Saturday Night Live has a variety of metrics that help determine who hosts the show. In a perfect world, "the ability to be funny and mesh with the cast" should be number one, but let's face it: That doesn't always happen, even when someone as controversial as Donald Trump hosts. Hosts that guarantee ratings rather than laughs have been part of the show's DNA since its inception: Someone like Justin Bieber might not have comedy scholars preemptively jumping for joy, but will definitely boost the show's ratings. And look: As much as we all want to say this is about the art of comedy, this is still a flagship show on a major network. Let's not get overly pious here.
That being said, this was still a massive miscalculation on the part of SNL, not because it went with a host that wasn't going to help the show be funny (although that was sure part of it), but because it seemed like a ratings grab that didn't understand the potential (and maybe inevitable) downside of its decision. At various points tonight, the show tried to have its controversial cake and eat it too, occasionally portraying its host in less-than-flattering lights. But more often than not, these weren't savage attacks so much as weak attempts at satire, designed to make Trump look good for being a decent sport rather than making legitimate points.
In the end, no one came out looking good: Trump looked lifeless and disinterested when actually onscreen (which, let's be honest, was not much), and the show as a whole seemed depressed and lifeless thanks to his presence. This episode felt like a really smart, funny group of writers and performers going through the motions because the show must go on, even if they all would rather have been doing something, anything, else.
MSNBC Forum Cold Open
Political cold opens aren't really the show's strong suit, which is a bit unfortunate, given how often they deploy them. But in a show devoid of much strong material, this worked well in comparison with what followed. It helps that Kate McKinnon grows more confident with each appearance as Hillary Clinton. SNL has honed its parodic approach to Clinton, with her ambition now more pathetic than off-putting, more sympathetic than sociopathic. Her desire to learn "Casual English" isn't a symptom of someone out of touch so much as someone who simply doesn't have the luxury of saying, "I'm good either way."
Of course, the main draw here is Larry David's second appearance as Bernie Sanders. The audience got palpably excited as his arrival (predicted by the fact that once again McKinnon's Clinton got the warm-up position), and David did not disappoint. "I'm Bernie Sanders, and I want your vacuum pennies!" will probably be on every Sunday morning political talk show, and with good reason. Nobody wants Sanders to stay in the race more than SNL at this point, and that includes Sanders' fervent supporters.
Hotline Bling Parody
A few seasons ago, SNL scored big when Bruce Willis hosted with "Boy Dance Party", which mined a lot of comedy from less-than-stellar moves perpetrated by men with more enthusiasm than skill. This isn't a direct sequel, but it's still a spiritual successor.
This is a sketch that is slightly dated due to the show's long break between episodes, but it actually works to have Trump hosted when they finally did it. It's the best comedic use of him all night, with his appearance serving as a punchline that got genuine laughter (something in short supply all night) from the audience. Throw in Martin Short's cameo as Ed Grimley, and you had something that probably made Drake fans upset but lots of "cool" dads incredibly happy.
Weekend Update: Nov 7, 2015, Part 2
The initial gaffe between Colin Jost and Michael Che seemed indicative of two guys already distracted by the week's media circus and the audience's lack of laughter. But the two guests that appeared on "Update" salvaged the hosts' lack of enthusiasm, and managed to get the overall segment more or less back on track.
Leslie Jones' "Update" appearances have been almost uniformly solid since the show realized this was the best place to use her, and her constant flirtation with Jost is always funny. (Her insistence that Jost not play along was smart on multiple levels, and Jost nailed his half of the interaction.) For its part, Bobby Moynihan's Drunk Uncle was best example of in-show Trump mockery, only because having a character like this so closely identify with Trump does more than any single joke could. SNL fans "know" Drunk Uncle as well as recent "Update" standouts like Stefon, and so the simple association does more than anything to suggest how the writers truly feel about Trump. In an episode in which it seemed like any truly negative statement about Trump was scrubbed clean before it made it to air, this one actually had some teeth.