We are officially 42 seasons deep into Saturday Night Live, and last weekend’s season finale, which featured Dwayne Johnson, Katy Perry, and a ton of other guest stars, couldn’t help but feel like a bit of a microcosm of the season as a whole. It was epic, it was star-studded, and at times, it was delightfully entertaining. And yet, it was also hopelessly inconsistent and seemed to be lacking some of the crucial edge that made SNL so important to begin with.
As with any election year, politics loomed over this season, but nothing in the show’s run could’ve prepared it for the question of “How do you solve a problem like Trump?” Of course, they didn’t help themselves by bringing the man in to host back when no one thought his presidential campaign had any hope of coming to fruition, but there was no going back from that moment, and all they could do now was hope to save face by bringing in some of the sharp political satire that marked the show’s most beloved years. Did they succeed? Well, they were certainly good at taking advantage of the spectacle that was Trump’s campaign and his presidency, but when it came to making any new, crucial insights on the 45th President of the United States, they fell a bit short.
Before the season even began, SNL had made waves by announcing that Alec Baldwin had been brought in to play Trump. It was an inspired bit of stunt casting, if only because anyone who’s followed Baldwin’s tabloid history knows that in a lot of ways, he’s a benign version of the genuine article; a rough-around-the-edges New Yorker who is known for not always saying the right thing. Trump’s sins go far beyond the worst thing Baldwin has ever done, but the connection was obvious anyway. The impression was a hit in its first appearance, but the returns proved to be diminishing. Yes, we get it – he says “China” like “gyna,” which is funny because he has horrible attitudes about women. The Trump impression never went further than making observations about him that everyone already noticed. As the season went on, it was not hard to get the feeling that the writers knew Baldwin’s time as Trump had ran its course, but there was also no way to bring someone else in at that point in the season, so it lingered on a bit awkwardly.
Then, of course, there was the question of what to do with Hillary Clinton. On the one hand, she was an infinitely mockable subject – an imperfect politician with a history of baggage. On the other hand, she was running against a cartoon villain who said unambiguously grotesque things every week without any serious consequences. How do you deal with that? For the SNL writers, the answer was to take the softball route. In the debate sketches, there were light jokes that touched on her robotic personality, and the fact that her politics weren’t all that liberal (one of the best lines of any political sketch this season was Clinton saying “You can either vote for the crazy person or the Republican!”). For the most part, though, they took it easy on HRC, perhaps because there was just no way of denying that the vast majority of cast and writers wanted her to win.
After Trump’s shocking victory, we got one of the most talked about moments of the season, as Kate McKinnon-as-Hillary sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” Cohen having died just a few days earlier. It was the type of thing that seems heartfelt and poignant until you start to actually think about it. For one thing, Trump’s victory coinciding with Cohen’s death was just that – a coincidence. If, say, Jon Bon Jovi had passed away the same week as Trump’s election, would we have gotten a somber rendition of “Livin’ on a Prayer?” Additionally, while the kid gloves treatment of Clinton was understandable when the election was going on, this would have been the perfect opportunity to actually go after her a little bit. Surely they could have made it clear that they weren’t thrilled about Trump winning while still critiquing for Hillary for, say, her lack of campaigning in crucial states like Michigan and Wisconsin. Perhaps the goal was to capture the darkness and uncertainty of the national moment, but it was hard not to think that in SNL’s sharper years, they would have been willing to poke fun at Hillary’s middling campaign rather than presenting her as an unambiguous heroine. Were there reasons to feel sympathy for Clinton after her defeat in the election? Of course, especially when you consider that sexism played an undeniable role how things played out. At the same time, it’s not unreasonable to think a stronger campaign from Clinton would have yielded different results. And at any rate, SNL had never declined to critique a politician before, and it was a bit jarring that they’d start now, even considering the circumstances.
One of the most discussed Trump advisers was Kellyanne Conway, and the show seemed to change its strategy to approaching that situation midway through the season. Early on, Kate McKinnon played Conway as a put-upon woman, desperately trying to clean up yet another Trump mess. As the season progressed, however, SNL began to take a different view of the situation, realizing that Conway was, ahem, complicit in the situation as well. That change happened in one of the best political sketches of the year, a Fatal Attraction parody where Conway is desperate for Jake Tapper to let her on the air again. Here, we saw Conway presented as someone who was willing to do anything for fame, even go down with the sinking ship that is the Trump administration. It was encouraging to see SNL change their viewpoint after being given a new perspective, and it suggests that they are capable of learning on the go. While SNL’s political takes were often dodgy, the Conway/Tapper sketch stands out as one of their best moments.
