One more slog of a Saturday Night Live episode down, too many more to go. Host Saoirse Ronan performed admirably, sometimes even enjoyably in an evening of impressive mediocrity. There was a solid enough digital short; Pete Davidson did his Pete Davidson thing in a recurring sketch whose last installment was what, three episodes ago?; and Michael Che made yet another bad, revealing joke about sexual harassment. All in all it was a joyless ninety minutes, even the bit where a bunch of dogs ran out from backstage, even the theoretically catchy and anthemic music video, even the part of Weekend Update where Che made fun of Colin Jost. What else is new?
The cold open quickly laid the groundwork for what awaited us. Alec Baldwin returned as Donald Trump for a Christmas Carol parody in which he was visited by a sequence of ghosts: Michael Flynn (Mikey Day) as Marley’s ghost, Billy Bush (Alex Moffat) as the Ghost of Christmas Past, Vladimir Putin (Beck Bennett) as the Ghost of Christmas Present and Hillary Clinton (Kate McKinnon) as the Ghost of Christmas Future. Baldwin’s Trump impression is worse than ever, not that it’s ever been all that good, having basically reduced itself to a perpetual pout and a weird low voice that doesn’t sound like Trump at all. Congratulations to Kate McKinnon on her quick change, I suppose—she appeared in the beginning of the sketch as Kellyanne Conway—but man, how grating to see SNL whip out Clinton to chant “Lock him up!” The sketch epitomized the show’s toothlessness: It said nothing new or interesting about Donald Trump other than “he’s doomed,” which certainly isn’t as true as it would have to be to merit laughter here. SNL has a bad habit of focalizing the Trump Administration’s dangers in Trump himself, as opposed to the institutions enabling him—the GOP, capitalism, the patriarchy, American oligarchy, the military industrial complex, one could go one for a while. It’s wish fulfillment, and worse, the sort of wish fulfillment that encourages complacency: if you simply acknowledge that Trump sucks, well, you’ve done your part. It makes for easy satire but not good satire, and certainly not satire that feels fresh one year in.
All right, some good stuff before the rest of the bad stuff. Lady Bird star Saoirse Ronan felt right at home in the ensemble, moving gamely from sketch to sketch and character to character with not a flicker of hesitation. She mostly assumed supporting roles in ensemble-driven pieces, such as the Jersey Shore parody “Floribama Shore,” which seemed to be one long joke about dumb rednecks, and “Return Counter,” where she dunked on Chris Redd at the beginning and then disappeared. If she had a standout sketch, it was probably the digital short “The Race,” though mostly because that was the episode’s standout. She played a kindhearted office worker who encouraged her downcast colleague (an understated Kyle Mooney) to challenge his bully to a race. She coached him in what seemed like it would become a classic training montage, then wisely ended after a single beat. Then, after he won the race, she disappeared; a puppet popped into the frame and announced that she was a ghost. It was a long, patient sketch with surprising fantastical elements and a compelling emotional through-line, succeeding more in its diversion from SNL’s norm than in any single performance, though all were good.
Ronan’s monologue was less successful. Remember, oh, two months ago, when Gal Gadot hosted, and the running joke of the monologue was that people think she’s actually Wonder Woman? Last night the running joke was that nobody knows how to pronounce “Saoirse,” because it’s just so hard for the sequence of players who run onstage—Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, Bennett—to figure it out, even after she says exactly how. As with the Gadot bit, this one was frustratingly lazy. The writers identified a single, superficial characteristic of their host and beat it well beyond death. Is it really so hard to, I don’t know, use the monologue to say something about anything that’s happening in the world? Other late night shows manage to do it several consecutive nights each week. When SNL follows yet another installment of “Trump Is Bad (ft. Alec Baldwin)” with a monologue that doesn’t even try to look outward, the overall feeling is that the show has no interest in being relevant.
But it does, of course. Last night’s strongest attempt to Matter was “Welcome To Hell,” a Katy Perry-esque music video featuring Ronan, McKinnon, Aidy Bryant, Cecily Strong, Leslie Jones and Melissa Villaseñor. It had all the aesthetic trappings of a Great Sketch—inventive direction, strong performances, an evergreen message—but ultimately felt hollow. There were very few jokes, first of all, which might not be a problem if the messaging itself weren’t so muddled. The idea is that men are just now realizing what women have been dealing with forever. But men are in no sense “in hell,” now, by virtue of realizing this; even the few abusers who have been outed are… probably going to be fine? As a sketch ostensibly directed at men by women, it just doesn’t add up. And like other material SNL has done on the subject, it divorces predators from the systems that enable and protect them. Villaseñor appears throughout it as a man in a trench coat furtively running about, trying to lure his prey. Obviously it’s useful for sketch comedy to make use of broad signifiers like this; you can get to the joke faster when you don’t have to explain what’s going on. But one of the important takeaways from the last few months, one that many men still fail to understand, is that most predators don’t look like predators. They’re not creepy guys in trench coats. They’re your good friend, your coworker, the movie star you love.
Certainly there’s great value in SNL simply saying “listen to women, we’ve been dealing with this forever,” but I think it’s a failure not to push this commentary past the level of the topic sentence. Late in the sketch, Leslie Jones walks onstage and asks if her costars realize that everything they’re saying is much worse for women of color. They say yes, and she, placated, joins in for the next chorus. This is wild! The sketch tokenizes its single black character, using her to acknowledge without exploring at all how white women benefit from structures that oppress women of color. She’s introduced as different and immediately absorbed into the sameness of the ensemble, the scope of her experiences flattened in service of the joke. It’s mildly nauseating. If SNL wanted to say that women of color suffer greater and different forms of harassment than white women, then perhaps the way to say that is not in a sketch by and about white women.
This speaks to SNL’s broader struggle to address sexual harassment. It is hard to express, in the language of sketch, that crimes are perpetrated not only by villainous individuals but by vast, often agreeable systems, systems in which the show and the show’s audience participate. Jokes generally rely on shared, readily accessible knowledge—like that men in trench coats are creeps—which this particular knowledge is not. And jokes generally turn their subject matter into a target, saying that X is not as big, as important or as good or as righteous, as it thinks it is. Right now the target of this sketch is men, which is softened by its deliberate individuation of harassers: “We’re making fun of you for being oblivious, but we both agree that the real enemy are these other guys.” A more thoughtful version of the sketch might not make that distinction, or might target whiteness more broadly. But because jokes depend on the audience to laugh, they rarely name the audience as part of the problem.
And even the best version of this sketch would ring false in SNL. Just a few sketches later, the most scathing thing Weekend Update had to say about Matt Lauer was that he gave a female colleague a sex toy as a gift. “…Which is a bad thing? So I guess that means I should return the Secret Santa gift I got for Colin,” said Michael Che, the image of a dildo in wrapping paper beside him. If the effect of a joke is to diminish the gravity of its target—to turn it into a joke—then the effect of this one is to say that sexual harassment isn’t all that bad; in fact, it’s kind of funny. This is why it’s essential for sketches like “Welcome To Hell” to place their villains in context. The culture represented in this joke—adolescent, masculine, fratty, misogynist—is the fabric of that Hell. Unfortunately that means SNL is too.
Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.