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.