The SNL Season Finale Doesn’t Sugarcoat Pandemic Anxiety

Unlike its previous at-home episodes, last night’s show embraced the existential crisis of the moment.

The overwhelming anxiety is real, but the reasons for it can be painful and absurd at the same time. (NBC)

Saturday Night Live’s third at-home edition had to serve as the finale to a strange season disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. Like the other remotely filmed episodes, this installment featured A-list guest appearances—including Alec Baldwin back as President Donald Trump—along with a touching musical performance (this time, Boyz II Men and Babyface) and several sketches using Zoom as the framework. But unlike its predecessors, last night’s at-home episode featured a pivotal change to the proceedings: It embraced the existential crisis of the moment.

States have begun to reopen and ease social-distancing restrictions, but a true return to normal—to life as it had been before the coronavirus hit—is an indeterminately long way off without a vaccine in place. The novelty of living amid the crisis has worn off, and the tedium of coping with the lockdown has given way to the uncomfortable reality that life will remain abnormal for the foreseeable future. If the first episode offered “surreal comforts” and the second attempted to make a standard collection of SNL sketches, the third looked to the future—and realized the unnerving truth that the end isn’t near. The standout moments of the evening all focused on that feeling, that this—this pandemic-induced pressure, this burden, this fear—won’t be over soon.

The cold open, set during a virtual high-school graduation, saw every student except one leave the Zoom session as Baldwin’s Trump offered platitudes about moving past the coronavirus. Kate McKinnon played a lighthouse keeper who’s been trapped for decades in an isolated hell, telling the viewer, “In case it weren’t clear before, I’ve gone absolutely mad.” The last sketch of the night saw the entire cast gather for a bittersweet ode to New York in which each of them dreamed of pre-pandemic life in the city: eating at restaurants, wandering Times Square, attending a Broadway show. These fantasies were filmed in color, the reality in black-and-white. At the end, Cecily Strong watches each of her cast mates fade away in her dream, and wakes up in the monochromatic real world, alone.

Such scenarios might have left some viewers distressed, but the scenes’ heightened despair still invited laughter. During the first half of “Weekend Update,” Michael Che stopped riffing on headlines to express his fear of the future, looking a little more hopeless every time the camera cut back to him. “What if this is my last time on TV?” he began. When the camera returned to him after Colin Jost delivered his jokes, Che had a drink in hand. “It’s just too much for me to worry about,” he began as he spoke of Ahmaud Arbery, a black Georgia man shot to death while jogging. “It’s exhausting. I don’t even feel comfortable wearing my mask in public, because it feels like entrapment, but even I can’t think of anything less suspicious than jogging … I mean, what can we do?” Jost didn’t respond. By the time it was Che’s turn to speak again, he reeled even more, worrying about whether the murder hornets he’s heard about could get him, too. Harried, he asked Jost to not tell his parents—or anyone for that matter—if he perished because of murder hornets. The overwhelming anxiety is real, but the reasons for it can be painful and absurd at the same time—a combination worth mining for a little humor.

Tina Fey’s appearance on “Weekend Update” also emphasized that idea. Ostensibly there to offer a “message for mothers” in honor of Mother’s Day, Fey instead scoffed at her naïveté about her life amid the pandemic. She’d thought the sheets wouldn’t need to be changed so frequently, believed she could teach her children Latin—before concluding that it’s okay for moms to lose control and not finish what they have to do. After all, she didn’t even finish writing the last bit of her “message.” “These are crying times,” she told Che.

But the bleakest moment of the night belonged to “Eleanor’s House,” a sketch in which Aidy Bryant played the host of a children’s program with an animated set similar to Blue’s Clues. In it, she imagined throwing a birthday party—the pandemic prevented her from throwing the real thing, obviously. But as more and more cartoon guests arrived, they brought with them characters straight out of the uncanny valley, until the vexing scenario overwhelmed her. “This always happens,” she explained at the end, before bidding her young viewers farewell as the camera lingered on her traumatized face. Several of Bryant’s previous at-home sketches have toyed with a dose of dark humor—one featured meditative visualizations gone wrong; another dove into her childhood journals, to disastrous results—but this revolved around anguish and the comedy in the ways people try to control the uncontrollable.

This is a Saturday Night Live that couldn’t care less about offering reassurance—a far cry from the first at-home edition, which had a can-do, show-must-go-on attitude spearheaded by its everyman host, Tom Hanks. For the most part, the finale, hosted by the SNL alum Kristen Wiig, was darker and weirder: As she signed off and bid viewers good night, Wiig put on her “sleep wig” and curled up in bed—only to toss and turn like many struggling to cope with the seemingly never-ending threat of the coronavirus, while the credits rolled over her flailing body. Yes, the show must go on—it will go on, as Wiig promised to “see ya in September.” But, SNL made clear, it’s going to take time to get there. For now, it’s okay to notice the stress, to let it in, and to try to laugh about how much there is. That’s not the most comforting piece of advice, but it’s a necessary one to take in.