SNL Ranked: Taraji P. Henson Is Great in an Episode That Has No Idea What to Do With Her
Taraji P. Henson is only the eighth black woman to host SNL in 40 years, which is only half the reason why her appearance on the show is exciting — in addition to her killer role as Cookie on Empire, Henson is a versatile actress who’s been impressing us for several years now. That versatility certainly came in handy as this week’s guest host, although the writers never really figured out how to use Henson’s strengths. Read on as we rank this week’s SNL sketches from great to not-so-great.
Game of Thrones (Pharoah, Che, Thompson, Zamata, Jones, Henson, Coster-Waldau)
First of all, when does Nikolaj Coster-Waldau get to host SNL? This South Centros short is just as good as Dwayne Johnson’s live-action Bambi, bringing some Boyz n the Hood and Empire flavor to Game of Thrones. Thompson’s Ice Cube isn’t quite there, but no matter because Henson, Jones and Zamata got this. Seriously, put Leslie Jones in any sketch for two seconds and she steals the entire thing. “Ray Ray Baratheon says good morrow, b—.” I hope it’s not long before we see her top-lining her own film. It’s great to see Che out from behind the Update desk again, even though he’s only allowed out when a sketch needs an extra person of color.
Teacher Trial (Henson, Bennett, Bryant, Strong, Davidson, McKinnon, Thompson, Moynihan, Bayer)
It’s easy to poke fun and laugh when a teen boy has an affair with an adult female teacher, yet we react with reflexive disgust when a teen girl has an affair with an adult male teacher, which is such a strange double standard (for the record, both are not okay). This sketch does a solid job satirizing that skewed societal perception, as Davidson’s high school student is cross-examined in court about his relationship with his teacher, which lasted “five glorious weeks” and made him a local hero. Henson’s lawyer is sort of a hinge around which the jokes revolve — every question she asks allows for another punchline, though she doesn’t get any funny lines for herself.
Hillary Clinton Election Video Cold Open (McKinnon, Bayer, Hammond)
It’s so, so wonderful to have Darrell Hammond back on SNL, reprising his role as Bill Clinton as McKinnon’s Hillary tries to use her phone to film her presidential campaign announcement. As awesome as Hammond’s Bill is — offering to be the “First Dude,” playing his saxophone —McKinnon has really made Hillary her own. She perfectly captures selfie culture in just a few brief moments, too.
QVC (Henson, McKinnon, Bryant, Moynihan)
Henson does the enthusiastic QVC host well, but she’s very one-note and fumbles a couple of times with her lines. McKinnon basically plays a version of Liza Minelli who isn’t named Liza Minelli, appearing on the program to sell a “three-way poncho” which can actually only be worn two ways. But it’s Bryant’s role as the poncho model that really stands out, and proves just how much can be done with what could be a boring accessory part. If only she had followed through in trying to wear that glittery grandma top as pants!
Depend Legends (Bayer, Bennett)
You get kids to embrace diapers because they all have little cartoon characters on them, so it makes sense that you could get your elderly relatives to wear Depends if they feature faces they enjoy, like Bettie Page and Jack Parr, or the female cast of Law & Order. It’s a simple punchline, simply pulled off thanks to some elderly enthusiasm and some hilarious diapers.
Their Own League (Thompson, Strong, Bayer, McKinnon, Bryant, Moynihan, Killam, Henson, Jones)
Cinema Classics is one of those things I always forget about, but when it returns I’m always thrilled. This week, Reese De’What introduces us to Their Own League, which explores what would happen if A League of Their Own tackled racism in addition to sexism. Strong explaining when black women will be given rights sums this one up perfectly, while Henson gives her best performance of the night. Special mention: Killam’s Tom Hanks, which should be a thing he does again soon.
