Liev Schreiber seemed visibly surprised to be good at his temporary gig in sketch comedy while hosting his first Saturday Night Live to promote the sixth(!) season of Ray Donovan. Schreiber’s sincere, straightforward monologue was all about “managing expectations”; the roles he took on weren’t comic centerpieces, but they facilitated the comic proceedings capably and allowed for the de facto initiation rite of having your composure broken to smithereens by one Kate McKinnon. Saturday night’s episode didn’t produce any instant classics like Adam Driver’s frenzied oil baron, but it was a solid installment of a season that had otherwise yet to improve on its already uneven premiere.
Conventional wisdom has it that SNL has been in a “transitional period” for about five years, ever since legends like Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, and recent host Seth Meyers departed to begin the post–Studio 8H chapter of their careers. But while some veterans—most notably McKinnon, Kenan Thompson, and Aidy Bryant—remain, the recent infusion of new blood into the cast means that the show certainly seems like it’s long since transitioned. Six of the 16 current cast members (Heidi Gardner, Chris Redd, Ego Nwodim, Melissa Villaseñor, Alex Moffat, and Mikey Day) have joined just since 2016. Most reminders of what SNL once was have moved on; what SNL currently is remains in flux, but all the elements of an updated identity are in place. Even the title sequence got a makeover!
Schreiber’s successful hosting debut therefore makes for a good opportunity to assess a fast-coalescing era of SNL. A few months in, these are the headlines from the comedy institution’s 44th chapter.
Both Sides, Now
For a show that’s sprinted full-tilt into liberal poster child status through nearly two years, SNL’s first post-election episode had a strange unifying theme: bipartisanship. Schreiber’s monologue praised voter turnout across both parties as a sign of patriotism. A silly music video praised the petty annoyances that bring us all together. And even without an ultra-famous fiancée, Pete Davidson continued his streak of generating real-life headlines, then using them as fodder for his appearances within the show. Generously, it’s an endearing show of self-awareness . Ungenerously, well … Ariana said it best.
During a run of GOP politician jokes last week, Davidson cracked that then-congressional candidate, and newly elected representative of Texas’s 2nd District, Lt. Com. Dan Crenshaw resembled “a hitman in a porno movie.” (Crenshaw lost an eye to an IED while deployed in Afghanistan, resulting in his use of an eye patch.) Rather than bulldoze past the outrage—Davidson wasn’t just mocking Crenshaw’s physical appearance, but an aspect of his appearance that’s the direct result of a war injury—SNL opted to have Crenshaw on to accept Davidson’s apology, a repair job that made Crenshaw look game and Davidson look sincere. From a strictly PR perspective, it was savvy: Crenshaw got a Grande joke in; Davidson bonded with his erstwhile object of scorn over losing his father on 9/11.
And yet, I have to be honest: When just a cursory scan of Crenshaw’s Wikipedia page turned up phrases like “border security” and “Laura Ingraham,” I felt my face scrunch up in disgust. (Crenshaw has also supported building a border wall, called sanctuary cities “an affront to our law enforcement and national security,” and enjoyed the support of hard-right senator Tom Cotton during his primary.) SNL softening the image of a politician complicit in his party’s fear-mongering tactics is at odds with the satirical posture the show sometimes likes to strike. With relatively sharp Weekend Update jokes on the one side and the Crenshaw gambit on the other, SNL still tries to straddle the line between unifying entertainer and unabashed dart thrower. Davidson’s faux pas, followed by Davidson’s overcorrection, epitomizes the pitfalls of such waffling. Doubling down on the remark doubtless wouldn’t have been a good look; nor would shying away from the Republican Party to begin with. But this fruitless middle path was unflattering in a way that felt particular to SNL’s chronic identity split.
