After a holiday hiatus, “Saturday Night Live” returned slightly refurbished, with Sasheer Zamata as one of the most high-profile cast additions in recent memory as well as new writers LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones, who joined the team after a push by “SNL” to diversify its cast and writing room.
Rapper and former “Degrassi: The Next Generation” star Drake was an ideal guest host with whom the new writers could play. Former child actors such as Drake, Lindsay Lohan, Justin Bieber and Britney Spears are typically proficient hosts, thanks to years of experience in front of the camera and working with writers, and an ability to act silly and look comfortable doing it.
Instead of being stuck playing the straight man the way less-experienced hosts often are, Drake jumped in from the get-go, playing Alex Rodriguez in the cold open, who on “Piers Morgan Tonight” was blaming everyone but himself for his problems, planning on suing steroids “for being inside of me” and Jackie Robinson “for breaking into the major leagues, which really led to this whole situation in the first place.”
Drake was able to combine his hip-hop experience and acting background in several sketches, which helped serve as a salvo for the fresh point of view reflected in the writing room. In his monologue, he reflected on his background as a man of mixed race who is also Jewish, performing a “best of both worlds” rap at his bar mitzvah (Sample lyric: “Please don't forget I'm black, please don't forget I'm Jewish/I play ball like LeBron and I know what a W-2 is.”) Drake also rapped in a video called “Resolution Revolution,” about our best New Year's intentions gone wrong.
In “Hip-Hop Classics Before They Were Stars,” the cast took on a range of hip-hop stars from Eminem to Rick Ross, as they appeared in classic TV shows. Drake played Lil’ Wayne as Urkel on “Family Matters” and took over Jay-Z duties from Jay Pharoah in “Mr. Wizard,” while Zahara played a toking, crotch-patting Rihanna in the opening credits of “Blossom.” (This sketch probably only made sense to a very specific number of people who were born between about 1978 and 1984.)
Drake also did one more celebrity impression, giving his all as a memorable Katt Williams in a Nancy Grace sketch about the issues of the legalization of marijuana (how exactly Katt Williams and Nancy Grace came to be tied together in a sketch, though, is not clear.)
Drake’s enthusiasm and the excitement of the new additions to the show, however, were watered down by some less-potent sketches, such as one in which Aidy Bryant played an overgrown child crushing on her best friend’s dad, and another in which Nasim Pedrad portrayed a clueless, non-English-speaking tourist at a Disneyland attraction for what felt like an unnecessarily long time.
Because of this, the whole was not greater than the sum of its parts: Arguably the funniest part of the episode, after all, was Kate McKinnon’s impression of an ever-posing Justin Bieber, and that occurred in the cold open.
But although the episode may not be remembered for its consistent laughs, it seemed to promise two things: that someone besides Justin Timberlake is able to serve handily as guest and musical host, and that Lorne Michaels is making sure that the new voices on “SNL” will be given the screen time to make themselves heard.
“SNL” returns live next week with Jonah Hill as host and Bastille as musical guest.
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