Much like the rest of us, Saturday Night Live has been struggling to figure out its place in a coronavirus-stricken 2020. This past spring, the show pivoted, briefly, to a quarantined version of itself—which was rough and tumble, sure, but also oozed scrappy, backyard, let’s-put-on-a-show energy, with no less than Brad Pitt Zooming in to get in on the fun. This fall, though, SNL elected to return to Studio 8H, with new pandemic protocol in place. Its 46th season debuted over the weekend to healthy ratings—not all that surprising, given that the show usually sees an election-year bump, and COVID has plenty of folks still responsibly quarantining at home with nothing better to do than to tune in.
Yet the customary Sunday-morning rehash of the series, when non-live viewers catch up via YouTube clips or viral tweets, seemed disproportionately muted this week. Perhaps the show’s limited Donald Trump–bashing felt in poor taste as the president posed for proof-of-life photos at Walter Reed Medical Center; perhaps Jim Carrey’s Joe Biden failed to make a big impression.
The bigger problem, though, is that most of the show just wasn’t very funny. Its tepid Biden-Trump debate jokes drilled home an uncomfortable truth: In the 12 years since Tina Fey made hay out of Sarah Palin, SNL’s sharp political muscles have been growing soft. The show was unable to find much humor in the cool, calm, and relatively scandal-free Barack Obama presidency—and as soon as Trump entered the arena, it became clear that SNL would rather hire celebrities to impersonate people in Trump’s orbit than mine Trumpworld for comedy. After all, why write clever jokes when you can simply repeat, nearly word for word, the wild events of a Trump-era debate, hearing, or press conference?
Fey’s Palin heyday, of course, came at a very different time for entertainment and the news cycle. Things moved much slower even in 2008; a Saturday night show didn’t feel so far removed from a Tuesday night scandal. But thanks in large part to social media, any joke or meme-friendly political bit SNL might consider executing in 2020 has, by the weekend, already been chewed over by an American public that is ready to move on. The show itself acknowledged this particular challenge in the opening scroll that preceded its debate sketch: “Tuesday feels like 100 days ago.”
But that didn’t stop SNL from essentially re-airing the caustic debacle that was the presidential debate during this weekend’s cold open. Alec Baldwin, who has repeatedly expressed fatigue with his own Trump impression, was in fine enough form, but the debut of Carrey’s Biden was likely not the blockbuster SNL was hoping for. Unlike former cast member Jason Sudeikis or even last season’s glossy guest star Woody Harrelson, Carrey’s impression seemed wholly divorced from the Democratic candidate; it was more like Fire Marshall Bill in a snowy wig than anything approximating Biden.
At their best, SNL’s political impressions distill the essence of their subjects while adding some comic twist. Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton, for example, riffed on that candidate’s well-known ambition and added both a cool factor and the can-you-believe-this-guy reactions she shared with the audience whenever she took on Trump. McKinnon’s takes on Kellyanne Conway and Jeff Sessions, not to mention Ruth Bader Ginsberg, have been extreme, but similarly anchored in some tangible aspect of the real people they represented. It’s that connective tissue to reality that makes Maya Rudolph’s cool-mom take on Kamala Harris—which hardly got any screen time this week—such a joy. (Here’s hoping this week’s vice-presidential debate gives her more to work with.)
Even beyond the debate sketch, this episode of SNL had little to offer. Host Chris Rock’s monologue was fine, if overstuffed; it had Rock lobbing punchlines as well as assuring audiences that safety protocols were in place, honoring first responders, tacitly acknowledging the optics of the masked SNL band ensconced behind plexiglass, and, oh yeah, calling into question the state of the government and democracy. A bit much for one brief set.
After binging on Trump for years, the SNL writing staff also seems less equipped than ever to dig up laughs outside the White House. Outside the cold open, the monologue, and “Weekend Update,” the episode contained only three live sketches. (That’s perhaps understandable in the COVID era, though SNL has for years become increasingly reliant on pre-taped sketches.) And all of them relied on prurient, juvenile jokes, whether they were exploring silly names (bless Mikey Day for holding down that sketch), Kyle Mooney’s video-game-playing future, or a series of women begging to be allowed into the NBA bubble.
For some inexplicable reason, some of the show’s strongest veteran players—McKinnon, Aidy Bryant, and Cecily Strong—were largely sidelined throughout the premiere. This move isn’t wholly unheard of; SNL likes to find space for its newest cast members at the start of every season. But the absence of those MVPs hurt the show, as did a series of technical difficulties—like someone breathing heavily into their mic during the cold open, or the heavy tromping steps in the NBA bit.
There were a few bright exceptions to the muddle of this season premiere, and they came from two of the shiniest rising stars in the SNL cast. Chloe Fineman, who proved herself to be an incredibly nimble mimic last season, crushed her pre-taped parody of Drew Barrymore’s bonkers new daytime talk show. Bowen Yang, who mostly has one incredibly funny, bitchy mode, dragged the somewhat musty-feeling episode kicking and screaming into 2020 with a smart and relevant nod to the rise of TikTok-based humor. And speaking of TikTok darlings: there’s no denying that Megan Thee Stallion cut a dazzling figure in both of her performances and took full advantage of her platform to convey the only, truly striking political message of the night: Pausing her hit song “Savage” to highlight the Black Lives Matter movement and condemn Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron for mishandling the Breonna Taylor case.
At those few times, with those creative voices at the helm, SNL felt almost exciting and fresh. In other words: as is generally the case with this long-running show, there’s always potential for Saturday Night Live to surprise and amaze us again. But if SNL wants to take advantage of this current political moment, it’s going to have to do much, much better than it did this week.
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