The AV Club calls it “ridiculously long along with being boring and bad”; Splitsider thinks it’s an “exhausted premise… good lord, it’s time to take a break.” But the sketch they’re talking about, SNL’s “The Californians,” is my favorite thing currently coming out of Studio 8H. I think it’s the strangest and darkest thing Saturday Night Live has produced in a long time.
On the surface, “The Californians” is a simple soap opera parody that mines laughs from the melodramatic plot contrivances of a standard soap, contrasted against its characters’ obsession with the California highway system. In a standard example of the premise, Fred Armisen’s Stuart is shocked to find Bill Hader’s Devon in his home, prompting Devon to detail his trip on the 170 to the 134-W to the overpass to… You get the idea.
The interesting thing about the sketch is what happens next. When Stuart, Devon, and whoever else in the scene has satisfactorily heightened the drama, every single one of them turns to the camera with a shocked expression, then drifts over to a large mirror to gaze at their reflections as haunting music plays. Then the title card plays again, and the characters reset their positions as things play out exactly the same way. Every time. The words are different, but the end result never changes. The shock, the mirror, the music.
When I watch this sketch, I think of Kafka, Buñuel, Lynch. I see a hidden horror story. Is the mirror cursed? Is it trapping these poor people inside the house? Do they try to escape, circle the grounds, and then re-enter convinced that they’ve driven all over the state and lived lives of absurd complexity? Are they drawn to the mirror because it’s taking something from them? Or is it keeping them forever young and beautiful, but captive? Are they reminding themselves that the price they pay for their long, blonde hair and expensive furniture is an eternity of mind-numbing travel directions? Are they looking at their reflections to make sure they’re still human?
“The Californians” works as a traditional comedy sketch. It has strange voices, crazy characters, a narrative? pattern that can be exploited. It has a recognizable target and comforting predictability. But there’s something deeper to it. If I think about the sketch too much, it actually upsets me.
In SNL’s early years, one of its goals was to be subversive, intelligent, and out-there. Over time, the output has mellowed, bowing to the demands of mass entertainment. But “The Californians” is a challenging sketch wrapped up in simple pastiche. Something everyone can laugh at, but which also says something serious and disturbing about modern American culture.
It’s cheesy to say, but this sketch about hopeless people gives me hope for Saturday Night Live. Somewhere in all those directions is a roadmap for the show’s future.