Natasha Lyonne demonstrates a true cosmic connection to SNL in its season finale

Natasha Lyonne Saturday Night Live

Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews

Clad in a black catsuit, Saturday Night Live host Natasha Lyonne strode onto the stage of Studio 8H like she owned the place. The long-burning comic gem — an underrated presence for decades, now the star of Russian Dollhad the right. A former child actor and native New Yorker, Lyonne said she considered SNL “Her chosen family” (she has professional alliances with veterans Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph, and dated Fred Armisen for seven years). Lyonne’s confidence, energy, and timing were dynamite from minute one. Unfortunately, the writing sort of collapsed on her about halfway through the evening (thankfully, it rebounded a bit). Although ultimately Lyonne didn’t quite get a Benedict Cumberbatch level of showcases for her talents on the episode, in fairness, four longtime cast members announced their departures this week, and the show needed to accommodate their goodbyes. Still, Lyonne made a strong impression — in at least one case, a season-best — and SNL would be well served to have her back ASAP.

What killed

Lyonne’s monologue was well written and perfectly delivered. It not only ran through her extensive résumé (from Pee-Wee’s Playhouse to the cult favorite But I’m a Cheerleader) but went to revelatory places about her life. Lyonne zinged her current starring role on Netflix’s Russian Doll (“Two things you definitely want to be associated with right now — Russia and Netflix”) and SNL itself (“I love… people who’ve done the same thing since the ’70s). Bonus points for Armisen (with whom she starred in a sex tape “no one wanted to buy”) and Rudolph showing up to do their impressions of her distinctive voice. A nice touch: Lyonne ended by noting her battle with drug addiction and said, “There’s always a reason to get back in the ring and fight another day.” This was a great piece of writing from start to finish, precision-crafted, and Lyonne’s delivery made it the best monologue of the season (and perhaps a few).

As the host of “50s Baseball Broadcast” Who’s been prescribed meth to quash a cold, Lyonne worked overtime to sell this one — her physicality, energy and delivery made Mikey Day (master of the disbelieving reaction) seem almost snoozy. It’s a little disconcerting when an SNL premise recalls I Love Lucy, but, hey, it worked. Lyonne’s old-time radiohead is hopped up and can’t stop calling home runs when they’re not, dishing on players (accusing one of being an alcoholic and Babe Ruth of eating a baby), and spiraling into dirty jokes (“How do” you fit four hookers on a chair? ”) The sketch was clearly tailored to Lyonne’s persona and abilities, and she soared with it.

In “After High School,” Andrew Dismukes plays a guy looking back through the mists of time to recall his classmates at his prom 20 years ago. It’s a good comic setup and structure, always circling back to Rachel Finnster (Lyonne), a never-ending source of trouble, up to and including homicide. The burns on various classmates are good: Finnster married a miner — a coal miner who was 16; and the guy who followed his dreams — which were only about killing his grandparents. The show has mined this dark millennial Borscht Belt territory successfully before (see “Maid of Honor”), and this was equally amusing.

What bombed

So: What I said last week about it being exciting to see SNL venture into physical comedy? Let’s maybe walk that back a bit. The argument against: “Mr. Dooley, “ a mashup of Nine to Five and Weekend at Bernie’s that was ill-conceived and clumsily executed. It cast Lyonne as a boorish boss who is shot dead by secretary Heidi Gardner and must be propped up by her and her compatriots (Cecily Strong, Ego Nwodim) for a stockholder meeting. The whole thing seemed designed to make the actors break. Lyonne (a stage-trained pro) largely resisted, despite two instances of her co-stars literally tickling her. This seemed almost sadistic. Worse, it wasn’t funny. And by having Lyonne assume the persona of another New Yawky dude, it suggested the writers didn’t bring enough ideas to the table this week.

