It’s perfectly understandable why Saturday Night Live avoided going to either of its two biggest stars for the political cold open of its last episode. The performances of Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump and Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer have helped bring the show back into the zeitgeist after several years of struggling for relevance. But neither is part of the main cast, and it’s easy to have too much of a good thing: McCarthy’s work as Spicer was a barnstorming success the first time, but there’s a good chance the returns would diminish quickly if that sketch were just recycled again and again.
But the most recent episode showed how much ground SNL still needs to make up outside of its special guest stars if it wants to remain a fixture in the conversation. The creator Lorne Michaels’s eye for stunt casting has always been sharp, and Baldwin and McCarthy’s work had a pronounced edge that the show’s 2016 election material had lacked. But the rest of SNL’s political satire, such as Saturday’s cold open that framed Attorney General Jeff Sessions as Forrest Gump, often leans on presenting the Trump administration as cheerfully unaware or low on brainpower. It’s a more toothless approach that’s far easier for viewers of all political viewpoints to dismiss, and it’s a well the show keeps coming back to whenever Baldwin’s far nastier take on Trump is unavailable.
Saturday’s cold open saw the SNL star Kate McKinnon playing Jeff Sessions for the second time. Her first appearance as the new Attorney General was a brief drop-by for one of McCarthy’s Spicer performances, in which she was quickly shoved off stage after saying “We all know there are two kinds of crime, regular and black,” a gut-punch of a one-liner referencing the allegations of bigotry in Sessions’s past. But with McKinnon’s character reframed within a Forrest Gump parody, that gut-punch potential was suddenly sapped.
First, Forrest Gump is a much parodied, 23-year-old film—a pop-culture reference so staid that many of SNL’s younger viewers probably barely recognize it. Second, casting Sessions as some kind of a simpleton seems like an odd move in the wake of news stories about his meetings with the Russian ambassador during the 2016 campaign. The sketch’s take was that Sessions barely understood what was going on—even when Vladimir Putin (played, as ever, by a shirtless Beck Bennett) made a cameo appearance and said, simply, “This meeting never happened.”
McKinnon’s Trump-related impressions often have this element of cluelessness to them. Her brief appearance as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos also portrayed her as a buffoon with a deer-in-the-headlights expression. Meanwhile, her Kellyanne Conway often makes asides to the camera about how unhappy she is to be working alongside Trump, as if she didn’t know what she was getting into. As Vox’s Caroline Framke noted, it’s an easy way to get a punchline, but a questionable artistic choice to make these topical figures (who are political actors in their own right) into confused minions and unhappy audience surrogates. “While the idea of some kind of mass feminist defection from Trump’s base and inner circle might be a comforting fantasy for some, it ignores the fact that many women did and do support Trump,” Framke wrote, also mentioning the show’s takes on Ivanka Trump and Melania Trump.
Beyond the sense that the show is pulling its punches is the simple fact that SNL remains very top-heavy, with its reliance on big guest stars. Michaels’s recruitment of Baldwin and McCarthy has made sense as a smash-and-grab ratings move, and it’s worked. Even when their characters don’t appear, eager audiences are tuning in anyway in case they’ll show up, thus helping to sustain SNL’s viewership. But whether the infrequency of Baldwin and McCarthy’s drop-ins is a result of their busy schedules or the show’s unwillingness to recycle the same sketches, the actors’ absence is always palpable.
The latest episode wasn’t a complete dud; the host, Octavia Spencer, fit in very well with the ensemble, emerging as the brightest performer in many sketches. But it definitely lacked for standout moments, the kind of viral material SNL thrives on these days—whether it’s political humor, or a bizarre sketch that goes big like David Pumpkins. This week, there wasn’t much to bounce around the internet. The biggest meme was the hilarious image of McKinnon silently mimicking Conway’s much-derided way of sitting every time the show cut to an ad break, but that doesn’t even count as a sketch. Certainly SNL is entitled to its off-weeks, but its recent brush with relevance feels particularly fragile; the minute audiences get bored of big-ticket guest stars, it could quickly recede from view again. The more SNL dared to make its humor as biting as possible, the more it has thrived, and that’s something it should remember for the weeks ahead.