Saturday Night Live returned last night after a six-week hiatus, ready to tackle a turbulent period that included the insurrection at the Capitol, the inauguration of Joe Biden, and the second impeachment of Donald Trump—the kind of chaotic political fodder that’s been a mainstay of the show for the past four years. I tuned in with a tinge of dread, expecting perhaps a dramatic send-off for Alec Baldwin’s tenure as Trump, or some other cavalcade of impressions and celebrity drop-ins to preview the show’s approach to the Biden administration. Instead, I was greeted with a big shrug—a sleepy acknowledgment that current events might remain tumultuous, but SNL just doesn’t have the energy for that right now.
The show’s opening sketch did not feature an Oscar-winning actor dropping by to play a Biden Cabinet member, or a comedy luminary like Steve Martin or Martin Short swinging in as a manic Trump supporter. Instead, there was Kate McKinnon, literally playing herself, bringing in different SNL ensemble members to calmly narrate some of the wacky news of the week (the GameStop stock surge, O. J. Simpson getting a COVID-19 vaccine). Yes, Cecily Strong did an impression of the conspiracy theorist Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, but her performance seemed intent on not turning the politician into an outsize, cartoonish figure, instead having her blithely and bluntly explain some of her most horrifying beliefs to an exhausted-looking McKinnon.
It’s more than understandable that the cast and crew of SNL, like so many of us, might feel weary about analyzing the news right now. Beyond that, the complications of the pandemic and the way the show is currently produced probably make it more difficult for A-list stars to pop by for a goofy cameo. But this week’s episode, which had some limp political humor, a few decent laughs in its big sketches, and a solid but unspectacular performance from its host, John Krasinski, might have served as a larger preview of SNL’s approach to the Biden era after years of capitalizing on topical virality.
Following a brief and unimpressive experiment with big-name casting for Biden (Jim Carrey, of whose already-concluded stint the less said, the better), the show has installed the reliable cast member Alex Moffat in the role, and he seems likely to appear only on occasion. While SNL will certainly have political stories to cover, without an election or the palace intrigue of the Trump administration, a lot of the timely jokes will probably be left to Weekend Update. During the Obama era, one of the show’s favorite cold opens was Fred Armisen and Kristen Wiig’s surreal take on The Lawrence Welk Show; after all, there was only so much satire to churn out about congressional gridlock.
So what else did SNL have to offer this week? For one, a montage of TV characters singing invented theme songs for their shows, including HBO’s The Undoing (which aired its finale back in November). Krasinski played a live-action version of a lead character from Ratatouille, whose actions are controlled by a rat pulling his hair; another sketch saw him and Beck Bennett as incompetent pitchmen for Subway, delivering a long, droning performance of a rejected jingle that probably prompted the biggest laugh of the night. The closest the week got to pointed political humor was a “pandemic game night” sketch, in which all of the ordinary-seeming participants were arrested for storming the Capitol, an obvious but still enjoyably acidic takedown of the idea that the mob belonged only to a radical fringe.
The episode was hardly disastrous, and it had some satisfying moments for newer cast members who are likely going to assume bigger roles in the coming seasons, as veterans such as McKinnon exit the building. Bowen Yang’s Fran Lebowitz impression was good fun; a new addition, Andrew Dismukes, had a couple of solid supporting turns in sketches. And even McKinnon’s over-it hosting gig at the top of the episode had an amusing hint of self-awareness, much like the hilariously underbaked “Dr. Wenowdis” character she’s trotted out of late. The show is clearly entering a transitional period toward a sillier, less overtly political approach, with this strange season serving as an awkward bridge. Or, as Dr. Wenowdis would say of the familiar news stories that SNL gestured at last night: “We know this.”