Sterling K. Brown is the biggest star on the network right now, and has been since "This Is Us" became a juggernaut hit last season. And yet, it took NBC's "Saturday Night Live" this long to book him as host. While it's disappointing that none of his cast-mates showed up in surprise cameos to cheer him on, Brown proved he was more than up to the task of leading a sketch comedy show.
The versatile actor not only brought a few solid impressions of his own to the stage, but his gravitas and "serious actor" credentials added weight and thus comedy to some of the sketches. Dramatic actors often can't cut loose and have fun, but Brown proved that he was have an absolute blast the entire time, and his fun was infectious, even when the sketches weren't the sharpest. All in all, it was a hit-or-miss night, with about half the sketches truly rising to the caliber of the host.
As usual, we're ranking all the sketches from worst to first, including the Cold Open and the regular "Weekend Update" segments. We'll skip the musical guests, because they're not usually funny - unless Ashlee Simpson shows up. We wrap up with a look at the cast-member who had the strongest week.
Black Panther Deleted Scene
Chris Redd took on the role of T'Challa, as he visited with long-dead relatives on the spiritual plane. Kenan Thompsonwas an uncle who married into the family and was a barbecuing, weed-seeking buffoon. And that's about it. If this was the best they could do to play in the "Black Panther" wheelhouse with one of the film's stars as guest, maybe they should have just skipped it altogether. Thompson was game and somewhat fun, but it just didn't work at all. It might have helped if they hadn't put cheese on those patties so he could have actually been flipping them rather than stacking and unstacking them on the grill to fill time.
Rock vs Rap
Kyle Mooney presented another of his cheap-looking videos, this time featuring rock vs. rap. These look like high school A/V club productions, and this one had a clear bias as Mooney talked to mostly generic white people on the streets to see which they liked better. When he got a woman who had something thoughtful to say, he quickly cut away from her. Later, he got some reasoned responses about the power of rap and dismissed them out of hand. Once again, there was the kernel of something funny here, but even the punchline of "rock n' rap" didn't feel earned by anything that had come before.
This sketch never really came together as anything, unless you're a big fan of violence. Mikey Day took a series of beatings and humiliations from a sasquatch while Sterling K. Brown told their fellow campers how normal all of this was. It had the potential to go somewhere, but ultimately just settled for recycling the same basic joke over and over again with Day seeming to get the upper hand and the sasquatch returning to reclaim dominance.
After a quick #MeToo joke to launch into this film sketch, the premise quickly petered out to nothing. After Heidi Gardner refused to read lines for Sterling K. Brown's close-up, Kyle Mooney disparaged actresses over it, and when chastised said, "My bad. You could get away with that last year." It was all downhill from there, as Cecily Strong stepped in to read the lines in a ridiculous accent, but she couldn't say the curse words because of her religious upbringing. The whole sketch is about Brown trying to act dramatically with Strong's tone-deaf, ridiculously-censored line deliveries. It almost worked, and Strong was very funny in her role, but ultimately it just dragged on and became boring.
Steling K. Brown showed up for the final moments of Melissa Villasenor's Mrs. Gomez, but rather than last words she kept breaking out into the opening lines of Nickelback's "How You Remind Me," complete with air drums. Ultimately, this was just a really weird sketch that turned into a Nickelback singalong. And it was built around an old woman dying. It reminded us of the sketch where Smashmouth was hiding in the closet. If only Nickelback had cameoed as the paramedics.
Sterling K. Brown's doctor lost his composure when he found out that Beck Bennett was having sex roughly eight times a week ... with the same woman ... without protection ... and he didn't even love her. He dismissed a cancer call to dig deeper into this, encouraging Bennett to lock it down. The sketch was slight and silly but it absolutely didn't need Brown's declaration that he didn't know how to work a stethoscope at the end. It just deflated what was already only so-so.
MONOLOGUE - Sterling K. Brown
Sterling K. Brown was so excited to be there, he shouted his monologue at the start. The whole bit was about how emotional Brown can get, and he played it beautifully. Simply talking about how much he cherished his TV family on "This Is Us" and what an honor it was to be hosting "SNL" caused him to break down over and over. He even got Leslie Jones to crack a little, but mostly she was there to slap some sense back into him ... who better?
