The Mueller probe probably isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and neither is Saturday Night Live’s dependence on Donald Trump sketches to buoy its ratings. Only a few years ago, the opening sketch was often something as surreal and apolitical as a Lawrence Welk Show spoof; now, it’s almost always centered on politics. But Baldwin, who has called his Trump impression “agony” and mused about leaving his recurring SNL role on many occasions, might finally hang up his orange wig, giving the program a chance to move on from the many special guests that have come to define its recent seasons.
Since the departure of its prior core group of stars (the last of whom, Seth Meyers, departed midway through Season 39), SNL has struggled to build a major identity around its newer ensemble. McKinnon, the show’s one bona-fide star, and Kenan Thompson, its longest-running cast member, are two hall-of-famers. Everyone else is a mix of solid but unspectacular performers, some of whom (like Aidy Bryant and Cecily Strong) have been with the show for six years without ever quite making it their own.
Instead, producer Lorne Michaels has become more reliant on tapping his deep network of celebrity friends and famous SNL alumni for splashy, topical roles. In the age of YouTube (where SNL has almost six million subscribers), those are the sketches that tend to rise to the top of the next-day recaps, though the show’s TV ratings have also remained strong after a spike following the 2016 election. It almost doesn’t matter that SNL’s political humor has been toothless of late, with Baldwin’s once-fearsome Trump performance now feeling little more than creaky.
The season finale, hosted by famed SNL alum Tina Fey, tried to poke fun at the common “too many celebrity cameos” complaint in a monologue where she fielded questions from the likes of De Niro, Jerry Seinfeld, and Donald Glover. Maybe that’s an acknowledgement from Michaels that things will get scaled back next year; perhaps it’s just a wink at the audience. A radical revamping of SNL in the offseason wouldn’t be shocking, since that’s long been a regular part of the show’s decades-long life cycle. But it’s just as likely that things will plod along as they are, at least for another year.
After all, the ratings are still fine. McKinnon (who joined in 2012) could stick around for one last swan song of a season. The show’s Weekend Update hosts, Michael Che and Colin Jost, have never received the acclaim of predecessors like Fey, Meyers, and Amy Poehler, but they’re still hosting the 2018 Emmys. On paper, SNL is chugging along nicely. But so much of its 43rd season was staid and clumsy, and faced many of the same issues as the 41st and 42nd; beyond the growing staleness of its Trump material, SNL struggled to really address some of the biggest news stories of the year, especially the #MeToo movement.