When Saturday Night Live debuted Alec Baldwin’s impression of Donald Trump, it felt like the show’s first effective take on the then–presidential candidate. You’d be forgiven for forgetting this fact as the performance’s satirical bite has become more and more toothless. Still, in the years since Baldwin began playing Trump in 2016, SNL has brought in celebrity after celebrity to play major political figures, often ignoring its in-house cast, and it’s repeating that strategy for the 2020 election. The problem is, it’s mostly successful, and SNL’s newest choice to play Joe Biden is turning out to be a mostly inspired one.
Woody Harrelson likely took the role of Biden for the premiere of the 45th season on September 28 only because he was hosting that week. The former vice president had long been played by the departed cast member Jason Sudeikis, who frequently lampooned Biden’s brassy brand of folksiness during the Obama administration. Sudeikis left SNL in 2013, but has popped back in as Biden on occasion, most recently in April, when he returned to satirize reports that Biden’s habit of overly affectionate hugging and kissing had made women uncomfortable over the years.
Sudeikis’s impression couldn’t square that circle—it’s too friendly and affectionate a performance, one rooted in the image of Biden as a lovable and harmless grandpa. Harrelson’s Biden is glossy and spiky, flashing a set of eerie pearly whites and speaking in nonsensical truisms. In Harrelson’s first appearance as Biden, he bemoaned the public tide turning on him as he runs for president in 2020: “I’m like plastic straws: I’ve been around forever, I’ve always worked, but now you’re mad at me?” In his return engagement this weekend, he stumbled through a CNN Town Hall on LGBTQ issues, leading off with, “The vast majority of people in America are not homophobic. They’re just scared of gay people.”
When pressed on his past support of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” Harrelson’s Biden answers with “a false memory,” recalling being with his father in “Delaware, 19 clickity-clack” and marveling at a particularly well-dressed straight couple. It’s a performance half-rooted in Harrelson’s movie-star magnetism, half in the country-bumpkin character he perfected for many years on Cheers, and it nicely toes the line between charming and creepy. Casting Harrelson might end up backfiring, as it did for SNL with Baldwin—if Biden were to win the presidency, the show would need to keep him around as a recurring presence. But if Lorne Michaels insisted on going the celebrity route, he could have done worse than Woody.
Harrelson wasn’t the only celebrity drop-in this week: The past SNL host Lin-Manuel Miranda played the presidential candidate Julián Castro, and Pose’s Billy Porter appeared as a vigorous emcee to introduce the candidates. (Last week, Matthew Broderick showed up as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.) But the regular cast’s big impressions are, admittedly, not really connecting, with Kate McKinnon’s Elizabeth Warren so far feeling like an uninspired rehash of her work as Hillary Clinton. Since the Trump era dawned on SNL, there have really been two shows happening simultaneously on Saturday nights: the political sketches, which are populated with famous faces, and the regular comedy sketches, which lean on the existing cast.
Luckily for SNL, there’s a slew of newer cast members ready to seize the spotlight on the show. One of the two hires this season, Bowen Yang, has already made an incredible impression in these early weeks. His appearance on “Weekend Update” as the Chinese trade representative Chen Biao was a highlight, and this week Yang dominated in a goofy sketch set at SoulCycle. Ego Nwodim, a 2018 hire who was largely sidelined in her first season, has also started to get more substantial roles this year.
Then there’s the writing team of Streeter Seidell and the cast member Mikey Day, who had their first big hit with David S. Pumpkins three years ago. This week, the pair penned an elaborate parody of Joker called Grouch, casting the host, David Harbour, as a grim and gritty version of Sesame Street’s Oscar the Grouch. It was produced with the kind of attention to detail that makes a pretaped sketch sing, replicating the filming style and specific locations on display in Joker. There’s plenty of noncelebrity talent ready to shine on SNL, and it shouldn’t be crowded out just because of the coming election cycle.