Saturday Night Live’s first episode of 2022 attempted to make up for the strange, empty show that ended 2021 amid the rise of the coronavirus’s Omicron variant. The cast was back, the masked audience was back, and the show, as they say, went on. But it couldn’t escape the world outside of 30 Rock’s doors.
This season has thus far blended thin political fare with dour-noted escapism, as though the pleasure of putting on a live show is more about continually agitating a bruise than finding true comedic relief. Like so many of its viewers, SNL has been waiting to turn a corner, to move past a scenario with little to laugh about. Last night’s episode felt like one long exasperated sigh. As James Austin Johnson’s Joe Biden wretchedly joked in the opening presidential address, “People got vaccinated and the pandemic got worse.”
Trying to find an answer for why things are so very bad, the sketch landed on … Spider-Man: No Way Home. The latest installment of the superhero franchise opened on December 17, Johnson’s Biden explained. “When did every single person get Omicron?” he asked. “The week after December 17. Stop seeing Spider-Man.”
SNL typically eschews absurdity until later in the night, but the opener’s attempt at it landed with a particularly dense thud. Biden suggested that, as in Spider-Man, multiverses are real and we’re clearly living in one of the bad ones. (Well, unless you count the universe where Biden lost to Trump and goes on to host a CNBC show called T-Birds, Tacos, and Trains.) “Doesn’t that make more sense than whatever the hell our current world is?” Biden asked reporters. The premise gathered mild steam when a tattooed Biden from the so-called real world, played by Pete Davidson, arrived via a time portal to confirm the theory. But even he couldn’t seem to locate the levity in his role, telling the media, “The timeline you’re all living in is about to collapse.” Fully leaning into that macabre tone—apt for our moment—would have made the sketch not merely bleak but darkly funny.
Despite the somber material, a few cast members arrived ready to deliver. Bowen Yang was a superbly stoic Yao Ming, called in to provide commentary for the analytical sports show NBA on TNT when Shaq contracted COVID. Chloe Fineman’s pitch-perfect Elmo responded to the hubbub this week about his exasperated relationship with Rocco, his friend Zoe’s pet rock, highlighting the actress’s wheelhouse of astute impressions. And Kate McKinnon played an enthusiastic lesbian classics scholar whose personal relationship details keep popping up in her presentation about the poet Sappho.
The evening’s host, Ariana DeBose, fresh off a performance as Anita in Steven Spielberg’s update of West Side Story, tried to character-act her way through her sketches, but even the seemingly lighter material took a gloomy turn. In a new Sound of Music parody, Maria von Trapp (McKinnon) introduced her neighbor’s motherless children to a nun who “just like me … got kicked out of a nunnery for erratic behavior.” DeBose’s governess tried to teach the children to sing because it would help “solve all of the family’s emotional problems,” but in her hands, Maria’s classic “Do-Re-Mi” got a pop-culture update: “Doh, a thing that Homer Simpson says / Ray, a movie with Jamie Foxx.” The kids began adding their own spin on the lyrics, coming up with grimmer examples. “Doe, the last name of a body found in a river,” Yang, as one of the children, sang.
The most energetic moments of the show came from the musical performances by the indie pop-rock band Bleachers—each a true relief. Still, the band’s appearance was a reminder of pandemic realities: The rapper Roddy Ricch had been set to be the musical guest but dropped out at the last minute because of COVID exposure. Was it a coincidence that Bleachers’ first song last night was “How Dare You Want More?”
Between the need to scramble the jets for the final episode of 2021 and the tweaks the show had to make for its first episode of the new year, SNL is clearly treading more cautiously. Rather than detail the next host and musical guest weeks in advance, it announced that information during yesterday’s show. As airlines and small businesses struggle to maintain enough staff to deliver their goods and services, SNL, too, is practicing flexibility. We’re all still living in the middle of a pandemic—and last night’s episode seemed to acknowledge that.