Saturday Night Live is kicking off its 42nd season with four straight episodes. That’s not unprecedented, but it is unusual. One might have assumed that the reason for this schedule would be to air as many episodes ahead of the election, further inferring there would be a lot of political humor in each installment. Preseason promos hyped the “Clinton vs. Trump” angle as a central aspect of this season. So all eyes were on the show to see how the show would respond to this summer’s presidential campaigns.
The reality of tonight’s Margot Robbie-hosted premiere was that there really wasn’t much more politically-centered content than during last season’s primaries. That’s certainly the show’s right, but belies the seemingly limitless amount of scandals, controversies, and other incredible developments that unfold on an hourly basis in the run-up to November. Why have a four-week run if not to make every single one count for this moment in time?
As such, the premiere started off extremely strong and then lost steam as it proceeded. Robbie held her own as first-time host, but really wasn’t asked to do a whole lot. In fact, it often felt like newcomers Mikey Day and Alex Moffat got more screentime than she did. More of Robbie would have been welcome, and I have no doubt she’d be great were she to host again. But for now, let’s look at the three sketches people will be talking about over the next week.
Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton Debate Cold Open
You knew the debate would be the first sketch of the season, and the show did not disappoint with its execution. Honestly, could this have been a 90-minute sketch that took up the whole episode? Probably. Would we have gotten sick of Kate McKinnon’s delighted expressions or Alec Baldwin’s pronunciation of “China”? Probably not. Alas, it was only normal sketch length, and there was little fat on the comedic bone.
It’s not a surprise that Baldwin did well here, but without anything to go on, it was pretty much up for grabs to see what he would do in his first time portraying Trump on the show. What he possesses, most crucially, is great comedic timing with McKinnon. Trump impressions are a dime a dozen, but the constant interjections during Clinton’s part of the debate represented a comic highlight. This wasn’t a series of monologues but a connected dialogue, one that this version of Clinton was happy to orchestrate. Having these two interact as much as possible over the next month will be crucial for the show.
In classic SNL fashion, the show didn’t hesitate to criticize both candidates. But they did so appropriately given the current reality of the election. Clinton’s in-sketch optimism isn’t exactly reflected in the polls, but this segment will be embedded in thousands of websites and played across news programs all across the country over the next week. This is the power that the show has in its fifth decade, and it’s the type of power than can help shape things between now and November.
Scientifically speaking, there are roughly a dozen successful sketch scenarios that work on Saturday Night Live. (I think Neal deGrasse Tyson proved this on Cosmos.) One of the most effective sketch types is the “Single Escalating Joke” model, in which a premise is introduced almost immediately and then wrung dry throughout the rest of the segment. It’s a tried and true formula, but incredibly difficult to pull off. Luckily, this sketch does exactly that.
The premise is simple: “Man marries a woman way out of his league, and no one can believe it.” But the incredulity of the news team ostensibly covering a sinkhole disaster is perfectly paced, as each possible explanation gets swept away by an even-more ludicrous scenario. Kenan Thompson, in his 14th season on the show, gets the bulk of the work here as the frustrated man on the streets. But Beck Bennett and Leslie Jones also get a series of great beats here as well. There’s nothing groundbreaking on display here, but if nothing else, the phrase “Lord’s Mistress” will hopefully be trending on Twitter by the time you read this.
Actress Round Table
You could make the argument that the Family Feud sketch was more topical, and therefore more worthy of inclusion here. But other than the surprise appearance of Trump’s sons, there weren’t a lot of laughs to be had. This sketch probably won’t go viral in the way the Feud one will, but this did let Kate McKinnon demonstrate her star power and her unerring ability to make the hosts break character due to uncontrollable laughter.
None of the celebrity impressions make much of an impact here, but it’s only McKinnon’s fictional actress Debette Goldry that matters. Her tales of old Hollywood mixed with her surprise at the current state for actresses was a solid well from which McKinnon could deploy joke after joke. Not all the jokes were of equal caliber, but McKinnon sold them all through sheer force of characterization and will. This is essentially a reskinned version of Mrs. Rafferty, a constantly put-upon soul who gets the short end of the stick when it comes to alien abductions and near-death experiences. But that’s an all-time classic character already, so more of that in any form is a good thing. There’s a confidence in McKinnon’s work right now that is both unnerving and totally earned. At this point, she’s the most electric part of the show, and this sketch solidified her place atop the cast pyramid as the show’s star.