Saturday Night Live opened the last episode of its 44th season with a sketch featuring Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump, sitting in the Oval Office, telling a few jokes, and then singing a song with a coterie of characters from his administration. That might sound like par for the course for the show, but it was actually Baldwin’s first appearance in character since March, when SNL mocked the president’s reaction to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report. Almost three years into a presidency one could charitably describe as newsworthy, the best this show could come up with for a season finale was Trump singing Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” and shimmying behind his desk, as if daring the audience to, well, stop him.
The brewing news going into last night’s episode was that Kate McKinnon, the indisputable star of this era of SNL, might be departing for greener pastures. Her contract is up as of now and she may be ready to move on to movie stardom like countless breakout actors before her. But if this was her last hurrah, there was little sign of it, and certainly no grand send-off like the ones Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader got. Instead, there was the same slightly lackluster mix of topical material and unmemorable goofy sketch writing that has defined the show in recent years. SNL has survived for so many decades by knowing when to pull the trigger on a revamp, and Baldwin’s dismal karaoke work last night was the surest sign yet that something needs to change.
What drove it home was the political “cold open” sketch (which, as usual, kicked off the show): It gathered all of SNL’s lazy gags about the Trump administration into one sing-along presentation. Beck Bennett showed up as Mike Pence to supply some uninspired homosexual innuendo; Alex Moffat and Mikey Day did their “Dumb and Dumber” routine as Trump’s oldest sons; and then Robert De Niro shuffled in, all made up as Mueller, to stand there and do nothing in particular (Baldwin as Trump waved him off, yelling “No collusion!”).
It was about as laugh-free as the cold open of the previous year’s finale, which also involved Trump, his sons, and Mueller, in a Sopranos spoof, mocking the idea that whatever resolution was promised from the special counsel’s investigation might never arrive. A year later, they’re all singing “Don’t Stop Me Now” together, rather than “Don’t Stop Believin’,” but the message remains the same. “I don’t know what’s next for me, but I wouldn’t be Donald Trump if I didn’t say, ‘Tune in next season to see who lives and who dies,’” Baldwin joked, satirizing both the president’s propensity for firing Cabinet members and the actor’s own professed unwillingness to stay in the role.
Baldwin probably should move along, as his heart really hasn’t been in the role since Trump won the presidency. A reshuffle is also badly needed behind the “Weekend Update” desk, where Colin Jost and Michael Che have never quite managed to distinguish themselves after five seasons on the job. Some of the other sketches in last night’s episode pointed to opportunities that SNL let go stale over the years. Kyle Mooney, whose strange digital shorts initially made him seem like a weird and woolly replacement for Andy Samberg, has gotten to do less and less of them of late; the return of his recurring “romance” with Leslie Jones felt like a pale imitation of the more esoteric humor he used to favor. Even the appearance of one of McKinnon’s better recurring characters, the frequent alien abductee Ms. Rafferty, felt fully exhausted.
The finale’s host was Paul Rudd, a capable SNL favorite who is no stranger to weird sketch comedy, but he largely disappeared into the background, like so many other talented hosts this season. The only truly memorable SNL episodes this year all involved trips into the show’s brighter past—the return of Seth Meyers in October; the second appearance of John Mulaney, in March; and most recently, a long-awaited hosting appearance from Adam Sandler. As it settles into middle age (with Season 45 on the horizon), SNL will always be guilty of occasionally looking back, and fans can’t be blamed for their nostalgia. But it’s hard to know what people will remember fondly from the past few years of the show.