Saturday Night Live got very lucky this week. On the one hand, that tape of Donald Trump making graphic comments about women dropped on Friday, completely transforming the entire tone and coverage of the presidential election. In doing so, it saved SNL from having to make more than one joke about vice presidential candidates Tim Kaine and Mike Pence, whose bland styles made their Tuesday debate the lowest-rated vice presidential contest of the 21st century.
On the other hand, SNL was also fortunate enough to have Lin-Manuel Miranda hosting this week. Miranda has become a bona fide celebrity thanks to the smash success of his Broadway musical Hamilton — and though he opened his monologue by joking about how most people watching SNL in middle America probably have no idea who he is, Miranda spent the episode showcasing his once-in-a-generation talent in ways that were impossible to mistake. Miranda brought his A-game to the show and raised the level of everyone else’s performance in the process.
As one might expect from the genius behind two hip-hop-inflected musicals, Miranda rapped most of his opening monologue. Most of it was new, rather than turning the templates of old Hamilton songs into commentaries on Trump (although Miranda did quote the Hamilton line “Never gon’ be president now,” sung by Alexander Hamilton’s enemies in the wake of a damaging sex scandal, while standing next to a picture of Trump). Miranda’s monologue quickly spilled out into the audience and hallway, and even dragged in SNL mastermind Lorne Michaels for a joke about how difficult it still is to procure Hamilton tickets.
SNL monologues can sometimes feel uninspired, but Miranda’s live theater experience and rap skills made his immediately stand out. It’s a testament to the rest of the episode that such a fun monologue quickly felt overshadowed. Here are the highlights:
Before viewers saw even a hint of Miranda, SNL had to address this week’s political upheaval. The cold open started with a reenactment of Tuesday’s vice presidential debate, with Mikey Day as a whiny Kaine and Beck Bennett as a stone-faced Pence. Those two impressions were good for about one joke each, which luckily is all they got before a hard cut to Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump, back to discuss this week’s recording. As Trump, Baldwin grossly hung his mouth open for seconds at a time, and the intro ended with the camera zooming in uncomfortably on his face. Cecily Strong’s CNN anchor matched this physicality by clutching herself each time Baldwin’s Trump made another ill-advised comment. This is the kind of story so over the top that it hardly needs any SNL commentary, but that bit of uncomfortable physicality was a nice touch.
Kellyanne’s day off
Kate McKinnon is the brightest star of this SNL season, and she was clearly not going to let Miranda overshadow her: In the episode’s most inventive piece of Trump commentary, McKinnon took on the role of campaign manager Kellyanne Conway. The skit portrayed her enjoying her free time, only to get repeatedly interrupted from yoga classes and grocery shopping by news of yet another Trump comment. As her defenses got more and more ridiculous (“Yes, he did say it’s gross to watch gay people eat pasta because he wants them to eat healthy foods”) before finally breaking down (“What do you want me to say? Yes, he said that. He’s crazy. He’s the worst person I’ve ever known”), McKinnon’s Kellyanne was a hilarious comment on the time commitment required to repeatedly defend Trump. Beck Bennett’s increasingly exasperated Jake Tapper was also great, considering that the real-life Tapper appears to have reached the end of his rope when it comes to interviewing Trump campaign surrogates.
Fey and Fallon return to Weekend Update
SNL alum Jimmy Fallon caught some flak for his decision to playfully tousle Trump’s hair in a recent interview — so this week’s episode brought Fallon back to his old home of Weekend Update to answer for that widely criticized bit. His former co-host Tina Fey even came as well. The two posed as undecided female Pennsylvania voters, and although Philly native Fey maintained a flawless accent throughout, she often appeared to drop any pretense of character in favor of roasting Fallon to his face (and Trump from a distance). Although not as refreshing as the episode’s Miranda and McKinnon bits, it’s always a pleasure to watch Fey unload on the culture as a whole. No one is better prepared to do so, especially since every new day of this election feels like an episode of 30 Rock.
The Wells Fargo Wagon
A lot of big stories have gotten lost in the shuffle thanks to the 2016 presidential election taking the spotlight: Mylan’s outrageous EpiPen price hike, for instance, or the recent Wells Fargo fraud scandal. SNL took on the latter in a particularly inventive way, using their musically talented host to turn the Wells Fargo situation into a parody of The Music Man. Miranda played the consummate traveling salesman, except this time he was selling unwitting townspeople fake bank accounts rather than musical instruments. Kudos to SNL for not letting Trump dominate every facet of the show — there’s plenty of other scandals to mock.
Twenty One Pilots
Twenty One Pilots brought their genre-bending music to SNL, filling the interludes between political commentary with performances of their songs “Heathens” and “Ride.”
Episode grade: A
This felt like the strongest episode of SNL in a long time — consistently entertaining, with a couple of truly dazzling peaks.