On ‘SNL,’ Jenna Ortega Fit Right In

On ‘SNL,’ Jenna Ortega Fit Right In

The Wednesday The star’s sharp commitment to every scene helped the episode achieve a fresh-faced vivacity.

'SNL' stars Jenna Ortega as a mutant at an X-Men-inspired academy
The episode achieved a kind of rare joy for a season that spent a lot of time figuring things out. Part of that sentiment comes from Ortega’s youthful presence. (Will Heath / NBC)

The beauty of an ensemble comedy cast comes partly from its fluidity. As happy as the peacock is in the spotlight, holding everyone’s attention, it’s also important to know when to back off. Not every Saturday Night Live The host shows that knowledge, but some of the stronger ones clearly get dynamic and thrive in sketches where their contributions are closer to a supporting player. Last night, Jenna Ortega, a first-time host and the star of Netflix’s brooding Wednesday, folds well into the cast, helping to deliver a refreshingly edgy episode reminiscent of the times classic SNL.

Ortega gets the spotlight in some sketches, like the game-show bit “School vs. School,” where he played a mutant in a X-Men-inspired academics that cater to more traditional high school students. But some of last night’s biggest payoffs came when Ortega did his scene so well that, like a promising new cast member, he blended in seamlessly and let others shine.

In another well pre-taped sketch, “Waffle House,” he served as a framing device, playing a teenager in a CW-esque high-school drama. Although the sketch appears to focus on the breakup conversation she forces her boyfriend (Marcello Hernandez) to have in the restaurant parking lot, the real altercation takes place behind their backs. The premise exploits stereotypes about Waffle House clientele in a wordless tableau writ large. With the help of careful editing, Ortega performs earnestly, fading into the background and allowing the surrounding chaos to land more vibrantly.

Later, as a demon-possessed girl, Ortega seems to be the main focal point in “Exorcism.” That is, until Mrs. Shaw (Ego Nwodim), an elderly neighbor disturbed by the ritual, intervenes to return to sleep. Ortega could have distracted Nwodim, but instead he made room for Mrs.’s eccentricity. Shaw. When Ortega began to levitate, Mrs. Shaw’s scene-stealing line of the night: “Sit down, baby, before I turn on the ceiling fan.”

The bit, following close on the heels of Nwodim’s viral “Lisa From Temecula” moment and last week’s sketch “Mom’s funeral,” called back to SNL‘s heyday, when hit characters were often the spine of the show. This season, we haven’t much is seen in the way of recurring characters off the “Weekend Update” desk, but Nwodim has amassed a stockpile of memorable characters over the past few episodes. More, please.

The episode achieved a kind of rare joy for a season that spent a lot of time figuring things out. Part of that sentiment comes from Ortega’s youthful presence, which SNL leaning instead of away from. When Billie Eilish hosted an episode at 19 last season, the show tends to put her in sketches that make her older—either barely o significant—to play up the contrast. Also, with Jack Harlow. Instead, Ortega explored a wealth of colorful teenage characters that epitomized the darker work he became known for this year. Ortega’s sophisticated commitment to each scene—her professionalism and maturity—helped the episode achieve its newfound vitality.

That lightheartedness culminated in the five-to-one sketch, a wry premise about lounge singers turned commercial jingle makers. Ortega played a lawyer (his one adult role of the night) tasked with finding a way to make his firm’s phone number more memorable to potential clients—like Cellino and Barnes. one-time offering. Enter an idiosyncratic duo called Soul Booth (Andrew Dismukes and James Austin Johnson), plucked from the local watering hole, Lucciano’s.

A cross between characters the Culps and the Gibbs’ brothers, the Soul Booth delivered three funk-driven options, none of which made the firm’s convoluted number memorable but which caused Chloe Fineman (starring as a fellow lawyer) to break down. Another colleague, Mitchell (Bowen Yang), keeps insisting that Soul Booth make the jingle “more Luche” to show off Lucciano’s inexplicable quality, and Ortega nearly breaks down. His stumbling, though brief, is pleasingly interrupted by the structure his straightforward character lends to the scene.

Throughout the episode, Ortega’s instincts are closer to those of a veteran host than a first-timer. He jumps energetically into roles both leading and lesser, finding the magic that makes for great collaborative comedy. That way, he fits in.