In a 44th season full of cast growth through a lot of shaky sketches, Saturday Night Live has found itself working through the paces of a typical midlife crisis. It no longer has the rambunctious energy of its youth, which is fine; no series approaching the half-century mark continues at that level forever. However, it’s also not entirely so devoid of creativity that its fans have lowered their expectations, which as evidenced by Twitter after any given episode, leads to a fair deal of disappointment. This leaves SNL in a curious position, where it’s clear that even a little bit of evolution would do it a world of good, but it’s also doing what it can within the boundaries of having to appeal to two, now almost three generations of viewers at the same time.
Last night’s finale was a potent example of these contradictions, given that the sketches ran the full gamut from hilarious improvisation to dusty recurring sketches throughout the evening, with one more Trump lampoon as the rapidly drying-out cherry on top. Some of the episode was a great deal of fun, which is to be expected with Internet boyfriend and fourth-time host Paul Rudd leading the charge. Some of it was a reminder of just how inconsistent the season has been.
But for all of the criticism levied against the show in recent years, Saturday Night Live is still in a position to return to the center of the zeitgeist, especially when “comedy” covers as much ground as it ever has at a mainstream level. It just has a lot to work out first.
One Trump For the Road
Whether SNL embraces its writers room’s odder tendencies, or continues to mine laughs out of broad sketches from its cast’s specialized skillsets, most fans can agree on one thing: Alec Baldwin‘s Donald Trump is starting to run out of gas.
Last night’s cold open saw Trump, Robert DeNiro‘s Robert Muller, and most of the show’s Trump family/cabinet mainstays coming together for a White House-themed rendition of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”. And while these recaps will never be upset about the return of Kate McKinnon’s soft-spoken, Nosferatu-esque take on Wilbur Ross, it was one of the more awkwardly stilted Trump outings of the season, which is really saying something.
Beyond the dubious novelty of the Trump family breaking into song, the parody lyrics didn’t have much to say beyond the usual easy potshots at Trump’s egomania and corruption. While these sketches are distinctly aimed at a broader audience than some regular viewers (including this one) might wish, it’s fine to paint with a big brush, especially when it comes to satire. It just has to be funny, and for the most part, this just was not.
There’s also the matter of de-fanging Trump, which has been a point of controversy between SNL and its fanbase for years now, and something which this sketch absolutely does, even as it’s clearly after the opposite. From the moment Baldwin quips about how “I’m on cruise control to a second term”, the tone-deaf sketch attempts to send up the President’s unchecked sense of self-entitlement, but instead winds up dealing in the kind of light, low-effort “oh, that rascal” jabbing that legitimized him as a candidate in the first place.
There are a lot of far more important reasons to worry about Trump’s potential re-election next year, from the ongoing war on Roe v. Wade to the escalating Iranian conflict and onward. But the possibility of five more seasons of these sketches, at the rate they’re going now, is definitely somewhere on that list.
Clam Casino and Bean Burrito
Four years ago, modern-day SNL staged one of its most unforgettable sketches with “Close Encounter”, which saw a trio of everyday people being debriefed by the CIA about their experiences with extraterrestrial life. You probably remember this as the one where Kate McKinnon broke Ryan Gosling about as thoroughly as a cast member has ever broken a host onscreen.
The show has returned to this format a few times since, and it’s consistently a hit, thanks to McKinnon’s unhinged, almost lizard-like performance. If last night’s installment “A Journey Through Time” wasn’t the gut-busting 11/10 that either of the Gosling versions achieved, it’s still an enthusiastic eight. (May SNL never stop making Ray Donovan jokes after Liev Schreiber’s welcome but totally inexplicable hosting gig for it earlier this season.)
McKinnon is a filthy delight in this part, and the rest of the cast’s sustained inability to hold back when she delivers lines like “if nothing else is open, I’ll eat at a Taco Bell” while ripping cigarettes is wholly endearing. It’s not exactly a revelation to point out that McKinnon might be the defining performer of the current SNL generation, and the lunacy she brings to a sketch as consistently lowbrow as this one is an inspired illustration of why.
Grace & Frankie > Game of Thrones
There are a lot of ways that a pre-taped Pete Davidson rap about Game of Thrones could have gone wrong, especially given SNL‘s track record when it comes to sending up the HBO hit. (It’s not great.) But the pleasantly weird swerve of Rudd showing up to instead rap about Grace & Frankie rescued the sketch, especially when Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda show up for the punchline.
For the record, jokes aside: Grace & Frankie is ridiculously charming, and also a strangely eloquent series about recognizing and treating older people like they’re also still people. We co-sign these bars.
Another One, and Another One…
One of the big stories of the season finale was DJ Khaled‘s musical guest spot, which saw the mega-producer making a hard sell for his latest album Father of Asahd. However you might feel about his status as a top name in music right now, it’s hard to deny that Khaled does everything bigger. Most artists bring out one, maybe two guests for their SNL performance; Khaled brought eight. It’s usually two songs in an evening; he did five.
What’s made Khaled a household name, at least aside from his purposely memeable lifestyle, is his ability to attract talent, and SNL put that on full display. That Khaled has a track featuring Meek Mill, Lil Baby, Jeremih, and J Balvin is ridiculous; that “You Stay” is just one of several all-star collaborations from the album is proof that clout is the one true currency in the modern music industry.
The first montage saw Khaled combine that song with “Jealous”, for which Khaled brought out Lil Wayne and Big Sean. (Not Chris Brown, though? Why leave him out, when it was fine putting him on the album?) The second worked through “Weather the Storm” with Meek and Baby returning, along with SZA crooning through their collaboration “Just Us” and, to finish, the posthumous Nipsey Hussle/John Legend track “Higher”. The latter saw a full curtain call of all nine artists, offering a poignant reminder that the marathon continues.
Here’s the thing with Khaled: as performances go, it’s incredibly difficult to rate him on the same scale as most artists, given that the niche he’s carved out for himself has purposely separated him from the pack. That said, it shouldn’t wholly grant a pass to the fact that SNL concluded its season with a performer who isn’t really known for his musical performances, per se. Anyone who’s seen him play live knows that SNL captured what he does in full, more or less: invocations of “another one”, fingers in the air, reminders that he has a son named Asahd, and the sounds of a lot of other artists on songs he made. Either you dig what Khaled does, or you really, really don’t, and he doesn’t tend to allow for a lot of room between the two.