Trump’s America is upon us, and the new president’s favorite Twitter target just showed how it plans to keep provoking him. Saturday Night Live may not be the most bracing or consistent outlet for political satire we have, but President Donald J. Trump isn’t singling out Samantha Bee in his tweets. Trump has taken the unprecedented step of making the SNL–White House relationship something close to reciprocal. The more importance Trump ascribes to SNL by repeatedly demonstrating the show’s capacity to get under his admittedly paper-thin skin, the more importance it ultimately has.
SNL’s post-election, pre-inauguration material hadn’t offered much reason to hope that the show would put that platform to optimal use. The show hadn’t been able to settle on an angle on Trump until the election was nearly over, so how would it handle an actual Trump presidency? Saturday’s first episode of the Trump era suggests: intermittently and unevenly. Here’s how it shook out:
That Ruski Cold Open: D+
Beck Bennett’s Vladimir Putin is a fun addition to SNL’s political roster, but making him carry the cold open instantly highlighted the problem of outsourcing the show’s most important recurring role to an A-list outsider. Putin’s appearance seemed like a backup plan: In all likelihood, Baldwin didn’t appear in the first days of his character’s presidency because he simply…couldn’t. A significant part of SNL’s agenda is now dependent on someone else’s schedule, and will be for the next four years unless they make a drastic pivot, fast. That’s a less-than-ideal situation when responding to someone as unpredictable (and now powerful) as Trump.
Even if Baldwin wasn’t available, though, SNL had plenty of openings to weigh in on the state of the nation — one for each spectacularly unqualified, eminently mockable nominee paraded before the U.S. Senate. Brushing them aside in favor of a bit so light on insight it rested on a totally nonpolitical character (Kate McKinnon’s Olya Pavlatsky) felt misguided. For a supposedly political sketch, the segment didn’t have much of a message beyond “Russia! It’s a thing, and it’s miserable!”
Aziz Ansari’s “Lowercase kkk” Monologue: A
Aziz Ansari’s monologue was excellent, but like all comedian monologues, it clearly came from an individual, not the institution. And yet! Comedians’ ability to speak as individuals is precisely what makes their commentary sharper and more distinct. Continually handing the mic to stand-ups like Ansari and Dave Chappelle, especially ones who aren’t white dudes, is a pattern SNL should keep following. The two offered nearly opposite takes on Trump that only highlighted their specificity: Chappelle’s cynical and subdued, Ansari’s upbeat and optimistic. Bringing them in lets funny, unconventional, charismatic people add their voices to the post-election mix, and that’s a worthy contribution in itself.
Kellyanne Gets Crazy: A-
Like seemingly everything good at Studio 8H, the episode’s bright spot came courtesy of Kate McKinnon. The show has compensated for the loss of McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton by unleashing her as former Trump campaign manager (and continued propaganda slinger) Kellyanne Conway. It’s been a welcome development — or it would be, if SNL didn’t seem so wedded to its election-era portrait of Conway as a rational(ish) person who regrets hitching herself to this clown car more with each passing second. As the real Conway seems less and less likely to express anything resembling regret or shame, the distance between the two personas grows.
With “Kellyanne Conway,” a bombastic parody of Chicago’s “Roxie,” that half-cooked version of the character met its loud, flashy, musical demise. McKinnon got to shake it in a flapper dress and put her (legit good) singing voice to better use than a certain Leonard Cohen cover; SNL got to hone its take on the ideology-free hypocrisy that defines the current administration. Conway was reborn as the gleeful opportunist she is proving herself to be with every TV appearance. (“I’m gonna be in SAG!” McKinnon gushes.) The sketch isn’t just a welcome change for this specific character — it’s also proof SNL can and should retool as it goes.
The Best (and Worst) of “Weekend Update”: B
“Weekend Update” was a mixed bag: On the one hand, I’m not particularly interested in hearing thoughts on the Women’s March on Washington from a comedian as openly dismissive of street harassment as Michael Che. (“[Feminism] is easy to get behind — that is, until you see an actual feminist screaming into a cop’s face wearing a homemade uterus hat,” he joked last night — about right for him.) On the other, Leslie Jones talking about black innovators’ erasure from history was both a welcome changeup from her typical desk bits about single life and an indication SNL can get political even when it’s not taking on congress or the presidency. Sometimes, hiring the right person and giving them an outlet is enough.
A Cloying Closing Tribute: C
Singing overly saccharine ballads to departed heroes: Are we really still doing this? Sasheer Zamata and Cecily Strong are lovely singers, and their thank-you tribute to President Obama — a cover of “To Sir, With Love” — scanned as well-meaning and heartfelt.
But weird earnestness channeled through song wasn’t a good look for the comedy show in November and it isn’t a good look now. There are certain events that call for a break in SNL’s irreverence; after September 11th, Lorne Michaels famously brought on firefighters, policemen, and Rudy Giuliani to acknowledge a tragedy and get official permission to keep going in spite of it. This wasn’t one of them: No one knew how a comedy show was supposed to respond to a catastrophe, but everyone knows how it can respond to a catastrophic election. The tacked-on half-joke at the end — Cecily and Sasheer presenting a “World’s Greatest President” mug — didn’t make the tonal shift any less weird. Sincerity can be a fail-safe for when comedy isn’t enough, but a certain Twitter feed suggests that weekly sketch comedy can still get a rise out of the powerful.