If only for a brief moment, you might be excused for assuming that Saturday Night Live was off this week, instead playing a decades-old rerun. In the cold open was Will Ferrell, dressed up as former president George W. Bush, addressing the crowd with his signature malapropisms — “economer” rather than “economist” — and being a general doofus. But then came the Donald Trump comparisons, and the emphasis from Ferrell’s Bush that, while we might think more favorably of our last Republican president — indeed, 61 percent of Americans feel this way, according to a recent poll — he wasn’t that great, either. “What has two thumbs and created ISIS?” Ferrell says. “This guy.”
However, even though the cold open was basically a way to return to the show’s now entrenched primary purpose of making Trump jokes, it was a refreshing change of pace for SNL; not just for seeing a beloved alum reprise his best bit of yesteryear in Studio 8H, but for what we didn’t see. There was no Alec Baldwin, and none of the current cast as the grab bag of Trump lackeys — only Leslie Jones made a brief cameo as Condoleezza Rice. That set the tone for SNL’s best episode of the season (admittedly, a low bar to clear).
Saturday Night Live hasn’t capitalized on the way it captured the zeitgeist last year, when memorable political skewerings of Trump and his administration caught the president’s aggrieved eye — Melissa McCarthy’s hilarious take on Sean Spicer was that good — and led to the show’s best ratings in years. On the one hand, it’s hard for any topical program to keep up with the unrelenting chaos of this administration, where a week’s worth of material could be packed into an afternoon (something that John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, with its long hiatuses, is still grappling with). But with the extra attention, and the extra extra wellspring of material, SNL has rarely had anything meaningful to say, let alone any critical subtext to offer. “We’re all tired,” Baldwin’s Trump admitted in the Ryan Gosling–hosted season premiere back in October, which has essentially become SNL’s ethos since the fall.
One potential setback for SNL was the loss of writers Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider, who went to work full time on a pilot that was green-lit by Comedy Central last March. Kelly and Schneider were integral in the show’s approach to political sketches, shaping Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton persona and Larry David’s great “Bern Your Enthusiasm” skit. In their void, the show is offering up empty calories and generalizations plucked straight from the headlines — last week’s cold open with Beck Bennett as Trump’s doctor coasted on unoriginal fat jokes. It doesn’t help that Baldwin clearly isn’t feeling it — though since he probably assumed he’d be done with this by November 2016, who can blame him?
Where SNL has remained strong in Season 43 is in its offbeat skits, things that feel like they’re plucked straight from Weird Twitter. Sketches about the lazy font choice for James Cameron’s Avatar giving one man an existential crisis, and the ethical quandary of jerking off a dolphin for science have brought the best laughs. Especially after losing Kelly and Schneider, SNL now can’t afford to lose Julio Torres, the gifted writer behind the Avatar sketch — as well as other standouts, like “Wells for Boys” — whose oddball sensibilities would be hard to imitate. Crucially, both the Avatar and dolphin sketches made great use of their hosts, Gosling and Tiffany Haddish, respectively.
When you have the guy behind Anchorman, Step Brothers, and Talladega Nights as your latest host, it’s wise to play to his (and, coincidentally, your) strengths: Let him do random and strange shit! Thankfully, SNL obliged. Ferrell’s best moments on Saturday night, post–cold open, would feel right at home in one of his films. There was a four-minute bit that was basically an excuse to say “Clown Penis” over and over again. In one skit, Ferrell was a flight attendant returning from a one-month sabbatical — not to find God, but to realize God isn’t real and that death is final — and terrifying the passengers. That these sketches would have fit in during Ferrell’s tenure as an SNL cast member in the late ’90s and early 2000s is a good sign, and a welcome respite from White House jabs with bare minimum effort.
But where SNL is still finding its feet this season politically, the show’s biggest improvement on Saturday was the way it finally committed to addressing the #MeToo movement. Since the national reckoning with sexual harassment and assault in the entertainment industry and beyond — which began around the same time SNL started its new season, in October — the show has failed in covering the issue with nuance, save for a handful of gasp-inducing one-liners from the “Weekend Update” crew. An inability to righteously skewer figures like Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken, Matt Lauer, and Louis C.K. didn’t feel like complicity, but perhaps just a shade of trepidation. Two sketches from Ferrell’s episode were a promising move in the right direction.
One saw Ferrell and male castmembers star in a commercial for a new deodorant, Next, that’s specifically for men “feeling the heat ’cause their time’s up.” In another, a dinner conversation among friends turned apocalyptic when the subject of the recent allegations about Aziz Ansari came up. Nobody could string together a few sentences; at one point, Kenan Thompson opted to stab his own hand with a knife than broach the topic again, and Ferrell dove face-first into a plate of spaghetti. It perfectly encapsulated the tricky gray areas surrounding consent that have come to the fore, while skewering the modern liberal’s conflicting desires to address injustice and also never actually confront anything that causes mild discomfort. Seen another way, the skit was SNL’s meta-admission of guilt, recognizing their own fear and inabilities to assume the responsibility of discussing the #MeToo movement. For the first time this season, SNL found something to say, even if it was an observation that collectively we’re not sure what to say yet.
Ferrell’s episode found that precious balance between topical and offbeat — a good SNL episode ought to vacillate between Aziz Ansari and Clown Penises. And while Ferrell was always going to be a big draw, it’s still promising that the best episode of the season corresponded with the best ratings of the season. There is no one fix for SNL’s current sluggishness, and what Ferrell was able to do with his signature brand of irreverent humor can’t exactly be replicated by next week’s host, Natalie Portman. (Though I will rescind this remark if we’re given a sequel to “Natalie Raps.”) But a win’s a win. SNL took a step forward this week by letting its political commentary step back a bit. Maybe that’s not a cure, but until they have something meaningful to say in that forum, it’s a temporary salve.