Saturday Night Live: a game Benedict Cumberbatch tries to save a patchy episode

Saturday Night Live kicks off the final run of episodes for season 47 by immediately diving into the supreme court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade. In his draft of the majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito argues that abortion is a crime by citing a treatise from 13th century England. The show takes us back a thousand years ago to see the drafting of those original laws.

A group of English nobles (Andrew Dismukes, James Austin Johnson and Benedict Cumberbatch) debate among themselves – one of them shoots down making exceptions for rape and incest since “those are the only kinds of sex” – while ignoring the protests of an eavesdropping chambermaid (Cecily Strong). Eventually, they’re joined by a witch (Kate McKinnon) who can see into the future. She relays her visions of progress and gives a rallying cry to women to fight back.

Once again proving how utterly incapable it is of tackling momentous political occasions, Saturday Night Live completely phones it in here. The sketch doesn’t even commit to its lame premise: there are only a handful of comparisons between our society and the Dark Ages before we get in a groan-inducing joke about the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial and are subjected to McKinnon’s awful mugging. Her call to action at the end rings especially hollow, but at least she didn’t perform another sad piano ballad.

Cumberbatch is the night’s host. The actor admits to being annoyed that all the sketches pitched to him by Lorne and the writers revolve around Dr Strange, rather than his Oscar-nominated turn in The Power of The Dog. Of that nomination, he says, “I didn’t win. I was beat by Will Smith – not physically! Not physically!” He then uses the occasion to wish his mom and his wife a happy Mother’s Day and thank them over some soft piano. There’s almost nothing here in the way of actual jokes.

The holiday theme carries into the first sketch, which sees Aidy Bryant receiving Mother’s Day gifts from her family. They’ve all gotten her wooden novelty signs from Home Depot. The sayings on them start out innocuous and treacly – “Mom spelled upside down is WOW!” – before growing increasingly accusatory and personal: “Dear mom, we sucked your teats dry and now you look weird in a bathing suit,” “Were your ears ringing? I was in therapy,” “Having a mother-in-law is like having crabs.” It’s a near carbon copy of a previous sketch from a couple of seasons ago and a case of diminishing returns.

The is true of the pre-filmed sketch that comes a little later, in which a teenage daughter argues with her mother and grandmother about her partying. We cut back and forth between the older women’s grandstanding and flashbacks to their own wild youths, which see them drinking hard, popping pills, driving drunk, having casual sex and throwing panties at the stage during a David Bowie concert. The show has used this template several times before, but it never quite works because the reckless behavior on display doesn’t get crazy enough.

Before that though, we get one the strangest sketches of the season, in which a focus group tests out new ice cream treats. Two of the members (Cumberbatch and Heidi Gardner) are gruff cowpokes, and their feedback takes the form of long, soul-bearing soliloquies filled with longing, nostalgia, regret and plenty of cowboy poetry. This ultimately begets a romance of Bridges of Madison County/Brokeback Mountain proportions. It all goes on a bit too long, but it gets lots of points for originality and Cumberbatch’s performance (he seems to be taking the piss out of vocal Power of the Dog critic Sam Elliot).

At a prison work camp, a group of convicts pass the time while breaking rocks by singing a blues ballad. Cumberbatch’s prisoner earns the suspicion of his fellow inmates when he sings about “snitching to the warden” and “sleeping with the warden’s wife”. There’s no payoff to this setup, but the cast is clearly having fun playing broad, old-timey caricatures and their energy proves infectious.

Then on Weekend Update, Michael Che acknowledges how the overturning of Roe v Wade will disproportionately affect poor people: “Most Americans don’t have access to the same resources I do. The average person can’t just text Lorne in the middle of the night, ‘Yo, it happened again.’” Colin Jost welcomes on supreme court justice Amy Coney Barrett (McKinnon) on to discuss the issue. Barrett says she “listened to the case with an open mind and I asked all my question,” and encourages women to just “do your nine and dump”.

Landsdown House is a Downton Abbey-style drama. A family of aristocrats is thrown into turmoil when one of their own announces he’s signed up to fight in the front lines of the first world war. His sister’s repeated hysterics see her continually miss the fainting couch in favor of trashing the entire estate (the poor family butler takes the brunt of the damage). This feels like a ripoff of a much funnier Mr Show sketch from 24 years ago.

A cinematic commercial for a new reclining toilet from Kohler (“#1 in #2 since 1873”) sees Cumberbatch play a suave disrupter who interrupts a totalitarian toilet training class by dumping out in grand style (he literally uses pages from the rule book as TP). It’s a funny enough idea, but it’s over almost as soon as it begins.

An animatronic performance at Chuck E Cheeze gets cancelled due to a technical malfunction, so the manager gets Reflection Denied, a British new wave band from the 80’s, to fill in. Cumberbatch and Bowen Yang perform a (legitimately catchy) queer-themed, ennui-filled song about pizza, prizes and the salad bar (“an untouched place where hope goes to die”). As with most of the sketches tonight, it doesn’t wrap up so much as fizzle out.

The show wraps up with a pre-filmed segment in which Chloe Fineman details her role as the show’s official understudy. The setup is an excuse for her to do impersonations of all her fellow women cast members – save Ego Nwodim (who wisely orders her to “Pass”) and Punkie Johnson, who’s her understudy. At one point, she also tries to trick Cumberbatch into helping her land a role in the MCU by pretending to be his Dr. Strange co-star Elizabeth Olsen, only for the real Olsen to show up (Cumberbatch’s dumbfounded proclamation that “The multiverse is real” gets the biggest laugh of the night.)

On the whole, this was a middle of the road episode, although it was a notable improvement on last month’s dire output. Cumberbatch, like so many of the hosts this season, displayed impressive comic chops, but wasn’t given much to work with. Meanwhile, SNL failed to mine any humor from the supreme court’s monstrous actions but given how the bad the political comedy on the show has been for the last decade-plus, that should come as no surprise.