Politics has always been a boon for Saturday Night Live. Its 42nd season, which aired over the 2016 election and Trump’s early months in office, revitalized the show’s ratings as usual. But unlike 2008, a moment that helped magnify SNL’s already impressive ensemble (including Kristen Wiig, Andy Samberg, Poehler, and Meyers), 2016 instead highlighted the show’s deficiencies. Saturday Night Live relied too heavily on celebrity guests and drop-ins from alumni, was confused on just how forcefully it should criticize Trump (though it eventually settled into a fairly harsh tone on that front), and clearly lacked the kinds of popular recurring characters that form the backbone of the show.
So far, Weekend Update: Summer Edition hasn’t done much to change that perception. In the first episode, Hader dropped by to play Anthony Scaramucci in a sketch that was pre-taped in Los Angeles, a trick the show employed a few times last year to work around the busy schedule of Melissa McCarthy (who played Sean Spicer to great effect). Hader was his typical amusing self as “the Mooch,” but there’s often an airless quality to those pre-taped bits (it’s called Saturday Night Live for a reason), and this time was no different.
On the next episode, the former Weekend Update hosts Fallon and Meyers performed a double act as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, a cute hat-tip to their status as SNL’s wizened ancestors. Then Fey stopped by for a much remarked-upon monologue on the Charlottesville protests, speaking as an alumna of the University of Virginia. Through it all, Jost and Che provide the usual one-liners and chummy repartee, but the whole endeavor feels like a desperate attempt to stay in the conversation and keep up with the nonstop political news.
This is not to say Saturday Night Live is fading away; it was still one of the highest-rated, and most-discussed, shows of the 2016 season and remains hugely popular in the all-important advertiser “demo” (people aged 18-49). But the program is at a crossroads as it looks ahead to a year in comedy that promises to be just as politically charged as the last. Does it double down on the short-term play it made last season—lots of guest stars taking on lots of topical figures—or start to hand roles back to its actual ensemble, in the hopes of building them up with audiences?
Remember that some of SNL’s biggest recent stars have been Alec Baldwin (who plays Trump), Larry David (whose Bernie Sanders impression was highly touted), and McCarthy. Kate McKinnon, who played Hillary Clinton on the show, as well as Kellyanne Conway, Jeff Sessions, and many others, is entering her seventh SNL season, so it may not be long before she leaves to pursue a movie career full-time. Behind her, the bench is weak.
Aside from Kenan Thompson (a brilliant member of SNL’s firmament), the cast consists of solid ensemble players like Aidy Bryant, Cecily Strong, and Beck Bennett, none of whom has ever quite broken out in the way McKinnon has. Leslie Jones is the closest thing SNL has to a successor to McKinnon, but she might be a better fit for the Update desk (which has long been the provenance of stand-up comedians like herself). The rest of the returning cast is Pete Davidson, Kyle Mooney, Mikey Day, Alex Moffat, and Melissa Villaseñor, with Bobby Moynihan, Vanessa Bayer, and Sasheer Zamata all having left in the off-season.