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‘Saturday Night Live’ Season 43: What Worked and What Didn’t

The Tina Fey–hosted season finale was a disappointing end to a confusing, complicated season

NBC/Ringer illustration

To be frank, the 43rd season of Saturday Night Live went out on a bit of a down note. Bringing in an all-time great alumna like Tina Fey, whose last hosting gig delivered the instantly iconic “Meet Your Second Wife,” comes with high expectations, perhaps unfairly so. But even by regular-episode standards, Fey’s finale was light on memorable material and generally emblematic of a rocky creative season.

The year after an election is always an adjustment period for the comedy institution. The year after the most recent election demanded more recalibration than usual, given the show’s relationship to the current administration, as well as its reliance on outside actors to portray that administration. As it turns out, getting in Twitter feuds with the commander in chief is great for ratings, if not for quality. Unsurprisingly, then, Season 43 was a mixed bag, combining the promising elements of a so-called “rebuilding year” with tics that have rapidly solidified into crutches. To sort out what worked from what didn’t, we’re taking a closer look to help make sense of this strange time in the show’s multi-decade history and look toward its uncertain future.

Most Diminishing Return: Celebrity Casting

Fey’s episode was disappointing in part because it started on such a sour note. With her monologue, SNL writers and producers thumbed their noses at the common criticism of the show’s overreliance on celebrity cameos. This casting strategy started during the campaign with Baldwin’s Trump, then flowed down through Scarlett Johansson’s Ivanka, Jimmy Fallon’s Jared Kushner, John Goodman’s Rex Tillerson, Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer, Ben Stiller’s Michael Cohen, and Robert De Niro’s Robert Mueller. The issues with this star-packing approach, which dominated the season, are twofold: The show often doesn’t have key political figures at its satirical disposal, necessitating it shape creative decisions around stars’ availability; and the practice denies younger cast members roles and screen time that could otherwise go to betting on SNL’s long-term prospects.

By enlisting Jerry Seinfeld, Anne Hathaway, Chris Rock, and Donald Glover to acknowledge these complaints, SNL essentially rolled its eyes at those who’ve expressed their concerns. Yes, they know it’s a problem; no, they don’t seem in a rush to do anything concrete to rectify it.

The record numbers that once made these stunt cameos self-explanatory are declining, from 11 million viewers on average last season to 9.4 million in this one. And when it comes to the content of these sketches, there’s often negligible value added after the initial shock of recognition when Stormy Daniels makes a cameo or De Niro strolls onstage. There’s not that much more to be gained out of a Stiller impression of Cohen than a Luke Null one. Three to five years down the road, SNL doesn’t want to find itself without a cast talented and established enough to serve as a draw in its own right. Friends of the show aren’t an endlessly renewable resource; in order to keep making and drawing on them, the flagship has to preserve its own credibility. Winking at an issue isn’t the same thing as fixing it.

Rookies of the Year: Chris Redd and Heidi Gardner

SNL brought on three new cast members this year: Redd, Gardner, and Luke Null. Null earned a negligible amount of screen time in his first season, causing some to speculate he won’t rejoin the ensemble in the fall. But Popstar villain Redd and experienced improviser Gardner quickly made their presences felt in sketches like Migos parody “Friendos” and body-mod horror show “Horns.” (Sullen teenage types have rapidly become something of a Gardner specialty.) Given how difficult it is to break into SNL at any point in time, let alone in the Baldwin-Johansson-Stiller era, Redd and Gardner’s rapid integration has been impressive. They’re also exactly the kind of flexible utility players SNL is short on these days, with the potential to mature into more central stars over the years.

Most Overburdened Cast Member: Kate McKinnon

Here is an incomplete list of the impersonations McKinnon has been tasked with, and excelled at, over the past couple of years: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton; Massachusetts Senator and 2020 contender Elizabeth Warren; Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; German Chancellor Angela Merkel; former New York City mayor and current Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani; British Prime Minister Theresa May; Attorney General and bigoted gremlin Jeff Sessions; serial liar Kellyanne Conway; and, in the most absurd example of just how much the show has come to rely on her, special counsel Robert Mueller (with the help of some prosthetics, which were hopefully trashed the moment De Niro walked through the door).

All this comes on top of a burgeoning catalog of studio comedies like The Spy Who Dumped Me. McKinnon’s film career has every appearance of a search for a star vehicle in the vein of Bridesmaids or Girls Trip to propel her to a new level of stardom, with an eye toward a presumed exit from SNL sometime in the next couple of years. After all, she’s been there since 2012.

Someone get this woman a margarita and a month off.

Strongest Segment: Weekend Update

The hipper-than-thou portions of the internet may have rolled their collective eyes at the announcement that Update anchors (and co-head writers for the show) Colin Jost and Michael Che would cohost this year’s Emmy Awards, but the fact is the duo represent a smart and sensible choice for the job. Jost had struggled in the previous incarnation of Update, which paired him with Cecily Strong. But after Strong moved back to her natural forte of character work, putting Jost’s Harvard-WASP-frat-boy vibe in conversation with a loose, experienced stand-up like Che has brought out the best in both. Jost’s stiffness and perceived entitlement are now part of the joke, while Che’s naturalism keeps the segment afloat.

