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‘Saturday Night Live’ Chills Out

This week’s installment got weird — and made the political comedy even more effective

(NBC)
(NBC)

For the past few months, SNL has seemed like it’s acting out of obligation. The writers know that they’re expected to deliver blistering political satire by both their audience and, bizarrely, their subject. So they’ve dutifully produced sketches that feel rote — Jeff Sessions is Southern, just like this other Southern guy! — or, in the case of Kellyanne Conway, premature, debuted before the show got a firm handle on her character. “Samantha Bee and John Oliver always know why they hate someone,” critic Mark Harris wrote for Vulture last week. “Sometimes, SNL just knows that it hates someone.”

This Saturday, SNL gave the impression it was doing what it wanted to rather than what it felt like it had to for the first time in a while. This came through strongest in the apolitical sketches, which featured a much higher hit rate than usual: A typically go-for-broke Kate McKinnon performance as a mermaid who’s “15 percent maiden, 85 percent blobfish” got an energetic assist from host Scarlett Johansson as her anglerfish wingwoman; and a quasi-racist, more-than-quasi-pornographic Olive Garden commercial worked far better than any seven-minute sketch should, thanks in part to Mikey Day’s feigned orgasm/authentic-seeming seizure. Johansson, perhaps celebrating her induction to the mythic Five-Timers Club, brought gameness and versatility — just watch her rap over house tracks in funeral clothes — and let them bleed over into the rest of the show. For once, politics wasn’t the only thing about SNL worth talking about Monday morning, which freed the political parts of the show to loosen up and get freaky in their own right.

When SNL did branch into the topical, it was with a corresponding sense of fun. Rather than recreate a press conference, news show, or similarly dry real-world event, this week’s cold open tipped into the fantastical, putting President Trump’s bull-headed bravura against the backdrop of a hypothetical alien invasion. The sketch’s silliness and firm grasp of inspirational war-movie speeches are its chief virtues, but it also makes a sharp point, and does so better than any by-the-numbers news peg would: Trump gets credit for being a wild card, while in truth he’s so predictable that he’d keep steady in the face of the impossible. He makes it about him, even when “it” is the end of the world.

That opening set the tone for a slew of politics-adjacent larks. Pete Davidson’s “Weekend Update” appearance was more insult comedy than commentary and didn’t pretend to be otherwise. (“Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who’s one of those sweet Southern girls that you marry…if you’re gay!” is hardly mature, but it is satisfying.) “A Sketch for the Women” kept up a hot streak of skewering male feminists while also reuniting the Good Neighbor dream team of Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett. Rather than shoehorn current events into the agenda, these sketches simply used them as a conduit into more natural modes of humor: puerile zingers on Davidson’s part and an intimate knowledge of oblivious bros on Bennett and Mooney’s.

All this conserved energy for a short-and-sweet clip that offered genuinely vicious satire, courtesy of a crystal-clear perspective on the target of its jokes. The name of Ivanka Trump’s “Complicit” fragrance says it all, though the marketing copy is happy to elaborate: “She’s a woman who knows what she wants — and knows what she’s doing… The fragrance for the woman who could stop all this, but won’t.” (Johansson plays Ivanka, upholding SNL’s apparent policy of delegating the part to whichever attractive blonde woman happens to be presiding.) To borrow Harris’s phrasing, this is a sketch that knows exactly why it hates its target. The writers’ nose for hypocrisy renders the moment particularly effective.

And yet “Complicit” somehow isn’t the highlight. This is. The premise of “Translator” is beautifully, transcendently dumb: The dream of talking to your dog turns into a nightmare when your dog ends up being a full-blown Trump supporter. There’s no real takeaway here, though Max the pug has a point about the reproductive rights advocate not giving him a choice when he got neutered. There’s just the gleeful, absurd shock value of an adorable animal getting up in arms about “liberal snowflakes.” This is putting the zeitgeist in the service of comedy, not bending comedy to the zeitgeist. Tension and left-leaning discomfort is in the air, and “Translator” uses it to spectacular effect. I’ve watched it five times. This thing holds up.