The 44th season of Saturday Night Live finds the show in the same limboland it’s been in since the Trump Era began: How can a parody show go bigger than actual reality? As with last season, this premiere found strength when looking not at the top echelons of Washington but rather the seedy underbelly of America in landing its strongest comedic blows.
More comfortable dealing with Fortnite and fake coffee shops, SNL as an institution just isn’t built to confront the current environment with a savage tone. You could argue that the show should do that, but that’s not what the show has really ever done. Its history of political satire is long and varied, but also features those it mocks appearing as themselves (Trump included) as an almost rite of passage.
The world has changed. SNL has not. At times, this is a source of comfort. At other times, it’s a source of immense frustration. With that said, here are three sketches people will be discussing between now and when Awkwafina hosts next week.
Kavanaugh Hearing Cold Open
Here’s a fantastic case study in what’s both great and problematic about SNL at this point in history. It’s all contained within this lengthy, fascinating, inconsistent cold open. Let’s start with the casting of Matt Damon as Brett Kavanaugh: It’s the type of move that guarantees that this sketch gets discussed in outlets such as this one, moves the ratings needle on future episodes (“Which big celebrity will make a surprise appearance this time?”), and fits in soundly with the show’s recent trend towards having big names play key roles in the Trump Administration.
On the other hand, it reduces the Not Ready For Primetime Players to the supporting cast in their own show. You’re telling me Beck Bennett couldn’t do that role? That someone other than SNL alum Rachel Dratch couldn’t have played Senator Amy Klobuchar? Their cameos were the only two in the episode, but it reinforces how the biggest parts in the current political maelstrom are reserved for people that don’t appear in the opening credits.
More importantly, the show had a tenuous grip on the tone it wanted for this sketch. Given how this week played out, SNL simultaneously couldn’t ignore the trial, had to be sensitive to those who relived their own personal traumas through the hearings, and had to make the sketch funny. That’s an insanely tall order for a show that had to turn this sketch around in roughly 72 hours.
For every joke that hit the jugular (“I don’t know the meaning of the word ‘stop’!”), there were Alyssa Milano cardboard cutouts that undermined the bleak comedy lingering under the surface. Is SNL incapable of dealing with these issues? Absolutely not. But as we’ll see in the next selected sketch, its aim has a lot to do with its success rate.
The sketch casts a wide net, depicting the ripple effects from a single frat party in an unspecified time/place in the 1980’s. Wang Chung’s “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” ironically serves as the musical accompaniment for a night of debauchery, assault, and bad decisions.
What this pre-produced segment really attacks is the notion that there are multiple realities that people can claim to be true, with only a handful of people really suffering the consequences of what actually happened. Some thrive without anyone knowing what really happened, some thrive despite everyone knowing what happened, and some are ensnared in a never-ending spider’s web simply for simply attending a party.
“Truth is no longer truth” is as 2018 as it gets, and this short film illustrates that far better than the cold open.
Pound for pound, “Girl at a Bar” might be the strongest sketch the show has done in the past few years. Originally aired in March 2017, it dealt with the type of behavior on display in the Kavanaugh hearings while placing its focus in interactions that don’t drive clicks on the internet.
Roughly nine months later, “Welcome To Hell” did the same thing with equal success. Last night’s homecoming sketch didn’t hit the highs of those two segments, but did reinforce the fact that SNL has an extremely potent voice in this area when staying away from celebrities/politicians and steering into people we might see in our everyday lives.
SNL has an annoying habit of making its viewers fight to learn which writers wrote which sketches. This makes sense on one level: There’s a large writer’s room, and collaboration is the name of the game, and highlighting the lead writers might add unnecessary competition to an already pressure-filled environment. But it also means I can’t send an Edible Arrangement to whomever conjured Mr. Abraham Parnassus from the depths of their beautiful brains and allowed Adam Driver to unleash it upon an unsuspecting world.
And for that, I weep.
Not only was this one of the all-time fantastic first-time performances of an original character in recent SNL memory, it even featured a self-contained narrative with a full arc featuring Parnassus not only conquering his business rival H.R. Pickens in life, but then seducing his granddaughter and siring an offspring, thus providing an actual reason for the age difference between himself and his teenage son. The sketch did not have to actually square this circle for the sketch to be funny. “Super old dad screaming about crushing the bones of his enemies into dust” would have been a fine premise for a post-“Weekend Update” sketch. But actually fleshing out the reality of this insane scenario took an already-great sketch and sent it into the stratosphere.