Sometimes the first “Saturday Night Live” episode for a featured player comes and goes with the newcomer never seen, but that wasn’t going to happen for Sasheer Zamata.
The result of a grass-roots push for a black female in the cast, her arrival needed to be noted. But it wasn’t really ballyhooed, either. Except for a shoutout from the host in the final moments, Zamata had a typically low-pressure, low-impact debut.
She didn’t carry a scene or even a moment. It was all bit-player stuff: the girlfriend of someone’s uncle (Kenan Thompson), the host of a slumber party with a goofy guest (Aidy Bryant), a high school kid in detention, the eye-candy singer in a rap video dominated by dudes — all performed with poise that suggests no freshman jitters. Zamata is said to have a killer Rihanna impersonation, but her RiRi bit on Saturday was strictly visual and totally wordless.
Drake (left) with “SNL” cast members Bobby Moynihan and Jay Pharoah. NBC photo
The episode’s starmaking power was aimed elsewhere: at the host. Having shown some comic chops as the musical guest in 2011, rapper Drake tried to pull off what Bruno Mars did last season and Lady Gaga did in November— both host and sing — and the result was almost Timberlakian. He seemed to fit seamlessly into the company, delivered his lines with aplomb and showed a decent amount of range in his many, many scenes.
Either he showed up with an arsenal of impressions or he worked fast on building one, because Drake did a lot of celebrity goofing. Even before the opening, he took on Alex Rodriguez, poking his tongue around as he promised to sue Jackie Robinson for opening up baseball and creating his steroid scandal.
Later, in a hip-hop edition of “Before They Were Stars,” he was both Lil Wayne (in his supposed old TV role as Urkel) and Jay-Z (helping Mr. Wizard with a science experiment). The riffs were biting enough that Drake might be in for uncomfortable moments next time he sees those guys. And then as comic Katt Williams, he primped credibly while nasally defending his pot use to a judgmental Nancy Grace (Noel Wells).
Drake had no qualms about addressing his past, starting his monologue with a nod to his former life on “DeGrassi Junior High” and exploiting his black and Jewish background in grand fashion, with a flashback to his bar mitzvah. The gag culminated in a “Hava Nagila”-backed rhyme in which Drake touted his heritages (Please don’t forget I’m black/Please don’t forget I’m Jewish/I play ball like LeBron/and know what a W2 is) and even alluded to a past romance (I celebrate Hanukkah/Date a Rihanna-ka).
A Lonely Island-style hip-hop video about New Year’s resolutions was light on laughs, except for a moment of Drake, Taran Killam and Jay Pharaoh doing dorky sword-and-sorcery cosplay. The host’s energy and charisma was used to good effect in an otherwise pointless bit about a foreign visitor (Nasim Pedrad) bumbling through a Disney World ride. And he fell smoothly into the Miley Cyrus roles in two recurring segments: “Mornin’ Miami” (exhausted news anchors pep up while shooting promos) and Vanessa Bayer as a granola-ish teacher loving the poetry of surly high schoolers.
Taking charge next Saturday is a seasoned host with less to prove, Jonah Hill. There might just be a few moments of the spotlight shifting to Zamata — or one of the six other newbies trying to prove their worth.