Last night was not SNL’s finest hour. The show’s return from a three-week hiatus began with James Toback collaborator Alec Baldwin, who mere hours before was picking a fight on social media with Harvey Weinstein accuser Asia Argento, delivering cracks at Weinstein’s expense in character as Donald Trump. The rough patch continued with a monologue from host Larry David that included material about hitting on women in concentration camps and whether Weinstein is bad for the Jews; while more intentionally provocative than offensive, the humor understandably didn’t go over well with a studio audience looking for easy laughs. And then there were DOA sketches like “New Wife,” the entire premise of which was “Larry David says gay things—and it’s hilarious!”
In between those missteps, however, there was one clear bright spot. We’re now past this season’s early period, the string of shows in which SNL annually welcomes audiences back from the summer by playing the hits. Tellingly, one of last night’s only recurring bits was this eerie sitcom parody from resident Good Neighbor weirdos Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett, a setup last seen on air more than three years ago with host Chris Pratt. (A version with Ryan Gosling was written and staged, but cut for time in 2015.) Instead of more David S. Pumpkins or Kellyanne Conway film parodies, SNL has finally begun to make room for the new, and specifically, its new cast members.
While Luke Null, an unknown and a musical comedian on a show that doesn’t have many natural venues for that style of performance, has been largely MIA, Chris Redd and Heidi Gardner have actually had a surprising amount of screen time for a cast so crowded with newcomers. (The 43rd season marks the second in a row where Lorne Michaels welcomed three new faces to the ensemble at once.) But Gardner and Redd had largely been cast in straight man and woman roles, filling out the supporting roster for sketches built to highlight other, non-featured players. The fourth episode offered a preview of what it’s like when these new faces are actually telling the jokes, not supporting them.
Null remained sidelined apart from a cutaway in a so-so high school newscast sketch. Redd fared slightly better, taking advantage of a brief but memorable opening in the form of one of SNL’s most reliable showcases: the tried-and-true impression-fest of a celebrity game show spoof. This one gave us about 30 seconds of Redd as Lil Wayne competing on The Price Is Right, just enough to demonstrate the possibilities of Kenan Thompson acting as Redd’s mild-mannered companion rather than the other way around. Redd’s best SNL showing yet wasn’t much, but for an actor’s fourth week on a 40-year-old show with 15 coworkers plus Alec Baldwin, it’s a decent start.
Ultimately, it was Gardner who first gave the kind of showing that has the makings of an ongoing franchise. A solid Weekend Update flex isn’t a guarantee of long-term success; just ask recent one-and-done Jon Rudnitsky. But Gardner’s Angel—also known as “Every Boxer’s Girlfriend From Every Movie About Boxing Ever”—arrived much earlier in the season, seeming to win over almost everyone involved: anchors Colin Jost and Michael Che; the audience; and presumably, Lorne Michaels. Like many Update stalwarts, Angel doesn’t need to be explained to us because she’s an exaggerated version of someone we already know, whether a nosy neighbor or a drunk uncle. She’s a long-suffering significant other fed up with the sacrifices her unseen man is making for his career, exasperation Gardner channels into some truly impressive wails. She wears a body-con dress and cheap hairspray. She doesn’t actually tell us, but we already know she’s from Boston.
Angel is simultaneously a full-commitment, joyously over-the-top performance on Gardner’s part and an incisive, well-structured piece of writing. There are catchphrases (“I’m the fighter!”; “I’m taking the kids to my sister’s!”) and an easily accessible grounding in pop culture (Bleed for This was just in theaters last year). She’s an incisive takedown of a stale, lazy archetype, but also a purely enjoyable example of the interplay between host and fake guest that makes Update work. Angel isn’t quite at the levels of Jost and Leslie Jones, a dynamic that also makes an appearance this episode, but Che requesting upbeat news only to remind Angel of some new wrong her boyfriend can’t stop committing is a nice set-and-spike. Angel may be a new face, but it’s easy to see her joining the ranks of Thompson’s “Willie” or Cecily Strong’s “Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party.”
Compared to last year, this hasn’t been the most thrilling season of SNL, which isn’t really a criticism—even the Trump administration comes with an inevitable post-election comedown, and it’s probably for the best that the president has mostly stopped coming after a late-night comedy show on his Twitter account. Together, however, Gardner has demonstrated potential for the best and most consistent kind of thrill SNL can offer: new talent. It’s early yet, but they’re something to keep an eye on that isn’t the strange symbiosis between 30 Rock and the White House.