side-eye from Michael Che, Leslie Jones, and Jay Pharoah in the audience, made this one a winner. The voiceover at the end — “Coming up next, the award for best male director” — was the cherry on top.
You can’t have Ronda Rousey stop by without taking advantage of her MMA skills, and this pre-taped piece positioned her as a high school girl set up to be humiliated by her classmates, Carrie-style. Vanessa Bayer was at the top of her game as the queen bee of South Joffrey High, refusing to drop her mean girl nastiness even after getting punched in the face, and Kate McKinnon’s delivery of “Say hi — TO THE WHOLE SCHOOL” might’ve been the best two seconds of the entire episode.
SNL skewered The Bachelor this time last year when Blake Shelton hosted, and while that fake dating show offered the chance to fall in love with Shelton’s Farm Hunk, Bland Man focuses on Taran Killam as Dan, who’s from “Chicago or Denver or something.” Like the Oscars sketch, it never goes beyond just basic parody, but each of the “long-haired women” got at least one big laugh, from the girl who loves to laugh because she used to be in a “really bad cult” to “the black one,” who gets to stay another week but only because she has a tragic backstory.
Bland Man wasn’t the only recurring sketch of the night, and oddly, the show decided to bring back the teacher-student sex trial sketch from Taraji P. Henson’s episode last year. The sketch sets up Pete Davidson as a 16-year-old seduced by his teacher, and the first time it ran, it was met with some major criticism for making light of such a serious situation. (Many pointed out that if the genders had been switched, there’s no way this one would’ve made it on the air.) SNL is no stranger to controversy, and in the past, it’s delivered some of its strongest sketches based on some pretty icky premises. But this isn’t all that funny of a sketch to begin with, and it feels even more lifeless the second time around.
Musical moment: Selena Gomez
Gomez popped up both in Rousey’s monologue and as Bland Man contestant Selena Gomez, who was conceived during the second season of the show, but she took the spotlight with her two musical performances off her album Revival. She kicked off the night with a mash-up of “Good for You” and “Same Old Love,” recruiting a group of bearded men in black turtlenecks to just sit in a semicircle and snap, before giving a sultry performance of “Hands to Myself.”
See you in two weeks, when Larry David returns as Bernie Sanders with musical guest The 1975.