Can Lena Dunham act?
That's the question many people—or at least this person—were wondering when the Girls star was announced as host of this week's Saturday Night Live. The question was never "Will Lena Dunham be funny?" We knew she would be. Dunham's particularly gifted, as we see in Girls, at delivering a good one-liner with the kind of soft slyness that lands a good SNL joke.
But since Girls launched, people—or, again, at least this person—have wondered whether Dunham's performance as Hannah Horvath succeeds because Dunham is such a good actress, or because Hannah is simply a version of Dunham herself, and Dunham, obviously, is good at playing that.
Dunham's SNL hosting stint this week didn't do much to settle that debate, considering nearly every character she played hewed closely to her own personality, or at least that "cordial-yet-sexy baby with impeccable enunciation" persona she's formed for herself publicly. But that also means that her hosting stint was pretty funny!
It should be no surprise that SNL churned out a solid episode with Dunham as a host. The show excels most when it zeros in on someone or something that seems to be touching a nerve at that moment in popular culture, and then embraces, aggravates, and mocks that nerve. Few people touch that nerve and incite so much passionate conversation than Dunham and Girls. The show delivered on all the spark a lightning rod host like Dunham should give off. The one thing that Dunham didn't deliver on was reinforcing the idea that she's capable of more as an actress than what she shows on Girls, at least in a broad comedic sense.
From her opening monologue, Dunham was charming. But not effortlessly charming, which is usually the modifier when someone uses "charming" as an adjective. Dunham does this peculiar thing where her charm comes with very intentional effort. There's something about her line delivery that makes the sort of sophisticated precociousness she gives off seem carefully crafted. If you've watched her speak in interviews and on talk shows, you'll know what I mean.
That's OK, though. It works for her. And the jokes she was given were on point, shrewdly mocking the excessive nudity on Girls and how the show's fans sometimes confuse Dunham's artistic frankness with permission and even an invitation on her part to overshare explicit details of their own sex lives. "If you're nervous about giving a speech, imagine the audience naked," she said, recounting advice she was given for public speaking. "Or at least imagine they haven't seen you naked." Zing!
That theme—Lena Dunham sure is naked a lot!—tired as it is, served as fodder for the night's best sketch. The bit mashed up Girls with the story of Adam and Eve, with Dunham playing Hannah Horvath as if she was the Biblical character and Taran Killam (brilliantly) playing Adam Driver as Girls' Adam as…Adam. From the Bible. "Before there was Girls, there was the first girl," the narrator joked, as Dunham delivered spot-on Girls-esque lines as Eve like, "I may have committed original sin, but at least it's original and I think I deserve credit for that." (Vanessa Bayer's quick cameo as Zosia-Mamet-as-Shoshana-as-the-Snake was also perfect.)
In another sketch, Dunham played a woman hosting a jewelry party for her friends who is aghast when her co-worker's boyfriend is revealed to be an anti-feminist. The comedy was on-brand for Dunham, but it was hard not to notice that she was, basically, playing Hannah Horvath in a wig. The sketch was really a vehicle for Cecily Strong's hysterical, over-the-top Venezuelan accent. But as the night wore on you sort of wished that Dunham herself would've attempted a character with less quiet quirks and more outrageousness (think of the no-holds-barred gusto hosts like Melissa McCarthy and Emma Stone go into the SNL gig with) to show her own comedic range.
The rest of the night was filled with mostly strong bits, stronger than average for a recent SNL episode (especially for those of us with PTSD from last week's Jim Parsons disaster). A send-up of Scandal was inspired, and especially fun for those of us who know how big a fan Dunham herself is of the show through her tweets. Dunham played an enthusiastic new Gladiator who Just Could Not Get Over the fact that Olivia Pope and her team talked so fast, worked so quickly, and were so non-plussed about everything they were doing: "That was the President of the United States! How are you not texting like a thousand people right now?" Dunham's character basically provided Mystery Science Theater-like commentary on the most ridiculous aspects of the show, but with the kind of good-natured enthusiasm that celebrated it rather than razzed it.
The few times Dunham did step out of her comfort zone, things got a little shaky. She played Liza Minnelli in one sketch, an ill-advised move considering the fabulousness of Kristen Wiig's impression a few seasons earlier. She didn't even bother to turn off a lamp. Another sketch in which she and Nasim Pedrad played tween girls hosting a talk show in their basement featured Jon Hamm as a surprise guest, but never moved past the one-joke premise of middle school girls' obnoxious exuberance.
Still, exuberance counts for a lot, which is a large part of why Dunham's hosting stint worked so well this week. And that's something even the best acting can't fake.