But Update stands out for reasons that go beyond its regular MCs. The desk portion of the show also functions as a showcase for aspects of SNL at its best that, for various reasons, haven’t found a home in the rest of the program. There’s direct political commentary that doesn’t have to be massaged into a sketch premise, and opportunities for rising stars who aren’t natural sketch performers to show off their chops—a description that applies most consistently to Leslie Jones and Pete Davidson, two stand-ups who’ve built followings by appearing at the Update desk as themselves.

The same principle holds true for the newcomers who’ve been largely shut out of more traditional roles. Update is the home of Alex Moffat’s Guy Who Just Bought a Boat as well as Heidi Gardner’s Every Boxer’s Girlfriend From Every Movie About Boxing Ever and Bailey Gismert, Teen Movie Critic. Unlike Jones and Davidson’s personas, these are fictional characters that, while fine Update segments, could very well work in a sketch context. The problem is that they haven’t been given the opportunity to try.

Most Conspicuous Absence: Recurring Characters

Last week, Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson actually crunched the numbers on the amount of non-political sketches that actually repeated premises and characters, a onetime SNL touchstone that enabled mini-franchises and even spinoff movies—think anything from the Coneheads to the Californians. The results of Robinson’s survey were predictably dire: Not counting Kenan Thompson’s “Family Feud” and “Black Jeopardy” roles, Kate McKinnon’s possessive cat lady and alien abductee were the only ringers from seasons past who made an appearance this year. (Once again: overburdened!) Within Season 43, only “Last Call” and Pete Davidson’s inexplicably alluring Chad were deployed multiple times.

SNL can’t force something to be a phenomenon when it isn’t catching on, but even classic characters like Stefon—who first appeared in a bizarre setup with Ben Affleck—have required multiple tries. And curiously, it’s happy to green-light running gags that treat cast members as characters, like the fictionalized romance between Kyle Mooney and Leslie Jones, which is hardly a viral sensation. In the meantime, without any other beloved figures to contend with the real-life ones lampooned by Baldwin and Co., it’s little wonder the show’s reputation is so dominated by the cold open. There’s little else to latch onto, as SNL turns its energies from generating its own vault of references to culling from the news of the week.

Best Font-Based Humor: “Papyrus”

A welcome exception to SNL’s unusually pronounced political bent this year was the season’s very first breakout: a deeply silly meditation on why the 2009 blockbuster Avatar used the cheap-looking Papyrus font to market a very expensive movie. Essentially a supersized version of a tweet from writer Julio Torres with Ryan Gosling as his proxy, “Papyrus” is exactly the kind of off-the-wall, zany concept you expect to come out of the brains of people who regularly stay up until 5 a.m. to write in a sleep-deprived haze. Torres, who has an HBO pilot in the works, is also behind standouts “Barbie Instagram” and “Drag Brunch,” both cowritten with veteran James Anderson. But “Papyrus” isn’t just the example of one comedian’s distinctive voice. It’s also a template for novel sketches that could help SNL be an escape from the news, not just a commentary on it. “Papyrus” wasn’t joining a conversation—it started one, a good goal for the show to have going forward.

Captain Obvious Award for Most Basic Fact: Comedians Are Good at Comedy

SNL’s booking practices will always be beholden to movie promotion and ratings appeals, so it’s hardly realistic to expect a sudden pivot to a “proven funny people only” policy. It’s just worth pointing out that, this season more than others, the best hosts have reliably been comedians and comic actors, including Kumail Nanjiani, Tiffany Haddish, Donald Glover, and alumni like Will Ferrell, Bill Hader, and John Mulaney. (Stand-ups are particularly adept at switching out the typically perfunctory monologue for material of their own.) Winning first-timer Sam Rockwell was the exception that proves the rule. If wall-to-wall comics is too much to ask for in future seasons, maybe one in three would be a good compromise?

Most 10-to-1 A.M. Sketch That Didn’t Actually Air at 10 to 1 A.M.: “Diner Lobster”

Graduated cast members coming back to host is common practice, but Mulaney is among the small group of SNL employees who made his name as a writer to come back and headline. His episode suggests this ought to happen more often, because it gave us gems like “Diner Lobster” and “Sitcom Reboot,” both written years ago and revived for Mulaney’s return. “Diner Lobster,” in particular, is the kind of concept that needed some extra influence to get made: an elaborate set piece involving a 41-year-old lobster singing Les Miserables songs with a diner’s waitstaff when a customer finally orders him, “Diner Lobster” spends a lot of prop money and involves a lot of choreography for a deeply silly joke. Somehow, this was not aired in the show’s final slot, an infamous dumping ground for truly weird pieces best served to the latest of late crowds. That’s to SNL’s credit, giving one of the funniest and most ambitious sketches of the season the spotlight it deserves.

An earlier version of this piece misstated the nickname of the last sketch of the night.