The goodbyes

On Friday, news broke that at least four SNL Veterans are leaving the show after this episode, including Kate McKinnon, Aidy Bryant, Pete Davidson, and Kyle Mooney. It’s unusual for so many departures to be announced at once, ahead of the season finale. The advantage of the forewarning is that veterans could get their own sendoffs. “Final Encounter Cold Open” revisits a franchise sketch for McKinnon, about a trio of people being interviewed after they were taken and probed by aliens, two of whom were much better treated than McKinnon’s character. Although this is a premise that’s ready to be retired, the performances were strong — watch Lyonne steadfastly refusing to break a la Ryan GoslingTheand the twist was clever: the government trades McKinnon to the aliens, ending their visits. She got a little choked up at the end, and it was poignant when she said, “Thanks for letting me stay awhile.” McKinnon’s been a key part of the show for a decade and deservedly won two Best Supporting acting Emmys for it (the only cast member to do so).

The repeat “Weekend Update” segment “Trend Forecasters” only ranks among the show’s best as a reminder of the reliability and dimension Aidy Bryant brought to the show. Often cast in mother / wife / authority figure roles, she elevated every single one. In the 1985 Saturday Night Live biography, writer Michael O’Donoghue said that Jane Curtin supplied an underrated “icy Tippi Hedren quality” to the original cast, a take on the straight woman that bolstered its comic mix. Bryant provided a similar vital tension with her talent for almost nuclear slow burns and disbelief, and her wackier characters (like the one here) consistently scored. And as with Phil Hartman, if you saw Bryant in a sketch, you knew a fundamental piece of it was going to work and be surprising.

Pete Davidson popped up on “Update” —appropriate, as that’s where he’s made his most impact — to serve some strong slams, self-directed and otherwise, a reminder of why he had a place on the show for eight seasons. He was reliably dependable for a no-bullshit line. Here, he commemorates himself as “white… and became hugely successful despite never showing up to work,” and a symbol for SNL Hopefuls as proof that “literally anyone can be on that show.” His goodbye leveled some good burns at Fox News and Colin Jost, and was partly a valentine to executive producer Lorne Michaels, who Davidson considers a father figure (and will be producing his upcoming sitcom Bupkis).

A paean to a certain stripe of art teachers, librarians, and men who spend significant time in vans and on their beard hygiene, the “Women’s Commercial” for gray adult pigtails nailed a demographic of people who used to be called old hippies and are now (gulp) younger than that. This pitch to the artistic / eccentric elder was precisely observed and landed a number of LOLs. Choice lines: “You never stopped smoking pot — so why should your hair?” and “I look how incense smells.” The sketch was also somewhat of a goodbye showcase for Mooney (nice catch there), who brought SNL an adult-pigtailed misfit energy that was unique and real.

Also worth discussing

As “PSA ” got going, I thought, you’re in danger here, SNL—You’ve gotta get up pretty early in the morning to compete with “Extremely Stupid,” a classic from the first five years and one of the best examples of improv I’ve ever seen. But compete they did: There’s a twist, and it’s clever, and it’s true. Lyonne was great here as someone outside the New York metro (as she was in “Final Encounter”), and the show should’ve given her a chance to stretch more in place of the Nine to Five parody.

Stray observations

  • “PSA” and “Women’s Commercial” might indicate there’s a commercial-parody renaissance brewing at SNL. Bring it on.
  • The announced departures were on one hand unsurprising — all four departing cast members have spent more than eight seasons with the show — yet surprising, as Lorne Michaels had said he hoped to keep the cast together through the 50th anniversary in 2024.
  • But this is not catastrophic news; the show can handle these goodbyes. The overstuffed 21-person cast was depriving a deep bench of talent of the airtime they deserve. In recent weeks, SNL has been giving more time to Chloe Fineman and Melissa Villaseñor, in particular, and they’ve excelled. They would have broken out sooner if the company had been smaller.
  • Will “Weekend Update” return intact? It’s unclear. SNL Usually waits until August to announce personnel moves, and further cast changes would not be unprecedented. Jost and Che are the longest-running anchor team in SNL history, but several uninspired weeks this season (including tonight’s) indicate it may be time for a change. The duo’s heirs apparently aren’t obvious. (But are they ever?) Some have suggested (the very talented) correspondent Sarah Sherman might be a good fit, but I think she works best for the show as an intermittent agent of chaos.
  • And that’s the season. Thanks for reading. Enjoy the summer.

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