Miley Cyrus hosted Saturday Night Live this weekend. The Disney debutante turned pop-culture provocateur has spent the better part of the last six months devoting herself to meticulously and calculatingly shocking a pearl-clutching nation of moral arbiters, a mission that continued Saturday night from Studio 8H when she pulled off yet another shocking stunt. She was pretty great.
It’s tempting to write about that accomplishment with an air of awe. How could a debaucherous young diva, who has spent so much time this past summer with her tongue wagging outside her mouth that she can now be officially classified part serpent, possibly have impressed on a late-night sketch show that couldn’t even spin laughs out of a season-premiere hosting stint by none other than Tina Fey? What upside down land is this where a twerking tyrant emcees a stronger Saturday Night Live episode than one of the show’s own legends?
The thing is, however, that Cyrus is exactly the kind of host that SNL thrives off of hiring. (Fey, of course, is, too—the failure of her episode is owed to poor writing and an untested rookie cast still working out its chemistry.)
She is, let’s not forget, a professional comedic actress who honed her chops in the sitcom world, a training ground that has reliably lent itself well to the hectic pace of producing an SNL episode. She is a woman with no qualms about donning a rubber bikini and simulating masturbation with an enormous red foam finger on one of the most-watched awards shows of the year, which is to say she is game to do anything, a fearlessness that’s necessary in a SNL host. She is also, at this moment, controversial and self-aware about what makes her so, an edginess that allows SNL to do what it does best.
The cold open, which mocked Cyrus’s notorious MTV Video Music Awards performance, proved how valuable those three qualities are in a host. It began in a post-apocalyptic New York City decades in the future, with two haggard survivors recalling what it is that led to the end of civilization. “I remember the exact day America ended,” one said. “It was the 2013 Video Music Awards.”
The sketch then flashed back to Cyrus getting ready for her scandalous performance. A P.A. asks if she needs to warm up. “This performance is going to be less about singing,” she says. Vanessa Bayer, who has been waiting all summer for this day, then arrives as “Future Miley Cyrus,” employing her Miley impression—pitch-perfect, down to every gee-golly squawk—while asking present-day Miley if she’s sure she wants to go through with this.
There’s been an embarrassing amount of brow-furrowing over whether Cyrus is being exploited by record executives eager to exploit her willingness to be raunchy for publicity or whether she’s actually on some concerning downward spiral of bad behavior. The knowing wink with which Cyrus mocked herself in this sketch proves that all of those fears are baseless, and that what most of us have suspected all along—this is a pop star acting in the ridiculous fashion that she thinks, whether or not she’s right, pop stars should be acting—is correct.
Cyrus, for example, finally explains why, for the love of Courtney Love, she keeps sticking out her tongue. “I’m having tiny strokes, yo.” Taran Killam comes out, playing Cyrus’s VMA duet partner, Robin Thicke: “You ready to start grabbing my junk while I half-sing?” Guys, Miley Cyrus is in on the joke.
Her opening monologue continued in much of the same vein, with Cyrus cracking, “In case anyone’s concerned, there will be no twerking tonight. (It’s not cool anymore, she says. White people are now doing it.) It was a strong opening for a much-improved episode. But while Cyrus was a solid performer in all the sketches that followed the rest of the night, the sketches themselves were a mixed bag.
The good ones were legitimately great. A bit about actors auditioning for the 50 Shades of Grey film was the classic SNL formula: trot out the cast members and have them do their best celebrity impressions, apropos of nothing besides the fact that they’re funny. The standout was Noel Wells’s flawless Emma Stone, which was all the more impressive for the fact that we had no idea there was so much about Stone’s personality to mock.
Proving that the episode was at its best when it let Miley make fun of Miley, the next-best sketch was a spoof of her music video “We Can’t Stop” that lampooned, of all things, the government shutdown. Killam channelled John Boehner and Cyrus sported a mom wig to play Michele Bachmann for a nearly frame-by-frame recreation of Cyrus’s video with GOP tropes substituted for Miley’s club-them accoutrements.
In “We Did Stop (The Government),” Cyrus’s burning marshmallows are replaced by burning $100 bills. Teddy bears are replaced by stuffed elephants. The opening lyrics become: “Red states and sweaty bodies everywhere/ Bill’s in the house like we don’t care/ ‘cause we came to shut it all down now, no government around now.” It was far and away a better approach to mocking the shutdown than the typical Obama-press-conference approach.
Too much of the show, however, was bogged down by sketches that were underwritten and overlong. A look at all the (fake) Hillary Clinton TV projects that are in the work now that CNN and NBC cancelled theirs started strong (AMC’s Running Rodham) but the joke wore thin long before the time TNT’s Clinton & Bash idea was bandied about.
A pre-taped bit called “Miley’s Sex Tape” should have been so much smarter, while a sketch about cheerleaders who are abducted by aliens during practice was actually offensive. It wasn’t offensive because there were off-color or politically incorrect jokes. But because this was the first sketch of the new season to round up all of the show’s talented female cast members together, and the best the writers could muster was dressing them up as cheerleaders and have them crack wise about how crazy cheerleaders are…before an alien comes to abduct them. It was bafflingly inane, and a supreme waste of talent.
Of course, Miley Cyrus wasn’t just the night’s host. She was also its musical guest, and you have to give this girl a lot of credit. She bucked expectations for a sideshow performance of “We Can’t Stop” by stripping it down to an acoustic arrangement, a delivery choice that meant she couldn’t hide behind twerking teddy bears and dancing little people and would actually be judged on her singing. Based on her singing, that choice was… brave.
For her other performance, she also belted “Wrecking Ball” with all the gusto of a young Linda Blair having an exorcism. “Wrecking Ball” is an objectively brilliant pop ballad. Performed live by Miley Cyrus, it both manages to at once sound like a coven of cats being dropped into bathtub and strangely stirring. Well done, Miley.
Saturday Night Live is hardly great again, still struggling to figure out how to best use its sprawling new cast. But the Miley Cyrus episode offered hope, that with a game host and ripe-for-mocking material, it can still deliver.