The prospect of Idris Elba hosting SNL has long been an enticing one — I mean, come on. It’s Idris Elba, the onetime Stringer Bell and the Internet’s perennial boyfriend. With his rugged good looks, British baritone, and intensely compelling screen presence, Elba’s captured the hearts (and thirst) of virtually everyone with a television. Hell, just this week, news of his casting made us excited for a Suicide Squad reboot, of all things. If it were any other rugged character actor playing host tonight (paging Liev Schrieber), bringing a performer known for exclusively serious roles into the hectic atmosphere of a two-hour live sketch comedy show might be a recipe for disaster.
But as Elba has proven time and time again with his performances (and, judging from that dope green suit during his opening monologue, his sartorial choices), he seems incapable of doing wrong. In sketch after sketch, Elba threw himself into each part with a game confidence and a willingness to embrace even the goofiest characters — from a guy who turns into an overbearing, manager-hungry white woman when inconvenienced, to a smooth-talking, cheap suit-wearing WNBA gold digger.
While the quality of the sketches frequently failed Elba (the latter half was full of more than its share of clunkers), he never failed us. Let’s tear ourselves away from Elba’s come-hither eyes and dig into some highlights.
KENAN CAPTURES R. KELLY’S INTERIOR MONOLOGUE
As soon as Gayle King’s jaw-dropping, incendiary interview with R. Kelly aired earlier this week, we all knew it was going to be SNL’s cold open, and to its credit, the show delivered a decent riff on the event. Reenacting the darkly lit, unhinged interview, Leslie Jones’ Gayle worked as straight woman to Kenan Thompson’s R. Kelly — his bug-eyed incredulity a perfect vehicle for Kenan’s pitch-perfect command of committedly crazy celebrities. Diving into “Trapped in the Closet” riffs as internal monologue (which, he later realizes, he’s just been saying out loud to Gayle), Kenan’s Kelly hits most of the right notes when dealing with this bizarre moment in pop-culture history.
Sure, we didn’t really get a chance for Leslie to land a decent “….Robert,” but other than that, it was a fun dissection of Kelly’s transparently deflecting mindset.
SNL BOUNCES BACK AT CANCEL CULTURE AND OCCASIONALLY MAKES A GOOD POINT
Boy, the writers of SNL really had it out for Twitter this week — one early sketch, a game show called “Can I Play That?”, in which actors (Blake Bennett, Cecily Strong, and Elba) are told a type of role and weigh in on whether it would be #problematic to play it, comes across as a shrill rebuke of people calling for better representation. “Isn’t the point of acting playing someone you’re not?” Elba’s character asks; Kenan’s host scoffs and replies, “Nope — now it’s about becoming yourself, but with a different haircut.” The sketch gets some decent digs in at the seemingly unending discussions of who’s allowed to play what — and a final gag about Elba’s much-discussed qualifications to play James Bond — but the rest of it feels tone-deaf. (When jokes about Michael Jackson’s ghost elicit such gasps from the audience that it makes Kenan involuntary chortle in surprise, you know you’ve missed the mark.)
However, the best discussion of these nuances came from — of all people — Pete Davidson, who popped by Weekend Update (as is his wont, apparently) to opine on R. Kelly, Michael Jackson, and the reopened discussions about how to reconcile the art you love with the artist’s own evils. Amidst some bone-headed statements about geniuses always turning out to be terrible people (hint: there are talented people who manage to not have sex with underage people or start cults), he hits upon the selectivity of our outrage depending on how much someone’s work means something to us. “If the CEO of Swisher Sweets does a terrible thing, I can’t just change my whole life!” he notes.
His advice? Feel free to continue enjoying the art of people who’ve done terrible things, but don’t forget the horrible things they did — and offset your guilt by donating to good causes, if you feel compelled. Hardly a slam dunk when it comes to such a thorny issue, but a fairly reasonable perspective coming from a man who had to come on the show twice in as many seasons to talk about his famous girlfriends. (Speaking of which, Davidson addresses the controversial age gap between him and new paramour Kate Beckinsale with a rapid-fire litany of older men who’ve done the same thing, which is admittedly a baller move.)
KHALID KEEPS IT SMOOTH AND SOULFUL
I’m just gonna say it: Khalid seems like he’d be awesome to hang out with. The R&B artist came out with two solid, easy live sets on tonight’s episode, crooning his way through two effortlessly smooth tracks flanked by a trio of leather-clad backup singers who look ripped straight out of a Rihanna show from the early aughts. That’s a feature, not a bug; Khalid’s golden voice was front and center through performances of hit singles “Talk” and “Better”, and each song ended with him grinning from ear to ear. It’s hard to be mad at a performer this happy to be onstage, especially when the songs are this good.