Saturday Night Live kicked off its final run of 2018 with a solid episode that seemed hellbent on hiding host Claire Foy as much as possible. If you actually mark the screen time of any particular host, it’s often extremely low compared to the episode’s full run time. But this week, Foy’s absence felt especially acute. It didn’t seem as if SNL was trying to hide her in any way, but there felt far too many stretches in which we didn’t get to see her contribute to the program.
It’s dangerous to assign something like “theme” to any particular SNL installment, as the creative process is too haphazard and inherently unpredictable to coalesce around a single topic. But the best segments tonight looked at the need for closure on 2018, even if closure feels as elusive as ever. As noted in this space over the past two years, the show has learned a lot from its pre-2016 election assumptions, and has fueled that confusion into some memorable sketches. Those featured in this week’s episodes didn’t depict primal rage so much as extreme exhaustion, looking towards the end of the calendar year as a potential time to turn the page on the current state of the world. There’s hope in these sketches, but no feelings of certainty.
With that said, here are three sketches people will be discussing until Aquaman himself, Jason Mamoa, hosts next week.
Trump Argentina Cold Open
Alec Baldwin has only appeared as Donald Trump one other time this season, and his absence has felt as much an artistic choice as a practical one. After the initial post-inaugural episodes, both the show and Baldwin lost their feel on how to satirize someone whose real-life actions defied normal notions of reality. Bringing him back now seems puzzling, until the sketch’s depiction of Trump brought this into focus. Whereas Baldwin’s Trump has been defined by unearned bluster, here he’s shown as someone from whom the world at large has milked all usefulness. This cold open suggests that there’s very little Trump left to see at this point.
The litany of cameos (Ben Stiller returns as Michael Cohen, Fred Armisen appears as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman) turns into a veritable gauntlet of people providing paper cut after paper cut to Trump’s ego. Beck Bennett’s Vladimir Putin gets in some of the sharpest barbs, noting to Trump that he “prefers Presidents that don’t get indicted” and telling the Crown Prince, “You’re so actually rich, I love you!” Rather than trying to push back on Trump’s statements and actions, the sketch simply refuses to engage with them at all. It’s a smart but also damning approach, one that should have a lot of people talking this week.
The War in Words
If you watch enough SNL, you start to see the patterns in certain sketch types. That doesn’t mean that the majority of sketch writing is a Mad Libs exercise that just inserts nouns and adjectives into a pre-written template. But after 44 years on-air, there are certain formats that invariably re-appear. In this case, the segment felt like the war-inspired child of the David S. Pumpkins sketch, with Mikey Day’s soldier serving as the increasingly befuddled observer of his wife’s increasingly exasperating actions. Any questions? MANY, apparently.
Just as with Pumpkins, this sketch takes a simple premise and leads the audience on a labyrinthine journey through the life of Margaret Merchant. She’s a war wife with a penchant for short letters, a fetish for baby photos, an adulterer, a potential criminal mastermind and ultimately a traitor to her country. That is a metric ton of plot for a five-minute sketch, and yet the letters written between herself and her husband James succinctly convey an entire world of experience. While Day’s frustrated husband does a lot of the overt lifting, it’s Foy that really makes this one sing. Her calm refusal to provide any context about her life contains no malice. She’s just a straight-up sociopath, and I have to imagine the final image of her in this sketch will be the single-most shared moment of the show overseas.
All I Want For Christmas
Speaking of SNL trends, musical sketches featuring every female member of the cast is a signature aspect of this Cecily Strong/Kate McKinnon/Aidy Bryant era of SNL. That musical era started in 2013 with “(Do It on My) Twin Bed” and continues here. The surrounding cast has obviously changed and evolved, and musical vignettes such as these have a rich tradition in previous eras. But the production values, aesthetics and overall vibes still remain unique to this decade’s cast. When you see them, you know they belong to this era and this era alone.
Sadly, this sketch isn’t legally streaming at this time, ostensibly due to music right issues. But I have a strong feeling this will make its way online in some fashion before long, not only for the strong musical performances but because it’s a densely written unpacking of the current political anxiety. On top of that, it’s a great reminder of the power of the show’s ensemble. Logistically, it’s hard to stage sketch after sketch involving the majority of the Not Ready For Primetime Players. But seeing a single wide shot with this much talent working together enforces that SNL works best when it’s a collective that can produce more than the sum of its parts when properly utilized.