Hillary Clinton is no longer running for president, and yet Saturday Night Live still has a Hillary Clinton problem. Specifically, it’s pretending it never had a Hillary problem.
SNL’s post-election shows have been markedly better than its early-season episodes, in large part because the show no longer has to maintain the “they’re both bad!” fallacy that hamstrung the media throughout the campaign. Lest we’ve forgotten, Lorne Michaels invited Trump to host the show last year, helping to normalize his candidacy and allow viewers to see his racism and misogyny as quirks we could collectively set aside. But now, egged on by the president-elect himself, the writers have turned out surreally disturbing flights of fancy (“Through Donald’s Eyes”), media critiques (“Anderson Cooper 360”), and more straightforward spoofs of Trump’s incompetence (Saturday night’s cold open). There are still strange blind spots, like the continued portrayal of Kellyanne Conway as a decent person stranded on the Trump train rather than one of its chief conductors, but they’re the exception rather than the rule. It turns out that comedy is better when it sends a clear message rather than half a dozen muddled ones.
And yet SNL still has no idea how to handle post-election Hillary. The first show of the Trump era gave us an in-character Kate McKinnon covering Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” paying due tribute to two people who had precisely nothing in common, which was cringeworthy enough — but then McKinnon-as-Hillary-as-30-Rock-spokesperson turned to the camera to say “I’m not giving up, and neither should you.” McKinnon’s Clinton had been superlative in her indignation — part entitlement, part justified fury that this was her legitimate competition — and extreme awkwardness. Here, she was reduced to a mouthpiece, with the very thing SNL mocked her for turned into a would-be rallying cry.
It might be possible to move past such a disingenuous display of sentimentality if it were a one-off. But Sentimental Hillary was back on this weekend’s Christmas episode. In “Hillary Actually,” McKinnon again reprises her role, this time to persuade an elector to change her vote in a beat-for-beat echo of the famous scene from Love Actually. Unlike the “Hallelujah” open, “Hillary Actually” isn’t played completely straight. The sketch is genuinely shrewd and pointed, allowing Clinton to be a comic figure again while still delivering jabs. McKinnon brings back the elastic eyebrows and creeptastic stares that animate her best characters to beg a member of the electoral college to vote, if not for her, for literally anyone who isn’t Trump — like Tom Hanks, or Zendaya. And then it runs aground on its own sentimentality. The sketch was clearly written from the perspective of an aghast liberal, relaying Trump’s recent actions verbatim (a favored tactic of late) and ending on a far more alarmist note than the show ever struck during his candidacy. Unsurprisingly, the clip was embraced more for its sincerity than its humor: Vox’s Ezra Klein called it the “saddest, realest” sketch of 2016; comedian Mike Birbiglia praised it as funny and “beautiful.”
It’s … neither of those things. Consider the history and context, starting with Trump’s fateful hosting gig. Even without that act of complicity, though, SNL bungled the endless election cycle. It took three tries for the show to find a Trump impression that stuck (and treated him as appropriately grotesque). And it took Hillary losing for the show to come out in her favor. McKinnon introduced SNL’s final pre-election show by declaring SNL couldn’t tell viewers who to vote for, a message that was clearly mandated but no less clunky for it. Compare that with her character’s post-election message. Who was the “you” the show was addressing in that mini-speech, and what solidarity were they trying to draw on?
I have no doubt that individual writers and performers at SNL are sincere in their opposition to Trump as well as their shock and sorrow at Clinton’s loss. But while individual sketches should certainly be celebrated — “Hillary Actually” and the wilderness-parody bit “The Hunt for Hil” are sharp and funny! — they can’t be separated from the show’s larger failure, and they certainly shouldn’t be used to erase or condone it. SNL has finally decided to deliver gut-punching closers like Hillary’s final reminder that Trump will “kill us all.” Perhaps we should be asking ourselves why it took so long.