Looking at Saturday Night Live has always been an uneven experience – there are duds and gems, silliness and darker satire and often sharp shifts in tone from one sketch to the next. But in light of the anxious state of the world today, it’s starting to feel eerie like doom to see the show through a social media feed. The news that the show riffs on has been tirelessly gloomy for years, and the show’s satire has only become more apocalyptic. There’s an internet – like dissonance that comes from watching the show swing between gloomy bids from Trump, social unrest and COVID and delightfully insane nonsense.
This weekend Saturday Night Live opened as usual with a political sketch covering the week’s news, this time the Kyle Rittenhouse trial. Cecily Strong played Jeanine Pirro, who did her usual energetic work as the permanently upset Fox News host; Mikey Day played the main judge of the case as a Rittenhouse sycophant; Chloe Fineman played a liberal commentator who was outraged at the innocent verdict; and Chris Redd played another, more resigned, talking head (“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” Fineman said. “I have,” Redd replied. “Many, many times”). Finally, Donald Trump (played by the new hiring James Austin Johnson) showed up to hold on to Joe Biden’s grim approval ratings.
What followed? A hilarious monologue from Marvel star Simu Liu, a recurring scene that takes place in a karaoke bar clogged with terrible singers, a commercial parody of items you can buy at Target to deal with annoying family members for Thanksgiving, and a sketch about a military experiment that created a man with the head of a dog. When the episode eventually rolled back to current material in a game show designed to illustrate how Republican rhetoric may sound confusingly liberal, it was only after the large portion of absurdity. On SNL, as online, news about the naughty horrors of contemporary society is uncomfortable next to cute animal memes and chatty celebrities. It’s easy to get lost in the flow, but it’s all blurred strangely.
During his 47 seasons, SNL has always mixed sharp-edged political satire with meaningless, silly material. Lately, its current sketches carry an air of exhaustion and cynicism, the same feeling that can come from drinking from the fire hose of news online. The show seems quite understandably quite tired when it comes to the pandemic, as it has long since run out of new material on mask use and anti-vaxxers. Colin Jost and Michael Che’s cynical barbs on “Weekend Update” are delivered with withered pats and sighs (“That’s not right, guys” Che moaned as the audience gasped at one of his punch lines about honey bee deaths).
Throughout much of Trump’s presidency, SNLs taking on the news sometimes felt embarrassingly toothless. I have to admit that this season’s mix of cynicism and stupidity works better. Alternating between looking for distraction and lamenting a state of the world is a mood that audiences can relate to, and the show needs its spoonfuls of sugar to help dampen the gloomy realities it must encounter. The show can certainly not function as a comfort TV alone; being current has always been a part of SNLs mission. But almost all of the best material that has been aired this season has been on the more silly side, such as newcomer Sarah Sherman’s Roast of Jost in episode 6, or the increased fragility in “Mattress Store” from Rami Malek’s episode.
In fact, some of the best SNL material this year has only appeared on YouTube – amazing video sketches that were cut in time, such as “Splitting the Check” with Owen Wilson and “Touch Up”, which did not appear in this week’s episode, with the newly hired writing team starring “Please do not ruin.” This week, I had by far the most fun watching Liu, Strong, Day and Johnson try to quarrel with an increasingly bored dog whose head had been penetrated through some military fatigue; Seeing the cast stifle the laughter as they tried to distract their dog companion with a ham sandwich was probably the highlight of the night.
Another highlight of yesterday’s episode was a Staten Island-themed music video parody of “Walking in Memphis” by Pete Davidson, featuring cameos from the Davidson comedy Big Wet; the original song’s performer, Marc Cohn; and the State of Iceland’s own Method Man. The video’s laugh was gentle at best, but the production value was surprisingly high, and it’s strangely charming that Davidson (who is somehow on his eighth season of the show) still finds ways to riff on his personality despite his limited talents as a sketch actor.
With midterm elections and a potential new COVID wave on the horizon, this season off SNL will definitely keep doomscrolling and it needs much more light charm to help balance it. If it maintains the balance between sweet and strange material that this season has offered so far, the show may just have a mild comeback on its hands.