Three episodes into the new season of Saturday Night Live, and the show, like many media outlets, is learning to navigate this most unusual political season. Historically, what made SNL’s campaign coverage so necessary was its ability to highlight the subtle absurdities of the election and exaggerate the ridiculous. Needless to say, the 2016 presidential election could never be accused of subtlety, forcing SNL to take a page from some of its fellow late-night shows and move into more blatant commentary.
In its obligatory debate cold open, a weary Anderson Cooper (Alex Moffat) and Martha Raddatz (Cecily Strong) did shots as they introduced the “the worst ever presidential debate”. Alec Baldwin returned as Donald Trump, and Kate McKinnon was introduced by the moderators as: “Can we say this yet?” “Probably fine.” “President Hillary Clinton.”
Baldwin’s Trump is still mostly facial expressions and excruciating pauses – more mimicry then genuine impression – while McKinnon’s Clinton feels lived-in and comfortable.
The sketch included some classic SNL elements, imitating the candidates’ awkward staging during the town hall debate, and brilliantly turning their decision not to shake hands into an awkward dance. But when McKinnon’s Clinton mocked the idea she would be intimidated by women like Paula Jones in the audience, the joke felt more like a Samantha Bee quip than an SNL line. It was a little jarring, but ultimately this shift could be a good thing; SNL has many funny people at its disposal with many varied strengths, and it will help them immensely to shake up even something as traditional as a debate satire.
Emily Blunt was a strong host, an immensely talented actor who was down for anything and flitted easily between melodramatic, goofy, sexy, and sweet. Unfortunately, her monologue was another musical number, this time a take on “Get Happy!” to cheer things up in the face of a grim news cycle. There were puppies and cookies, and while it was cute and chipper, it was immediately forgettable.
The first post-monologue sketch was, dispiritingly, about two hookers; the joke (helpfully summarized at the end of the sketch) was the duo’s long list of rules and requirements. Blunt’s goofy, mid-Atlantic-accented prostitute had a few good lines, while Leslie Jones got to be very funny with her quirks – “I can only role play as Stewie from the Family Guy” – but it didn’t have much to build to and ended blandly.
Pre-taped segments have been SNL’s strongest areas in the past decade, but this week’s R&B music video featuring five women in the Trump circle – Melania Trump, Ivanka Trump, Kellyanne Conway, Omarosa, and Tiffany Trump – began as a female empowerment video, with each saying “boy, bye” to The Donald, but didn’t commit to any strong idea and sold itself out at the end. Entertaining, but it was no Twin Bed.
Next, Vanessa Bayer ended up the lone audience member at a short film festival forced to ask questions to the dozens of cast and crewmembers on stage. Bayer’s deer-in-the-headlights performance was spot-on and made this weird, silly sketch work.
Weekend Update led with all things Trump, and co-host Colin Jost seemed, understandably, exhausted by the entire thing. Michael Che has found his footing as an update host, even if this audience seemed eager to find him shocking, groaning at some relatively harmless jokes. The most biting moment came from Bayer as a little girl doing the news in a sing-songy musical voice, who was outraged at Today co-host Billy Bush’s $10m payment “from this network!”, earning a well-deserved applause break.
Keen viewers – and many Twitterers – also caught onto the show’s new product placement in a few later, lesser sketches – a bizarre stream of characters pulling through a Burger King drive-thru, then a robot sketch that prominently featured the Hondo logo. Whether it’s meta-sketches or branded content, the 40-year-old institution is changing with the times.