We gave it a C
Saturday Night Live hit a wall of sorts this week. The zeitgeist-y adrenaline that’s fueled the show ever since Donald Trump’s election (and the subsequent revelation that the new president closely watches SNL‘s mockery of him) seems to have dissipated. After all, this newfound cultural relevance was always a blessing as well as a curse. Alec Baldwin’s Trump impression was clearly not intended to last past the election, and the show has been handicapped by its reliance on an outside performer for the crux of its political satire. This week’s cold open proved that the impression itself is no longer worth trying to bend over backwards for either.
Set in the future, the sketch imagined how President Trump would react to an alien invasion. If you guessed the answer was “not well,” then congratulations, you’ve already figured out the only joke of the sketch, repeated over and over as Baldwin deploys what have become standard Trumpisms (denying inconvenient facts, throwing subordinates under the bus) in the face of alien onslaught. The joke about This Is Us and Baldwin’s Trump declaring that he can’t watch the NBC drama because “NBC has been very unfair to me” was insufferably self-obsessed, especially since NBC itself (and SNL in particular) was incredibly generous in its coverage of Trump’s campaign. Anyway, Baldwin has publicly said he probably won’t be sustaining this impression for much longer, and it’s clear why. The whole thing has gone stale, mostly because it lacks a biting critique. Trump’s behavior is so absurd that simply repeating his words in other contexts doesn’t add anything. SNL still needs to figure out a sustainable strategy for covering the Trump administration, and it’s clear now that Baldwin just isn’t it. Luckily, later parts of the episode indicated better possibilities for the future.
Before that, though, there’s the matter of Johansson’s monologue. As a five-time host, Johansson has luckily moved far beyond the common hurdle of actresses hosting SNL, which is every joke being about how beautiful they are. Instead, the episode mostly highlighted her action-star skills, her singing talents, and general charisma. The monologue, though, weirdly revolved around interruptions from Kenan Thompson and a “five-time host” song that so obviously cribbed from the Subway five-dollar footlong jingle they had to call it out themselves. Johansson has a good rapport with Thompson (the only cast member to have been around for all five of her hosting turns), but a Fat Albert joke in 2017 just isn’t anything to write home about.
Best Sketch: “A Sketch for the Women”
SNL has really found a groove with these sketches about hypocritical men. Like last week’s “Girl at a Bar,” “A Sketch for the Women” ruthlessly mocked men who pretend to be feminist and open-minded only to score points with women — and then hypocritically deny those women a voice or a choice. Playing off this week’s Day Without a Woman strike, Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney claimed to have written a sketch for their female cast members. It quickly became apparent, though, that the sketch only had lines for Bennett and Mooney to express their “woke” gravitas while the women act impressed. Kudos for going all the way to the hilt with this one, even bringing out Lorde just to have Bennett and Mooney jump in front of her and sing “Royals” themselves. Hilarious, biting stuff. SNL‘s got something here.
Best Short: “Complicit”
Ivanka Trump has somehow escaped much of SNL‘s recent mockery, despite the fact she was at the forefront of one of her father’s silliest political scandals so far. Johansson’s impression was short, sweet, and to the point, mocking both the ridiculous excess of Ivanka’s brand and the benefit of the doubt often (and undeservedly) given to her by the mainstream media.
Weakest Sketch: “Zoo Pornographer”
It’s indicative of how this episode went that it kicked off with one of its weakest sketches. What initially seemed like a potentially good commentary on the “fake news” phenomenon and how easily media reports can be misconstrued quickly devolved into a series of bad puns that went on way too long. A good SNL episode should not have you asking “this is still going on?” during the very first sketch.
Weekend Update Highlights
Whatever you do, never doubt the sheer inventive power of Kate McKinnon. Her second turn as Attorney General Jeff Sessions was the definite highlight of this Weekend Update and a good indicator of what SNL‘s political humor should be like going forward. SNL‘s political commentary tends to consist of taking a politician’s real words or actions and dialing them up just a notch to seem absurd, but that approach hasn’t worked very well for the Trump administration, because many of its leading figures already act far wackier than any other American politicians in recent memory. In order to get any traction, SNL should just dial things way up and go for above-and-beyond absurdist pastiche. It worked for Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer, and it worked wonders for McKinnon’s Sessions, saying things like “Ala-baby” and noting that “these ears are decorative.” She totally outshone Alex Moffat’s Al Franken, although SNL having to parody one of its own former cast members in his current job as a U.S. Senator is a pretty hilarious indication of how ridiculous our entire political-media-culture landscape has become.
Pete Davidson was the second Weekend Update guest, coming on to mock the Trump administration’s media surrogates like Stephen Miller and Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Although Davidson had a few good burns (describing Sean Hannity’s hair as “two eyebrows that got to live their dream of being hair,” for one), the bit was at its best when Davidson connected House Speaker Paul Ryan’s struggles with replacing Obamacare to his own struggles with getting sober. It’s bitter, thankless work, but hey, “at least I have dreams now, and I’ve started waking up with boners again!”
Best Musical Moment: “Green Light” by Lorde
Despite the name of the song, Lorde was surrounded by red lights on stage as she performed the first single off her much-anticipated second album, Melodrama. Performing well with SNL‘s acoustics can be rather difficult, especially since Lorde’s live performances around her last album (Pure Heroine) tended to be hit or miss. She overcame these challenges, however, giving an emphatic performance that ended with her, exhausted and energized, kneeling and smiling in front of the camera. She seemed like she was only a few seconds away from banging her head into the bass drum, St. Vincent-style. That’s what I call a comeback. Her other performance, “Liability,” was wildly different but equally intense. Lorde’s energy single-handedly livened up this mostly stale episode.
Cast MVP: Kenan Thompson
For better or for worse, almost every sketch seemed to run through the veteran cast member this week. He started off by leading the cold open, then dominating Johansson’s monologue, and never really let up from there. Thompson showed off his physical comedy skills with a spaghetti faceplant in the “Olive Garden” sketch, and held his own singing alongside Johansson for “Funeral Service.” His consistency stopped the episode from ever truly capsizing.