Pedro Pascal makes a promising debut as host

Saturday Night Live opens with MSNBC’s latest news report on the downing of China’s spy balloon. A Pentagon official (Kenan Thompson) joins the news desk and answers questions, including how he violated US airspace (“The balloon was somehow able to get past our West Coast anti-balloon defense system, the Seattle Space Needle”).

Later, the balloon himself (Bowen Yang) joins the show from the ocean, very bitter about his treatment (“I entertain you for four days and then get shot by Biden? I can’t believe I was Joe’s Osama!”) and Americans’ hypocrisy about surveillance (“Everyone is under constant surveillance, but it’s always ‘Blast the balloon!’ and never ‘Unplug Alexa!'”). A frothy piece of silliness befitting a story blown out of proportion (no pun intended).

Pedro Pascal is hosting for the first time. The Last of Us star talks about starring in big franchise hits like Game of Thrones and The Mandalorian (“The other day a man stopped me in the street and said, ‘My son loves the Mandalorian,’ and next thing I know, I Facetime a six-year-old who has no idea who I am because my character wears a mask the whole show”), his Chilean upbringing (“Every day in Santiago, someone sends me things like, ‘Do you want to come to my wedding?’, or ‘Do you want to can you sing my priest happy birthday?”, or “Is Baby Yoda mean in real life?””), and early roles on Law & Order, including one where he played a Hasidic Jew. The actor briefly chokes when he talks about how his parents fled Pinochet’s government when he was just a baby. It is clear that he is passionate about his role as a host.

The Big Hollywood Quiz is a game show where contestants compete against each other in showbiz-based trivia. Early questions about All About Eve and MASH prove easy, but once we get to 2020s entertainment like Netflix’s Ginny & Georgia, Apple TV’s The Last Days of Ptolemay Gray, and the Oscar-nominated Women Talking and To Leslie, everyone’s totally insane. A very clever and astute look at how the streaming era has left a giant, empty crater at the center of American popular culture.

Hoping to emulate the success of The Last of Us, HBO is turning another hit video game into a prestigious drama with a gritty, dystopian twist on Mario Kart. With some major CGI (by SNL standards), it’s a pretty piss-take on the host’s new hit series, as well as the tired trend of grim reboots and reimaginings, though the show did better three years ago with the Grouch (Joker parody) trailer.

Next, Pascal plays a coma patient who has just awakened from a miraculous recovery with a new, fey voice (“an LA mush-mouth thing”) and an all-new personality. He doesn’t recognize any of his friends or family, but the Doctor is confident he’s fine as he can answer confusing riddles and questions about Ken dolls and Bill Burr. It’s all built around Pascal’s silly voice, which, to be fair, he’s totally committed to, though he and the cast start to break up towards the end.

At a high school gathering, Pascal’s popular teacher, Mr. Ben, gives a presentation on students’ use of technology, begging the kids to stop making obsessive fancams dedicated to him. He’s confused by all the new slang — “You’re in your assembly era,” “You’re dad,” “Middle” — meaning, though he comes over after his girlfriend and fellow teacher (a cameoing Sarah Paulson) comes to the end and embrace it. SNL never comes across more desperate than when it tries to mimic modern online speech, though there have been worse offenders than this example (see: the hospital sketch from Elon Musk’s episode two seasons ago).

A commercial for Wing Pit promotes a Superbowl Sunday deal that becomes increasingly extravagant, repulsive and destructive, culminating in “The Chick-nobyl: 5,000 wings, 10,000 beaks, a full palette of hot sauce, airdropped ranch, two of the sickest, saddest celery sticks you’ve ever seen, all pumped into your party via cement shoots.By the end, we’re in full horror movie territory.Fast, weird, and funny, this is one of the best sketches they’ve done this season.

Then we get to Weekend Update, where Michael Che Punxsutawney invites Phil (Michael Longfellow in a full-body marmot costume) to talk about the next six weeks of winter. Phil seems dejected about his place in the world these days: “A weather-predicting marmot in the year 2023? I’m worthless. I’m like a condom in Nick Cannon’s wallet.” His depression takes on an existential bent, reflecting on environmental disasters and the concept of time, between offering Che a “bump”, vaping and defending his infidelity (“I’m not a bad marmot,” he says, “I like a good beaver “).

Later on, British rappers Milly Pounds (James Austin Johnson) and Shirty (Devon Walker) join in and drop some confusing bars about the royal family. The audience is noticeably dead to the segment, probably because, like most viewers this side of the pond, they’re just not familiar enough with British rap to understand what the joke is (just count me as one of those viewers).

Then Pascal drags in to play a feisty Latina mom who meets her son’s (Marcello Hernandez) (Chloe Fineman) new girlfriend for the first time. She is very possessive and disapproving, until the girl offers to say grace, after which she turns completely towards her. The corny culture-class humor here is indistinguishable from what you’d find in a primetime sitcom, but Pascal’s energy is contagious.

A group of girlfriends dining out at an Italian restaurant are charmed by the flirtatious waiters, except for Sarah Sherman’s diner, who passive-aggressively beat down the staff in increasingly vicious ways (going so far as to mistake her for The Babadook). It’s humorous throughout – especially Sherman’s offended responses – though it loses the thread in its back half.

Things end on a dinner party that reuses the set from the previous sketch. A birthday girl’s troublesome sister (Ego Nwodim) mistakes a friend’s politeness for sexual interest, making a mess of their table while trying to saw through her “well, well, well done” steak. Things derail almost immediately, with everyone breaking up and talking at once. Fair game to Nwodim, she’s very funny, but it’s all so messy it’s impossible to follow.

This episode was all over the place, with many of the individual sketches being uneven in their own right. But it hit some high notes — the game show sketch and the hotwing commercial — and Pascal proved himself to be a very entertaining and likeable host. He’s someone who could well bring the show back, and with the right material, he could become a recurring favorite.

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