This Is U.S.
All the schmaltz of "This Is Us" set in the White House, with Sterling K. Brown stepping in as Dr. Ben Carson. He did a great job of nailing the quirks that Jay Pharoah built his impression on in years past, but managed to have a little more depth to them. Aidy Bryant returned as Sarah Huckabee Sanders, leaving notes to herself to stop lying, while Pete Davidson was nearly completely out of control as Jared Kushner. Kate McKinnon's Kellyanne Conway brought it home with her complete inability to shed the waterworks. "I can't cry," she said. "There's nothing in me."
Melissa Villasenor brought Sterling K. Brown home to meet her parents, Aidy Bryant and Beck Bennett, but things took a turn for the worse when he laughed at Bryant suggesting "Coco" is the best animated film of all time, when it's so clearly "Shrek." Things continued to escalate until Brown was throwing water on Bennett and challenging him to a fight over an animated movie. All this to set up the surprise that they're getting engaged ... or were. This is the kind of simple and fun premise that "SNL" should do more of. It's not trying to be anything other than funny, and it was sold by the performances of Brown, Bryant and Bennett. Take a simple premise and push it to its most ridiculous extremes, and more importantly, know when to get out.
"It's fitting that a story about the president having an affair with a porn star is struggling to hold our attention," Colin Jost said said as he and Michael Che dove into the political quagmire of the week. Eric (Alex Moffat) and Donald Trump Jr. (Mikey Day) returned to talk about the state of chaos in the White House. Moffat always nails this with his attempts to mimic whatever Day is doing and random truth bombs like "goddamn Jews" about the media. He then completely lost his mind over a popup book and no one was laughing harder than Jost.
Former cast-member Vanessa Bayer then made a surprise return as meteorologist Dawn Lazarus to cover the winter storms slamming the East Coast. She did a great job stringing near nonsense phrases together while never losing her composure or smile. It's ridiculous, but still always funny.
The "Oscars Edition" featured Oscar Winners (Kate McKinnon's Frances McDormand, Beck Bennett's Guillermo Del Toro, Heidi Gardner's Allison Janney, and Chris Redd's Jordan Peele) vs. Losers (Sterling K. Brown's Common, Melissa Villasenor's Sally Hawkins, Alex Moffat's Willem DaFoe, and Pete Davidson's Timothee Chalomet). Possibly the best line of the whole sketch was when Redd's Peele told Kenan Thompson's Steve Harvey, "Sketch comedy is great, but at some point you have to move on, you know?" Thompson is the longest-running "SNL" cast-member of all time in his 15th season, and he was hilarious breaking character with his concerns. "This is like church and school," he lamented when Brown's Common kept dropping spoken word poetry all over the set. These are just a showcase for impressions, but Thompson's through line keeps them sharp and funny.
COLD OPEN - The Bachelor Finale
It's all falling apart in this brilliant parody of that awful "Bachelor" finale. Cecily Strong portrayed Becca K., while Kate McKinnon stepped in as the Bachelor, Robert Mueller. Rather than dump her over feelings and crap, Mueller used this format to tell Becca he could no longer commit to collusion, in fact telling her to prepare for likely six more years of Trump. ""Collusion is literally the only thing I've been looking forward to this past year," Strong said, echoing many Trump opponents. The whole sketch was flawless satire, with both actresses playing up the schmaltzy romance angle, which fits perfect with how sensational and "sexy" everything Trump has become in the media.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Melissa Villasenor had the busiest night, appearing all over the place, but she didn't really cement any of those appearances with anything truly remarkable. She did show she may be a talent to keep an eye on as she settles in. For the first time since we've started doing this, though, we're going to have to declare a tie between Kate McKinnon and Cecily Strong. Both women nailed the "Cold Open" as "Bachelor" Robert Mueller and Becca K., respectively, while Strong cracked us up later as Brown's scene partner and McKinnon nailed another impression as Frances McDormand and brought back Kellyanne Conway.
"Saturday Night Live" returns next week with host Bill Hader and musical guest Arcade Fire, airing live coast-to-coast at 11:35 p.m ET/8:35 p.m. PT.