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In recent weeks, Saturday Night Live has been too preoccupied with the chaos surrounding the Mueller report and the controversy over Joe Biden’s touching to meaningfully tackle a story that’s ripe for satirizing: the college-admissions bribery scandal. The show’s two previous episodes mildly commented on an affair that has gripped public attention since mid-March, including Michael Che’s quip about the behavior of wealthy people during “Weekend Update,” and a sketch cut for time lambasting admissions panels for chasing potential students’ fame. But beyond those instances, the scandal has been largely been neglected.

Saturday’s cold open sought to remedy that failure. Unfortunately, the sketch, which was set in a jail cell, quickly lost sight of its punch line and purpose by broadening its initial focus on the actress Lori Loughlin (played by Kate McKinnon) to include other newly indicted figures: the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (Michael Keaton) and the lawyer Michael Avenatti (Pete Davidson).

McKinnon played Loughlin as a hardened criminal whose alleged actions shocked her three cell mates, who were in custody for armed robbery, assault, and murder. “I paid $500 grand to a woman’s crew coach to say my daughter was good at rowing,” she said menacingly. When the prisoners, played by Chris Redd, Kenan Thompson, and Kyle Mooney, balked at the number (“Hold up! You paid $500 grand for USC?” Thompson asked in disbelief), she coolly replied that the amount was only what she paid to get her daughter in. She dropped an additional $300,000 for tuition. “And you know what her job is now?” she asked. “She’s an influencer on Instagram.”  

McKinnon performed in most of the episode’s sketches, delivering sharp-toothed impressions including Joy Behar and the Queen of England, but her Loughlin fell flat. Dressed in a brown suit similar to the one Loughlin wore to her court appearance, McKinnon could do no more than look the part. But her trouble characterizing Loughlin perhaps spoke more to the actress’s nondescript persona. After all, how do you intriguingly impersonate a woman mostly known for her anodyne TV roles, like lovable Aunt Becky on Full House and her more recent part as the bland but firm Abigail Stanton on Hallmark’s frontier series, When Calls the Heart?

McKinnon’s version strained to frame those roles as an explanation for Loughlin’s alleged participation in the cockamamie cheating scheme. Upon being told that she wouldn’t last long in prison, Loughlin laughed and pointed to her career with the Hallmark channel. “I have seen hell, man,” she said. “And in half those Hallmark movies, I marry Santa’s son. I have lost all sense of reality.”

Had the cold open drawn to a close after that bit, the scene would’ve been one of the weaker but still pointed moments of a disjointed episode. (Much of the audience was eagerly waiting for the globally beloved South Korean boy band BTS to make its SNL debut as the musical guest; repeated references to the group throughout the episode’s mostly insipid sketches drew the wildest cheers of the night.) But then SNL also brought out Assange and Avenatti, squeezing more characters into a premise that hinged on a setting rather than an actual point. SNL’s writers never managed to deepen the sketch’s superficial commentary about contemporary criminality, and the distinctions between financial, cyber-, and violent offenses.

To the show’s credit, the cold open did use its cast members to full effect instead of relying so heavily on outside talent. Keaton’s smaller guest appearance marked a welcome shift away from Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump and Robert De Niro’s Mueller, both of which have been SNL regulars of late. But Keaton, too, struggled to depict Assange in a way that didn’t equivocate his alleged crimes. Battling Davidson’s Avenatti and McKinnon’s Loughlin for the title of craziest new prisoner, he said, “Yeah, you cheat your schools and you rob your companies; that’s cute. It is. I’ve attacked the U.S. military, bitches, because I’m an actual James Bond super villain, and I’m one step away from destroying the goddamn moon.” That bloviating speech—along with the show’s fixation on the rumors that Assange wiped his fecal matter on the Ecuadorian embassy’s walls—won the half-hearted power struggle. In a confusing twist, though, the sketch ended by cutting to the incarcerated rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine (played by Melissa Villaseñor) for no apparent reason other than to use him as an ambiguous foil for the other celebrity prisoners.

The news cycle of late seems to turn over rocks that reveal not just bad but utterly ludicrous behavior. In trying to cram the latest headlines into a single sketch that boiled down to “famous people accused of doing bad things,” SNL wasted the punch-line gold it had been handed.

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