It’s probably not a good sign when the highlight of an episode of Saturday Night Live is learning John Mulaney will be hosting the next one in March. Host Don Cheadle hoisted this show on his back and made most of it passable through sheer force of will, but it wasn’t enough to make the majority of the episode memorable. Cheadle played twitchy, off-putting, and sometimes upsetting characters all night long, bringing an off-kilter rhythm that made him engaging even in sketches that never got out of first gear.
We’re well past the halfway point in this season, and there are few things that help define a fairly bumpy season. “Weekend Update” is the best it’s been in the Jost/Che era, but everything else has been a toss-up. Inconsistency of quality is nothing new: Each season is always “the worst” in people’s eyes compared to other seasons, even if all people remember about previous seasons are the 30-40 percent of sketches that actually worked. More concerning is the lack of point of view in Season 44: Whereas Season 43 drew strength from its approach to the #MeToo era, this year has been devoid of any consistent perspective threading through its episodes. “Pete Davidson’s relationship with Ariana Grande” is as close to a through line as we’ve had, and that narrative has been completely usurped by Grande herself outside the confines of Studio 8H.
As a sketch show that starts from scratch each week on a major network written by a large number of people, it’s unfair to expect SNL to analyze an important cultural topic from a number of perspectives throughout the year. But since it did some of its best work in years last season doing almost exactly that, it’s still unfortunate that this season has been devoid of such relentless comedic interrogation.
Are people still talking about the show despite this? Certainly, as evidenced by the three sketches below.
Extreme Baking Championship
Historians will spend at least 15 words wondering why SNL didn’t just explicitly parody Netflix’s Nailed It! here, but that’s not for us to discuss today. In an episode that produced a lot of tepid giggles from an audience eager to laugh, this sketch delivered the goods, building off its initial reveal and taking this baking show to ever-weirder levels. If you saw “suicidal cakes and Star Wars phallic humor” coming when this started, I’d like to talk to you about some upcoming lottery picks.
It would be enough to simply have a disfigured Cookie Monster cake come to life and beg to be taken out of its misery. But the competently made SpongeBob Squarepants cake reveals just how little shows such as these are about cooking and how much they are about invoking either outrage or mockery from the audience watching. Ideas of “fairness” fly out the window when someone inexplicably writes the word “Sean” across Cookie Monster’s face. That’s hardly an original take on the subgenre, but having that take baked in (pun intended, I’m so very sorry) to the sketch gives it the grounding it needs to make its flights of fancy work as well as they do.
Trump Press Conference Cold Open
At the end of a long-winded sentence about the potential endgame of Trump’s presidency, Alec Baldwin says, “My personal hell of playing President will be over.” It’s tempting to read that sentence as meta analysis of his current state portraying the president on SNL, as the role seems to be weighing him (and quite frankly, the show) down at this point. Every time the show brings Baldwin on, it generates discussion: I mean, we’re talking about it here, which is probably the exact point, and I recognize the irony of that. But has there been a memorable, interesting, or engaged appearance since the early months after the inauguration?
Compare and contrast Baldwin’s performance with “Weekend Update” simply playing footage of Trump: The latter gets laughs that the fictional rendition simply doesn’t at this point, which is a fairly big problem. SNL can’t go bigger than reality, which means it should probably stop at this point. It needs a new “in” at this point, either in the form of a new characterization or a new actor in the role. Or, as stated multiple times in this space, the show could cease portraying him altogether, not unlike they did with President Obama during Jay Pharoah’s last season on the show. Aside from a pre-taped cameo in a late-season episode, SNL simply admitted that it didn’t have a good comedic entry point. So there’s precedent, and extremely recent precedent, for ceasing Baldwin’s participation in the show. As a SNL all-timer, Baldwin can and should appear as needed. But not in this role. Not anymore.
In the fine tradition of “Jar Glove” and “Almost Pizza,” here’s a fake commercial that goes the extra mile to create an entirely fleshed-out universe in under three minutes. The idea of human actors playing roaches? Fine. The idea of one of those roaches insidiously ingratiating itself into the lives of the family? TREMENDOUS, especially when Don Cheadle brings his A-game to investing that roach with the casual menace that would be right at home in an Elmore Leonard film.
But it primarily works because Mikey Day does such a good job selling the husband’s impotency, letting the roach walk all over him and take his place in the family until finally snapping. Heidi Gardner’s line reading of, “Bill… Bill, you’re drunk” suggests casual disapproval, not abject terror, which gives incredible depth to the way she’s already diminished his very existence. Having his son actually murder the roach with the product provides a noir-ish twist that suggests ramifications long after the commercial ends. I don’t want to get all high school essay here and suggest this sketch has something insightful to say about the way children inherit trauma from their parents’ inaction. But given how many SNL sketches disappear from memory the instant they are over, it’s remarkable to watch one like this that lingers.