Kate McKinnon (left) and Cecily Strong in 'Saturday Night Live'NBC

Updated on November 4, 2018.

Everyone’s panicked. That’s how Saturday Night Live summed up the final days before the midterm elections, from both sides of the spectrum, in an episode that felt a little more knowing and sharp than the show’s broad, goofy portrayals of the Kavanaugh confirmation and its aftermath. The episode began with Kate McKinnon’s parody of Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show, The Ingraham Angle, as she warned of the approaching migrant caravan in apocalyptic terms, villainizing the “dozens—maybe millions” of Central American refugees to fire up her viewing base and get them to the polls.

Following that was a parody ad in which Democratic voters, burned by 2016’s polling misfire, looked into the camera and shakily proclaimed their belief that this time, things would be different. “There’s a blue wave on the horizon, and I have never … felt more … confident …” said Heidi Gardner, playing a mom, holding up a trembling thumb. With Alec Baldwin perhaps unavailable due to his recent arrest, the show swerved away from its vaudevillian portrayal of President Donald Trump and instead animated the country’s climate of fear ahead of the November 6 elections. From the right-wing media, an implausible warning of impending doom; from progressive voters, a total lack of resoluteness that things could ever swing in their direction.

“Of course, the liberal media is trying to label President Trump a racist, but except for his words and actions throughout his life, how is he racist?” Ingraham asked the audience incredulously. “All of a sudden, the term nationalist is bad. The word white is bad. The phrase white nationalist is bad!” Then she brought in Fox News regulars like Jeanine Pirro (Cecily Strong) and David Clarke (Kenan Thompson) to back up arguments that the migrant caravan contained “Guatemalans, Mexicans, ISIS, the Menendez brothers, the 1990 Detroit Pistons, Thanos, and several Babadooks,” playing footage of zombie swarms from World War Z as a final coup de grace.

In its 44th season, SNL has struggled to parody a presidential administration that’s already given to extreme bombast. Though Baldwin’s performance as Trump was initially startling and a much-needed jolt of energy during the 2016 campaign, Baldwin has grown increasingly listless in the role as Trump’s presidency drags on. Sketches about Trump’s cabinet members have felt similarly one-note, portraying them mostly as brainless simpletons rather than actively polarizing figures. In contrast, SNL’s take on cable news can be surprisingly pointed, and last night’s sketch was unafraid to present Fox News as a malevolent force, even as it threw in ludicrous jokes about the migrant caravan walking “at a normal pace of 300 miles a day.”

The Democratic “get out the vote” commercial was very much in SNL’s wheelhouse, mocking liberals who are afraid to make even the broadest guarantee of their party’s success, no matter what the polling says. “It’s a win we need, and a win we’re going to get, I’m sure of it,” said Beck Bennett’s office worker as he tried to sip coffee from his quaking hand. “They say don’t trust the polls, but I’m choosing to,” added McKinnon’s small-business owner, later screaming with enough anguish to shatter her shop windows.

Another segment, a monologue by Pete Davidson on Weekend Update mocking several Republican candidates for office, stirred up some controversy by targeting Dan Crenshaw, who is running for Congress in Texas and wears an eye patch after losing an eye in combat in Afghanistan. “This guy is kinda cool … You may be surprised to hear he’s a congressional candidate from Texas, and not a hitman in a porno movie,” Davidson said, adding, “I’m sorry, I know he lost his eye in war, or whatever,” with a trademark shrug. Davidson’s unvarnished approach to stand-up has felt particularly frayed in recent weeks (since his now-imploded relationship with Ariana Grande put him in the tabloid spotlight all summer), but it was still a joke along typical lines for him, and sheer shock value is never a particularly useful element to good satire.

Still, it was an altogether strong episode for SNL, held together by host Jonah Hill, who made his fifth appearance and was inducted into the “five-timers club” by other five-time hosts such as Tina Fey, Drew Barrymore, and Candice Bergen. Hill mostly dominated the show’s apolitical sketches, such as one featuring the return of his grandstanding 6-year-old comedian, Adam Grossman. Broadly silly material like that is a crucial part of the mix as the show fosters newer talent and tries to identify future stars.

Along those lines, this season has had a number of more absurd sketches that really sang, like the debut of Bayou Benny in Seth Meyers’s episode, or Adam Driver’s tour de force as a grumpy oil prospector in “Career Day.” If it can hone its political edge again, SNL will officially be on the rebound after a couple of years that leaned way too heavily on stunt casting and tired recurring characters. Maybe making fun of Donald Trump isn’t the way to do that—instead, the show can point the camera at the ways he’s warped political discourse beyond recognition.

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