Free Kate McKinnon
Speaking of toothless political sketches, how about Saturday’s eight-minute cold open? In a testament to both how quickly the president wrested back the news cycle and how much richer the current administration is as a comedic target than their opposition, the night’s first sketch centered not on Tuesday’s Democratic victories, but on the resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The clip was essentially an extended swan song for Kate McKinnon’s elfin “little stinker.” While her in-character performance of “Someone Like You” was certainly an improvement from the last time McKinnon was called on to sing post-election, I found myself thankful for the likely retirement.
As the show’s widely understood MVP for some time now, McKinnon has shouldered a disproportionate burden across SNL. Nowhere has this been more apparent than political impressions, epitomized by an absurd, pre-De Niro Robert Mueller but also evident from the sheer volume of McKinnon’s roles: Angela Merkel. Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Theresa May. Elizabeth Warren. Lindsey Graham! McKinnon being McKinnon, she’s performed them all ably. But just because someone is great at something doesn’t mean it’s what they’re best at.
Last night saw the return of Ms. Rafferty, the repeated victim of alien abductions and, now, ghost hauntings gone wrong. While the sketch was cocreated by McKinnon and writers Streeter Seidell and Mikey Day, also a cast member, the concept is a clear vehicle for McKinnon’s gleeful, wild-eyed white trash character, not offended at her inferior supernatural encounters so much as amused by them. Her Sessions is better than most SNL political portraits. She actually zeros in and exaggerates an aspect of his personality (in this case, his physical and spiritual resemblance to a rodent) instead of just aping one, but it’s nowhere near as much fun for her or us as zany inventions like Ms. Rafferty. Same goes for “Teacher Fell Down,” a gloriously weird bit from the Jonah Hill episode centering on McKinnon’s drama queen of a driver’s ed instructor; Debette Goldry, the cartoonishly mistreated Old Hollywood actress given new, uncomfortable life by the events of the past year; and old favorites who haven’t yet made an appearance this season, like Sheila Sovage, the bar regular whose horniness consistently overrides her taste. McKinnon likely doesn’t have much time left in her SNL tenure. Her track record indicates the most efficient use of said time would be building characters we don’t already see in the news.
New Blood, New Show
Heidi Gardner and Chris Redd are still technically featured players, and yet they already feel like an integral part of the show. Gardner has enjoyed an inspired run of Weekend Update showcases for characters like Bailey Gismert, the teen film critic, and Angel, the girlfriend from every boxing movie; the latest addition, equal parts well-observed and wacky, is Baskin Johns, a nervous Goop employee. This week, Redd starred in the latest of a series of pre-taped hip-hop parodies, immediately following up on an inspired ode to “Trees” (literally, trees). Gardner brings a very different energy than McKinnon, but it can only help the show to have another female utility player in the offing as McKinnon eyes her exit. And “Permission” and “Trees” are the kind of well-informed, relevant cultural commentary that results from hiring outside the show’s previously lily-white talent pool.
But SNL’s most exciting new additions are arguably behind the camera. Writer Julio Torres leveraged the success—and real-world impact!—of voice-forward sketches like “Papyrus” into an upcoming HBO series. That’s a rare achievement based on writing for SNL alone, but at least a few recent breakouts suggest it might not be an isolated incident. Newcomer Eli Coyote Mandel’s “Career Day” remains, to my mind, the sketch to beat for the season, a specific and inspired bit of character work elevated by a committed performance from Adam Driver, as well as a bang-up job by the hair and makeup team. And according to the sleuths on Reddit, “Teacher Fell Down” was based on an audition piece by fellow freshman Alison Gates, another veteran of talent farms like Second City and iO.
Both “Career Day” and “Teacher Fell Down” are examples of the silly, offbeat, sensibility-showcasing material critics such as myself often complain is missing from SNL these days and crowded out by celebrity cameos and responsive political work. If the show can find a way to bring this back while also fostering the kind of buzzy, ascendant talent it’s been lacking recently, the result will be a win-win, making SNL better as both a comedy and a starmaker. It’d even be well worth the trade-off with headline-generating, though typically uninspired, topical fodder. I’d rather have a Saturday Night Live that makes me laugh than one that half-heartedly tries, and usually fails, to eviscerate.