This season will likely be most remembered for its takes on the election and subsequent Trump presidency, but in many instances, it was at its best when it went away from politics and embraced wackiness and experimentation. This was especially true in the David S. Pumpkins sketch, where Tom Hanks immediately gave us a classic character and reminded us why he’s one of the show’s most beloved hosts. The idea came apropos of nothing, and the unpredictability of the sketch made it one of the most enjoyable things we’d seen from SNL in years. Equally enjoyable was the ongoing story of the love triangle between Leslie Jones, Kyle Mooney, and Colin Jost. Here they took a fairly innocuous recurring bit (Jones flirting with Jost during her Update segments), and turned it into a coherent storyline that had actual emotional stakes. Assuming all three return next season, I’d certainly enjoy seeing where that premise ends up. Finally, there was the gloriously weird work of new writer Julio Torres, who was responsible for innovative bits like “Wells For Boys,” which marketed toys to sensitive boys who just want to be understood. It was the type of out-of-left-field humor that marked SNL’s more experimental eras, and going forward, Torres could give some necessary eccentricity to a decidedly mainstream show.
Speaking of Jost, at the Update desk, he and Michael Che continued to have great chemistry. To some degree, they play into the long-running stereotypes of the cool black dude and his not-so-cool white friend, but they execute this dynamic well enough that it’s hard to have too many complaints about the lack of originality. There was one unfortunate moment when Jost remarked (seemingly without irony) that Facebook adding 37 new gender options to their profiles was “why Trump won.” The generous way to look at this joke was that it was perhaps mocking set-in-their-ways conservatives who would be unwilling to embrace or even consider such a notion, but based on the tone of joke, he appeared to be saying that social justice activists asked for too much, and got what they deserved. It was an uncomfortable moment, and brought some well-deserved negative attention to the Update desk. That being said, for the most part, Jost and Che were as sharp as ever, and continued to feel like a natural pairing.
One immutable element of this season was the continued presence of celebrities entering the main cast. First, it was Baldwin’s Trump, followed by Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer, Scarlett Johansson as Ivanka Trump, and Jimmy Fallon as Jared Kushner. All of these were bits of stunt casting designed to bring attention to the show (and it worked, considering the high ratings), but they drew attention away from the main cast, and leave us with the question of who will be playing these principal characters next season (well, maybe not Sean Spicer, who will be probably be fired by then). Do these A-listers keep reprising these roles? And if not, who takes up the mantle? As Saturday Night Live grew from a cult favorite to a cultural institution, one could observe that being part of the cast was no longer a stepping stone to making it, but rather, evidence that you already had. With Lorne Michaels taking the ball out of his own players’ hands so often, it’s going to be harder for cast members to make their mark (The Ringer has a good piece touching on this problem). Stunt casting is fun in the moment, but it’s ultimately more rewarding to watch up-and-coming cast members make their own mark. It would be nice to see Lorne return to that approach next season.
Season 42 of Saturday Night Live had some undeniable high points, but it often felt like a case of style over substance. They brought in big guns from time to time, but for all the huge applause breaks that Baldwin or McCarthy got whenever they showed up, the whole thing made me nostalgic for the time when SNL was a place for on-the-rise comics and actors to experiment, rather than an apparatus for major celebrities to play the Trump cabinet member of their choice and let us know that they’re part of #TheResistance. This season was the sketch comedy equivalent of a Michael Bay movie: big and epic, but also shallow and bloated. Hopefully, when we return for season 43, SNL will go back to giving its young stars a chance to shine, while also finding something to say about Trump (or possibly Pence) other than “he’s bad.” This season earned the show its highest ratings since the 1993-94 show, but as any SNL fan knows, that season was followed by the disastrous ‘94-‘95 campaign, which is considered one of the worst in the show’s entire run. Hopefully, Lorne has learned enough from that disaster not to let history repeat itself.