Watching Saturday Night Live has always been an uneven experience—there are duds and gems, silliness and darker satire, and often stark shifts in tone from one sketch to the next. But given the anxious state of the world today, watching the show has started to feel uncannily like doomscrolling through a social-media feed. The news the show is riffing on has been unrelentingly bleak for years, and the show’s satire has only grown more apocalyptic. There’s an internet-esque dissonance that comes from watching the show swerve between grim send-ups of Donald Trump, social unrest, COVID, and delightfully inane nonsense.
This weekend’s Saturday Night Live opened as usual, with a grab-bag political sketch addressing the news of the week, this time the Kyle Rittenhouse trial. Cecily Strong played Jeanine Pirro, doing her usual energetic work as the permanently incensed Fox News host; Mikey Day played the case’s headline-grabbing judge as a Rittenhouse sycophant; Chloe Fineman played a liberal commentator outraged by the not-guilty verdict; and Chris Redd played another, more resigned, talking head (“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” Fineman said. “I have,” Redd replied. “Many, many times”). Finally, Donald Trump (played by the new hire James Austin Johnson) showed up to hold forth on Joe Biden’s dismal approval ratings.
What followed? A cheerful monologue from the Marvel star Simu Liu, a repetitive scene set at a karaoke bar clogged by terrible singers, a commercial parody about items to buy at Target to deal with annoying family members at Thanksgiving, and a sketch about a military experiment that created a man with the head of a dog. When the episode eventually wheeled back around to topical material in a game show designed to illustrate how Republican talking points can sound confusingly liberal, it was only after that heavy helping of absurdity. On SNL, as online, news about the brazen horrors of contemporary society sits uncomfortably alongside cute animal memes and chipper celebrity chatter. It’s easy to lose yourself in the flow, but it all blurs strangely together.
Over its 47 seasons, SNL has always mixed sharp-edged political satire with meaningless, goofy material. Lately, its topical sketches carry an air of exhaustion and cynicism, the same feeling that can come from drinking from the firehose of news online. The show, quite understandably, seems entirely fatigued when it comes to the pandemic, having run out of fresh material about mask wearing and anti-vaxxers long ago. Colin Jost and Michael Che’s cynical barbs on “Weekend Update” are delivered with withering shrugs and sighs (“It’s not real, guys” Che groaned when the audience gasped at one of his punch lines about honey-bee deaths).
Throughout much of the Trump presidency, SNL’s takes on the news sometimes felt embarrassingly toothless. I must admit this season’s mix of cynicism and daftness is working better. Alternating between looking for distraction and bemoaning the state of a world is a vibe the audience can relate to, and the show needs its spoonfuls of sugar to help temper the bleaker realities it has to bump up against. The show certainly can’t function as comfort television alone; being topical has always been part of SNL’s mission. But almost all of the best material that’s aired this season has been on the sillier side, such as the newcomer Sarah Sherman’s roast of Jost in Episode 6, or the heightened wackiness of “Mattress Store” from Rami Malek’s episode.
In fact, some of the best SNL material this year has appeared only on YouTube—terrific video sketches that were cut for time, such as “Splitting the Check” with Owen Wilson and “Touch Up,” which didn’t make this week’s episode, starring the newly hired writing team called “Please Don’t Destroy.” This week, I had by far the most fun watching Liu, Strong, Day, and Johnson try to wrangle an ever more bored dog whose head had been threaded through some military fatigues; watching the cast members stifle laughter as they tried to distract their canine companion with a ham sandwich was probably the highlight of the night.
Another high point of last night’s episode was a Staten Island–themed music-video parody of “Walking in Memphis” by Pete Davidson, featuring cameos from Davidson’s comedy pal Big Wet; the original song’s performer, Marc Cohn; and Staten Island’s own Method Man. The video’s laughs were gentle at best, but the production value was surprisingly high, and it’s strangely charming that Davidson (who’s somehow on his eighth season with the show) is still finding ways to riff on his personality despite his limited talents as a sketch actor.
With midterm elections and a potential new COVID wave on the horizon, this season of SNL will surely keep on doomscrolling, and it’ll need plenty more light charm to help balance that out. If it maintains the balance of sweet and weird material that this season has featured so far, the show might just have a mild comeback on its hands.