Ex–Cast Members Were the Bright Spot on SNL—And That’s a Problem

For its 45th season premiere, the venerable sketch show loaded up on celebrity drop-ins, to the detriment of its regular players.

A Democratic-debate parody leaned into Lorne Michaels’s penchant for surprise drop-ins from famous freelancers. (NBC / Will Heath)

Saturday Night Live was handed a plum piece of political news for the week of its 45th premiere, as House Democrats launched an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. What better way for the venerable sketch show to shake off the cobwebs than with some genuine White House intrigue? After years of innuendo surrounding the report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller (played on the show by Robert De Niro, usually looming in the background), SNL finally has some congressional action to sink its teeth into—all the better to kick off a season that has already been plagued by behind-the-scenes drama. So why did the episode feel so lamely static?

The show opened unsurprisingly with Trump (Alec Baldwin, embarking on his fourth season in the role) making panicked phone calls to some of his closest pals, including Rudy Giuliani (Kate McKinnon), Mike Pence (Beck Bennett), William Barr (Aidy Bryant), and Kim Jong Un (the new cast member Bowen Yang). Relying on a cavalcade of impressions from regular cast members is something SNL doesn’t do enough of these days, so even the largely unnecessary appearances of Kanye West (Chris Redd) and Don King (Kenan Thompson) felt forgivable. But as Baldwin’s Trump fumbled to protect himself from impeachment, the sketch’s grand finale centered on a celebrity drop-in, a gimmick SNL has leaned on excessively in recent years.

Only that drop-in was from Liev Schreiber, the burly character actor who has spent six seasons starring in the Showtime drama series Ray Donovan. The joke was that Trump was looking for Donovan, a bare-knuckle “fixer” who takes care of stuff, wink wink, but because of Trump’s inability to distinguish between fiction and reality, he had called Schreiber. No offense to Mr. Schreiber, who has gotten multiple Emmy nominations and gave arguably the best performance in the Oscar-winning film Spotlight, but when that’s the big superstar cameo the SNL producer Lorne Michaels is arranging for the season premiere, it might be time to refresh the Rolodex. Ray Donovan isn’t even on the air right now!

At the end of SNL’s 44th season, I wrote about what the show needed to revamp as it prepared to cover a pivotal election year. SNL has thrived on its political material since the election of Trump, but Baldwin’s performance as the president has turned stale and uninspired, and the writing of his character rarely extends beyond broad buffoonery. But critical grousing aside, there’s arguably no reason for Michaels and his team (including the head writers Michael Che and Colin Jost) to shake things up; SNL just won its third Emmy in a row for Outstanding Variety Sketch Series, and in an era of declining network TV ratings, its viewership remains strong.

Nonetheless, this premiere episode felt like wheel-spinning from a creatively stagnant show. Woody Harrelson, an SNL veteran making his fourth hosting appearance, was a typically enthusiastic presence who still faded into the background of most sketches. Weekend Update, the centerpiece news segment hosted by Che and Jost, was oddly short, with some material clearly cut for time. Though SNL has been known to mock itself in the past anytime it ends up in the news, there was not even a self-deprecating reference to the Shane Gillis hiring fiasco.

The other major political segment of the night was a more thorough 2020 election preview, a Democratic-debate parody that further leaned into Michaels’s penchant for surprise drop-ins from famous freelancers. While most of the candidates were played by cast members (Yang as Andrew Yang, Redd as Cory Booker, Alex Moffat as Beto O’Rourke ), only one of the four major contenders was part of the regular ensemble—McKinnon as Elizabeth Warren, a fairly hackneyed impression that feels too reminiscent of her work as Hillary Clinton.

Harrelson stepped in as Joe Biden, wearing a set of particularly shiny dentures; Larry David returned as Bernie Sanders, a role he played during the 2016 election with ornery aplomb; and Maya Rudolph showed up as Kamala Harris, dominating the proceedings with a recurring bit about her fondness for empty catchphrases. All three performers were solid, but none can be relied on to stop by every week as the show gears up to cover the Democratic primaries. Michaels’s tendency to rely on veterans who will grab headlines is understandable, but it means that newer cast members such as Ego Nwodim and Melissa Villaseñor remain on the sidelines, unable to make a name for themselves. As the 45th season of the show moves forward, developing the rest of the cast should be SNL’s priority, not putting in calls to Ray Donovan.