Saturday Night Live Misunderstands Its Role Right Now

Amid extraordinary national uncertainty, the show’s season premiere offered up normalcy. It should have torn up the rule book.

Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump and Jim Carrey as Joe Biden on 'SNL'

Saturday Night Live’s return to television last night seemed intended to project a reassuring air of normalcy. Yes, there may still be a pandemic ravaging the nation, and the president is currently in the hospital afflicted with COVID-19, but Season 46 of SNL was going to proceed much like the past 45, live from Studio 8H at 11:30 p.m. The show opened with a re-creation of Tuesday’s chaotic presidential debate; it introduced a new celebrity guest (Jim Carrey), in the recurring role of Joe Biden; and it mixed in plenty of goofy apolitical sketches alongside whatever Donald Trump zingers “Weekend Update” could rustle up.

It certainly felt familiar—the show has managed to largely re-create its normal filming conditions thanks to aggressive testing protocols. But it also felt entirely inadequate. When SNL returned to our screens in the spring, at the height of the pandemic, it adapted to the strange circumstances by producing a series of episodes filmed in the cast’s homes. While the humor was spotty, the DIY nature of the production was heartwarming, oddly reaffirming SNL’s institutional status as undefeatable, even by social-distancing protocols. But the show’s return to a standard format makes clear that its brand of topical satire simply won’t be enough for the chaotic months of pandemic and election uncertainty that lie ahead of us.

In fairness, the show was in an impossible position for its first week back in months. Trump announced his COVID-19 diagnosis late Thursday night, well after SNL’s sketches had been written and planned out. The debate sketch that kicked off the episode could be tweaked only so much to acknowledge the rapid shift in current events (a pre-roll title screen joked that Tuesday “feels like 100 days ago”). And it’s hard to imagine how SNL could have opened the show poking fun at the president’s hospitalization in a way that didn’t feel entirely tasteless. But charting a satirical middle ground is just as difficult.

The debate sketch featured Alec Baldwin’s imitation of Trump as a garrulous blowhard, a portrayal that has grown exhausting and ineffectual over the four years he’s been doing it. Carrey’s much-hyped debut as Biden (replacing last season’s mix of Woody Harrelson and Jason Sudeikis) was heavy on the makeup but light on any new perspective about the former vice president. Where Sudeikis played him as an energetic buffoon and Harrelson portrayed him as nonsensically folksy, Carrey seemed to mostly just be doing what the actor usually does, squishing his face in odd directions and imagining Biden as being afflicted by an angry internal monologue. It was familiar stuff for Carrey, a mix of Me, Myself & Irene and Fire Marshal Bill, but its topical import was limited at best; Biden’s supposed inner rage was not exactly the main story of a debate dominated by Trump’s constant interruptions. Maya Rudolph dropped in at the end to play Kamala Harris as a scolding-mommy type, promising the camera a “WAP—woman as president,” maybe the biggest groan line of the night.

The host, Chris Rock, threw in a couple of jabs at Trump’s diagnosis (“President Trump’s in the hospital from COVID, and I just want to say, my heart goes out to COVID”), and the “Weekend Update” hosts, Colin Jost and Michael Che, had room for more candid assessments of the cruel irony of the president’s condition. “There’s a lot funny about this,” Che said. “Maybe not from a moral standpoint. But mathematically, if you were constructing a joke, this is all the ingredients you need. The problem is, it’s almost too funny.” Almost too funny, yet largely ignored: Che inadvertently underlined SNL’s lack of nimbleness in the face of a constantly changing election story. The show will have a five-week run straight through to the November election, but all that hard work won’t mean much if the best it can offer is the kind of genial, lightweight winks to the audience that filled the opening debate sketch.

The rest of the show’s pandemic humor felt warmed-over. A sketch about the NBA bubble in which teams drafted women to stay with them in quarantine was baffling and offensive in equal measure, oddly mocking the permeability of a system that actually proved to work over the summer. A faux news report about a super-spreader event was simply a vehicle for a procession of characters with silly double-entendre names. A pretaped sketch, titled “Stunt Performers,” had a premise so convoluted, it would take me an entire paragraph to explain it, but it was largely lacking in actual jokes.

Saturday Night Live is often rickety in its first week back, as writers settle into the strange rhythms of producing such an elaborate show. The transition must have been stranger than ever this year because of COVID-19; that the show can be produced at all feels miraculous and tenuous, down to the socially distanced, masked audience (which, for the premiere, was made up of first responders). The circumstances of Trump’s hospitalization surely made the execution of this week’s episode only that much harder. But the biggest problem I had with SNL’s return was how normal everything felt despite all the chaos. I understand the desire for comfort television right now, but this is not the time for SNL to feel safe.