Four and a half months have passed at 30 Rock, and yet so much remains the same. Before it even began, Saturday Night Live’s 44th season announced itself on an anticlimactic note. In lieu of anointing a rising star or welcoming back a hometown hero, the hosting gig went to Adam Driver—a well-liked and respected movie star, but also a returning MC without a major project to promote, save for the month-and-a-half-old BlacKkKlansman. (The next two episodes will feature Awkwafina and Seth Meyers, choices that align more closely with SNL’s traditional selection strategy.) The musical guest would be Kanye West, at any other point in his career a major get. In 2018, he’s the backup for Ariana Grande.
In keeping with its headliners, SNL’s season premiere felt every bit an extension of the strategies that have propelled its post-election period of increased visibility and critical hand-wringing. “Whichever A-list celebrity feels like dropping by” remains an unofficial 17th cast member. The political grandstanding of the cold open and “Weekend Update” are still undercut by other creative choices. Even within the roster, star power reigns supreme, contributing to the feeling that SNL’s cultural footprint has long since outgrown, and started to influence, SNL itself. And despite everything, there are still transcendent bits of silliness to be found—usually far away from the headlines.
Let the hand-wringing commence!
About That Impression
Before Matt Damon even appeared on screen, you could tell Lorne Michaels was up to his old tricks. Inevitably, the topical cold open centered on the contentious confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. But Kavanaugh’s appearance within the sketch was oddly delayed, the camera lingering first on Leslie Jones as a Fox News correspondent, then Alex Moffat and Cecily Strong as Chuck Grassley and Dianne Feinstein, then an empty chair. It’s almost like they were building to a reveal! And then Damon walked in.
What happened next was as predictable as it is frustrating. After a burst of dutiful applause at Damon’s presence, SNL’s honored guest settled into an unremarkable, overlong (as in 13 minutes) rendition of an event many aren’t quite ready to laugh about yet, nor did the sketch itself make much of a case for doing so. As is typical of Trump-era cold opens, the Kavanaugh sketch was strangely, unproductively married to the beats of the real-life proceeding, merely reenacting moments like the judge’s confrontation with Amy Klobuchar, played by Rachel Dratch, rather than delivering its own exaggerated version of them.
Nor was Damon’s rendition of Kavanaugh’s red-faced frat boy routine a particularly inspired one. (Certainly not inspired enough to erase the irony of a one-time #MeToo skeptic weighing in on the culture war’s highest-profile battle yet.) Beck Bennett, consigned to just a few lines as Orrin Hatch, seems like a natural choice for a doughy blowhard; he’s not a sketch actor, but the brand of smirking, Ivy League cluelessness Colin Jost plays up on “Update” feels like a natural fit for Kavanaugh’s persona. Instead, we got Matt Damon being Matt Damon, barely modulating his demeanor and dutifully reading lines off the cue cards—which, given the aggregation that generates, is more than enough for Lorne. No, there was no Alec Baldwin as Trump this week. But he’ll be back, and the strategy he symbolizes remains firmly in place while he’s gone.
The Problem With Kanye
SNL’s rebranding as a hashtag-resistance hub has always rung hollow given that Michaels’ primary loyalty is to celebrity over principle. (Not that this is surprising or even unwarranted for a TV show chasing ratings—it just makes the Hallelujahs hard to swallow.) That’s why the producer booked Trump to host back in the pre-apocalypse days of 2015, and that’s why he gave Trump’s most prominent celebrity supporter a platform to sport his MAGA hat and give a sermon during the goodbye portion of Saturday’s show.
The speechifying part of the Kanye West spectacle went largely untelevised, but found a mainstream audience through Chris Rock’s Instagram stories. As Driver and various cast members looked on awkwardly, West accused Democrats of promoting welfare dependency and fatherlessness to silence, laughter, and boos. Cast member Chris Redd later responded on Twitter with a middle-finger emoji. It’s a sad and strange spectacle, one that overshadowed the actual musical components of Kanye’s performance, including “I Love It” with Lil Pump, “We Got Love” with Teyana Taylor, and “Ghost Town”—tepid, low-energy renditions of songs, “Ghost Town” aside, already considered far from West’s artistic peak. But given the relative weakness of Kanye’s recent musical output, that might have been inevitable, not to mention for the best. The internet has not been kind to that Perrier costume.
SNL keeps trying to have its cake and eat it, too: earning the easy credibility of parroting liberal talking points while also harnessing the nonpartisan allure of extreme fame. That tension gets less tenable by the day, and it’s not hard to guess which one of those forces will win out in the end.
All About Pete
Were you excited to see what newcomer Ego Nwodim had to offer? Me, too! Unfortunately, SNL’s latest featured player got barely any lines in her inaugural episode, spending it on the sidelines along with Melissa Villasenor and Heidi Gardner. (On the other hand, I was overjoyed to see a brief cameo from newly minted writer Bowen Yang. Listen to his podcast! It’s delightful!) And as much grief as onlookers like me give Damon and his ilk for sucking up all the oxygen, SNL’s recent preference for stars over up-and-comers has as much to do with internal hierarchies as outsourcing.
Had Ariana Grande actually performed on Saturday’s episode, her set would have been the episode’s fourth explicit reference to her summer engagement to cast member Pete Davidson. It’s remarkable how transparently Davidson’s presence in the news has affected his standing in the show. In the premiere alone, Davidson earned a winking monologue cameo; a behind-the-scenes meta sketch from Kyle Mooney, the latest in an ongoing series; and five minutes on “Update” for one of Davidson’s signature thinly veiled stand-up segments.
The spotlight isn’t unearned, exactly—it’s a testament to Davidson’s charisma that a distasteful joke about switching out his fiancée’s birth control doesn’t keep me from finding him incredibly charming. (The remark is absolutely unsavory; unlike Damon’s public comments, though, they’re not in hypocritical contrast with a parody of a misogynist, and they’re of a piece with his clueless-bro-who-lucked-out schtick.) Davidson’s marked boost in airtime is just born out of something more extra-textual than his pure comedic chops.
Still, Davidson is hardly alone in receiving preferential treatment. Kate McKinnon remains the clear MVP, yet an ever-so-slightly overused one. Yes, another slew of Ginsburns only makes sense during a Supreme Court news cycle, but does casting her as Lindsey Graham really seem necessary? On the other hand, at seven seasons and counting, McKinnon’s time with SNL may very well be limited. They’ve got to use her while they can.
All Hail Adam Driver
With the nits thoroughly picked, time for an unqualified highlight! Some topical-adjacent sketches about ’80s ragers and white supremacists tried valiantly to spin rape culture and racism into laughs but didn’t quite meet that admittedly sky-high bar. The best sketch of the night, in a pattern SNL seems determined not to learn from, had nothing to do with current events. It just put Adam Driver in old man makeup, had him do his best Daniel Plainview impression, and got Davidson to teeter on the edge of a classic Adam Sandler break.
Abraham H. Parnassus is a perfectly dumb character conceit: a 19th-century oil baron who, inexplicably and anachronistically, ends up presenting at a modern-day school career day. Driver, a game and versatile host willing to be the centerpiece as well as the straight man, throws his whole being into skewering a dead bird with his cane, screaming about his nemesis H.R. Pickens, and promising “swine livers and Capri Suns” as a healthy snack. There’s not much more to the sketch than an absurdist setup, a great performance, and some inspired turns of phrase. The lesson is that there doesn’t really have to be for SNL to excel.