Home 2 (Killam, Pharoah, Zamata, Jones, Henson, Strong, Thompson, Davidson, McKinnon)
SNL’s imagined version of Home 2 runs with the weird pairing of Jim Parsons and Rihanna by throwing a whole bunch of hip-hop stars into the mix. Henson and Jones in particular nail it as Nicki Minaj and Missy Elliott, respectively, with Henson flipping between Minaj’s “alter-egos” as effortlessly as Minaj herself. While Killam’s Parsons is pretty good, it’s hard to top Davidson and McKinnon’s appearance as Die Antwoord — they don’t even speak and it’s still so great.
Vlog With Taraji P. Henson (Zamata, Mooney, Henson, Pharoah)
Henson is so committed to each sketch tonight, delivering enthusiastic performances and acting from head to toe. She just seems to have issues with reading and relaying her lines — in other sketches, her enthusiasm and determination just barely saved her from completely falling flat, but in How 2 Dance With Janelle, her outrageous physical humor more than makes up for what she’s lacking in the live setting. Henson and Zamata violently humping poor Kyle Mooney is insanely hilarious.
Cookie on Sesame Street (Henson)
Henson is so much better in the pre-recorded sketches, like this one, where she brings her Cookie character from Empire to Sesame Street — the most inappropriate place to put Cookie, though she fits right in gobbling actual cookies with Cookie Monster. There’s not too much they can do with the Empire meets Sesame Street concept because you can’t scandalize these kid-friendly puppets, but it’s enough to see Henson’s Cookie rolling up on Sesame Street like a boss.
Weekend Update (Che, Jost, McKinnon, Bayer, Crystal)
Jost is a bit better this week, but goodness, I really can’t deal with McKinnon’s doing her impression of eccentric Spanish painter Cecilia Gimenez again. She uses the Spanish accent for a few different impressions, and it’s always kind of the same — the heavy accent is intended to make her wacky one-liners seem funnier, but it’s an obvious gimmick and one that’s wearing thin. I love McKinnon, don’t get me wrong, but she can do better.
But hey, we’re rescued by Bayer’s return as Jacob the Bar Mitzvah boy, here to talk about Passover. I enjoy the way that Jacob’s particular brand of awkward shyness is different with Che than it was with Strong. Rather than being embarrassed by interacting with a girl, Jacob is now acting awkward because he feels threatened. Plus, we get an appearance from good ol’ Billy Crystal as Jacob’s fabled podiatrist dad.
Taraji P. Henson’s “I Made It” Monologue (Henson, Ensemble)
Hey, it’s our third monologue musical number in a row! This one is not quite as good as Keaton’s, which wasn’t quite as good as Dwayne Johnson’s, but Henson’s got such an effervescent personality and a great voice to match, so it works for what it is. Henson acknowledges that it only took 20 years for white people to notice her before launching into a song about how things could be much worse, and hey, she made it. She packs plenty of charisma, but Thompson and Jones almost steal it. “I could be the oldest cast member in Good Burger 7.”
Hollywood Game Night With Taraji P. Henson (McKinnon, Bayer, Henson, Killam, Bryant, Pharoah, Mooney, Bennett, Strong)
Taran Killam’s Vin Diesel is back! And is it just me, or is his impression of Diesel basically just Ludo from Labyrinth? Not that I am complaining. At all. These celebrity game show sketches feel like a testing ground for the odd celebrity impressions the cast can do that never seem to fit anywhere else. That said, for as unimpressed as I was with Henson’s Wanda Sykes and for how predictable McKinnon’s Jane Lynch has become, Pharoah’s Common was surprisingly great — that cutaway to the footage of all the white people crying at the Oscars during his Selma performance is 100 percent hilarious. Too bad the rest of the sketch is nowhere near it.
Connectatron (Killam, Moynihan, Strong, Pharoah, Henson)
I am not a big fan of this Power Rangers spoof, but I am a big fan of Sharkazor. Hopefully we’ll see him again in Jurassic World. This sketch arrived at the end of the night, and looking back on the episode as a whole, SNL didn’t play to Henson’s strengths enough, nor did they find very interesting roles for her to play — which is a shame, since so few black women have hosted the show.