With all due respect to my fellow writers, I’ve always found reviewing/recapping Saturday Night Live to be a relatively pointless task. The slippery, seat-of-your-pants nature of the show means that there’s little to gain from a critical perspective unless you look at it more broadly (season by season, or by focusing on a single cast member’s entire run) rather than listing what worked and what didn’t every week. The fact is that SNL is always at least a little shitty, always at least a little funny and practically critic-proof. As Cult MTL’s resident francophone, I couldn’t resist writing about the first episode of SNL Québec because deciding to give a local spin to something that’s been consistently inconsistent for nigh on 40 years takes balls.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, things were off to a rocky start. An opening sketch about Russian customs officers forcing athletes through a gay detector seemed to have been resurrected from a 20-year-old high-school variety show. Guest host Louis-José Houde’s opening monologue was filled with self-deprecating barbs and jabs at the very concept of SNL Québec, but quickly overextended itself into a lame bit with Virginie Fortin and Phil Roy pretending not to know the show was broadcast live. A segment parodying hockey talk shows fell flat on its face with lame puns 30 seconds in, yet continued for an ungodly amount of time. The first half hour of the show was basically overlong skit after overlong skit, possibly a result of the show having such a small cast (with only six regular cast members, it’s a smaller cast than SNL has ever had in its 39 years) that their screen time has to be maximized.
As Fortin hinted in our interview last week, SNL Québec has access to the entirety of the original’s skits; they took a hell of a chance by resurrecting the classic “Schweddy Balls” skit right off the bat, but it’s such a brilliantly simple concept that it translated perfectly and comprised the sole bright spot in the show’s first third. I was about ready to throw in the towel by the time the “Weekend Update” segment rolled around. Hosted by Mathieu Quesnel (who holds the Dan Aykroyd / Chevy Chase role of being the lanky everyman), it’s basically the same po-faced news parody as the original — until Katherine Levac shows up.
Mostly relegated to bit parts and walk-ons in the first part of the show, the franco-Ontarian Levac killed it as flustered, unlucky-in-love franglais-spouting relationship consultant Paige Beaulieu that she damn near resuscitated the show. It quickly moved from broad-side-of-a-barn mugging and jigs for the peanut gallery to incisive and hilarious sketch comedy. It may have more to do with the show putting its most obvious, audience-friendly bits at the top (a tactic that the American show also exploits) but she nonetheless takes the show’s MVP trophy this time around.
A skit where Houde was stuck in an infinite loop of clip-based talk shows starring himself managed to lambast the masturbatory nature of Québec showbiz without resorting to insular impersonations and hinted at what could be the show’s bread and butter. By the time someone makes it to television in the Quebec cultural landscape, they’re already practically a sacred cow — there hasn’t been a crew of young people taking potshots at the established landscape since the glory days of Rock et Belles Oreilles in the ‘80s, and this crew seems to have what it takes to keep that tradition going, provided they don’t get bogged down by the kind of silly hambone antics that marred the first part of the show.
It’s hard to say that the first episode of SNL Québec is indicative of anything; any new show will go through some growing pains, especially one with such shoes to fill. With more than a month before the next installment, things are likely to change, and exactly what that entails is still murky. If it decides to lean harder on the hip, Montreal-centric angle that resulted in punchlines about the Café Campus bathroom, it’s likely to draw ire from the rest of the province (expect to see the words “hipster” and “bobo” bandied about). If it decides to go broader to appeal to a bigger audience, it’s throwing away the chance to shake things up a little in the insular, back-patting mainstream comedy scene. If it chooses to hit somewhere in the middle, well, it will be as close to the real thing as we can hope: not always funny, not always relevant, but always SNL. ■