On “SNL,” Jenna Ortega Fit Right In

The Wednesday The star’s intense commitment in every scene helped the episode gain a new vibrancy.

The episode achieved a kind of rare joy for a season that has spent a lot of time figuring things out. Part of that feeling came from Ortega’s youthful presence. (Will Heath/NBC)

The beauty of an ensemble comedy cast comes in part from its fluidity. As much fun as it must be to be the peacock in the foreground, keeping everyone’s attention, it’s just as important to know when to back off. Not every one Saturday night live The host showcases this knowledge, but some of the stronger ones clearly opt for the dynamic and thrive in sketches where their contribution is closer to that of a supporting player. Last night, Jenna Ortega, first-time host and star of Netflix Wednesday, folded neatly into the cast, helping to deliver a refreshingly raunchy episode that harks back to classic times SNL.

Ortega caught the spotlight in a few sketches, including the game-show bit “School vs. School,” in which she played a mutant in a X Men– inspired academy that challenged more traditional high school students. But some of last night’s biggest payoffs came when Ortega did her job on stage so well that, like a promising new cast member, she blended in seamlessly and let the others shine.

In another excellent taped sketch, “Waffle House,” she served as the framing device, playing a teenage girl in a CW-type high school drama. Although the sketch seemed to focus on the breakup conversation she insisted on having with her boyfriend (Marcello Hernandez) in the restaurant parking lot, the real conflict unfolded behind them. The premise exploited stereotypes about Waffle House’s clientele in a wordless tableau writ large. Aided by careful editing, Ortega played seriously, fading into the background and allowing the surrounding chaos to land more vividly.

Later, playing a girl possessed by a demon, Ortega seemed to be the main focus in “The Exorcism.” That is, until Mrs. Shaw (Ego Nwodim), an elderly neighbor disturbed by the ritual, decides to intercede for him to go back to sleep. Ortega could have distracted from Nwodim, but she made room for Ms. Shaw’s eccentricity. When Ortega began to sway, Mrs. Shaw told the nightly narration: “Sit down, baby, before I turn on the ceiling fan.”

The track, following closely on the heels of Nwodim’s viral moment ‘Lisa From Temecula’ and last week’s ‘Mama’s Funeral’ skit, has returned to SNLits heyday, when successful characters were often the backbone of the show. This season, we haven’t seen many recurring characters outside of the “Weekend Update” office, but Nwodim has amassed a stockpile of memorable characters in just the last few episodes. More please.

The episode achieved a kind of rare joy for a season that has spent a lot of time figuring things out. Part of that feeling came from Ortega’s youthful presence, which SNL lean to rather than away from. When Billie Eilish hosted an episode at 19 last season, the show tended to put her in sketches that aged her—either slightly or significantly—in order to heighten the contrast. Same with Jack Harlow. Instead, Ortega explored a wealth of colorful teenage characters that rounded out the bleakest work she’s become known for this year. Ortega’s refined engagement in each scene—her professionalism and maturity—helped the episode come to life.

This lightheartedness culminated in the five-to-one sketch, an odd affair for singers-turned-commercial singers. Ortega played a lawyer (her one adult role of the night) tasked with finding a way to make her firm’s phone number more memorable to potential clients — something like the once-ubiquitous Cellino & Barnes offering. Enter a quirky duo called Soul Booth (Andrew Dismukes and James Austin Johnson), who came out of local watering hole, Lucciano’s.

A cross between the characters of the Culps brothers and the Gibbs brothers, Soul Booth provided three funk-based options, none of which made the company’s complicated number easy to remember, but it made Chloe Fineman (starring as a fellow lawyer) to break. Another colleague, Mitchell (Bowen Young), vociferously insisted that Soul Booth make the jingle “more Luche” to reflect this ineffable quality of Lucciano’s, nearly causing Ortega to snap as well. Her stumble, brief as it was, delightfully interrupted the structure her simple character lent the scene.

Throughout the episode, Ortega’s instincts felt closer to those of a veteran host than a first-timer. He playfully jumped into roles both leading and smaller, finding the magic that makes great collaborative comedy. That way it fit.

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