If you listened closely, you could almost hear a faint cry for help from the writers of “Saturday Night Live,” which kicked off its 43rd season this weekend.
The premiere began with a cold open at the White House with President Trump (who else?) portrayed by recent Emmy-winner Alec Baldwin (who else?). For a moment, Baldwin’s Trump explained that the many controversies and crises that have marked his administration have been something of a strategy.
“The more chaos I cause, the less people can focus,” he said. “They’re all getting so tired, so tired,” and you could briefly picture an “SNL” writers room, already disheveled and desperate even after the summer hiatus. Then he asked Aidy Bryant’s Sarah Huckabee Sanders how long ago he declared war on North Korea. After she guessed four months, Baldwin responded, “Wrong! It was last Friday. See, I’m bending time.”
That tidily encapsulates one of the challenges for “Saturday Night Live,” which last season enjoyed its most robust ratings in years on the strength of timely political material. The charge was led by Baldwin as well as Kate McKinnon (who reprised her spookily elfin Jeff Sessions) and, memorably, Melissa McCarthy’s portrayal of Sean Spicer, which the show no longer has in its arsenal — although, given his Emmy Awards cameo, a future appearance wouldn’t surprise anyone.
But when timing is everything in comedy, can the show keep pace with our ever-shifting reality and still be funny?
One example in the cold open was Melissa Villaseñor’s impression of mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Carmen Yulín Cruz, who appeared to plead for help from the president, who dismissed her as a “nasty woman.” Given the real-life Trump’s hostile tweets directed toward Cruz and Puerto Rico’s desperate situation, the gag was timely, yet weirdly far too soon.
Similarly hampered by time’s more elastic nature, host Ryan Gosling’s opening monologue about saving jazz in “La La Land” (complete with Emma Stone cameo) felt like a relic from five years ago. But a subsequent reprise of an alien abduction sketch from his first time hosting — memorable because Kate McKinnon’s antics broke both him and Bryant — landed better by generating the same response this time around. And for Gosling, whose hair-trigger for mid-sketch giggles is Fallon-esque, it wouldn’t be the first time in the episode.
Also faring better was a fake ad for Levi’s “Wokes” jeans, shapeless and genderless pants (available in the color “#greb”) with an 180-degree “uni-fly” and a checklist of political credentials that satirized both the emptiness of consumers purchasing their activist statements and the corporations that clumsily try to capitalize on it.
Though its weekly schedule often leaves “Weekend Update” riffing on events well-covered by other late-night shows, this week’s was timed just right to respond to Trump’s Puerto Rico tweets. Michael Che captured a barbed note of outrage on Trump’s complaints about the mayor of San Juan being “nasty” to him. “How nasty, are you shaking? You want to go smoke a Virginia Slim until your hand stops moving?” Che teased. “This isn’t that complicated, it’s hurricane relief. These people need help. You just did this for white people twice.”
Che then continued his strong showing with comments about the national anthem protests. “It’s hard to ask black people to respect the flag when we know this country cares more about it than us,” he began. “And it’s not personal – you’ve just got to understand. There’s 50 stars on the American flag. But black people, we only feel welcome in, like, eight.” Somewhat surprisingly, the controversy was seldom mentioned elsewhere, although Jay-Z wore a custom “Colin K” Kaepernick jersey in his first song, “Bam.”
With the losses of Bobby Moynihan, Taran Killam and Jay Pharoah, “SNL” has experienced the usual turnover that opens the door for a new cast member, and based on the premiere, second-year “SNL” star Alex Moffatt seems a strong candidate for a breakout. He delivered a solid Sen. Chuck Schumer in the cold open, and his “Weekend Update” segment as a wealthy bro who bought a boat hinted that the era of Trump (and his sons) may usher a new age of lampooning ’80s-adjacent decadence.
In accordance with “SNL” tradition, there wasn’t much space for new faces Heidi Gardner, Luke Null and Chris Redd, who were relegated to supporting roles, if anywhere at all. But that’s the appeal of the timing for “SNL” — even if it’s not always right, the next week brings another chance.
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