I hate Alec Baldwin’s Trump impression. I hate his puckered lips and his dazed eyes and his dumb voice and stubby little fingers. I hate how whenever he appears there’s a burst of delighted applause, as though he’s some beloved celebrity and not a podcast host in a wig, as though he’s not collecting some exorbitant paycheck just to stand under a light squinting at cue cards for ten minutes. I hate how after he breaks character to say those seven words we all along to hear—live from New York, welcome to hell—he shakes his head as the camera zooms in on it, just inexplicably shakes his square puckered face for no reason, no sounds or words coming out. Why?? And also, in addition to all that, I hate how he’s a serial victim-blaming defender of Woody Allen and James Toback who, much like the show that pays him, has no moral authority to spoof Donald Trump’s misogyny, hypocrisy and other wonderful qualities. A thing cannot be funny if it is not surprising, and there is no longer anything surprising about this awful impression, other than the fact that Saturday Night Live keeps rolling it out. What will it take for Baldwin’s Trump to finally retire?
His appearance last night set the tone for the rest of the Natalie Portman-hosted episode, in that it was far too long and contained very little pleasure. (At one point, he brings a McMuffin toward his mouth as though he’s about to take a bite, but instead just sort of taps it against his lips and puts it down. Come on, man!) It seemed as though the writers were encouraged to throw their strangest premises against the wall, or maybe just their dumbest: an alien whose head is his butt and his butt is his head; the Kids’ Choice Awards Orange Carpet, but one of the hosts loses her voice, so nobody can hear what she says, plus she goes to absurd lengths to get it back, or, no, just a single absurd length. On the one hand, the most bizarre ideas often turn out to be the best ones. On the other, these particular ideas… could have used a few more drafts. That first example, roughly five minutes of Portman talking to Beck Bennett’s face-butt, was probably the show’s low point, never quite moving past the superficial question of its premise: What if this guy’s butt was his head? The latter was similarly aimless, with Mikey Day cycling through a series of guests to distract from his cohost’s (Portman) inaudible voice. So the game of the sketch was pretty lame, but at least we got to see Pete Davidson as a goofy, giggling backstage correspondent, one of several instances in which the episode cast him outside of his type. The results varied: a bit of breaking here, some fine character work there, some strained character work back over here, then back to his normal self for what was essentially a (good!) stand-up set in Weekend Update. Strong performance or weak, though, Davidson is always a refreshing sight in a season dominated by Bennett, Day and Alex Moffat.
Less refreshing were the episode’s cameo appearances. Rachel Dratch and Tina Fey showed up in “Revolutionary War” as members of rivaling colonial delegations—Boston and Philadelphia—at the Continental Congress. The sketch was basically an extended Super Bowl joke packed with references to Boston and Philly culture, including a Dunkin’ Donuts bit that, uh, SNL did two weeks ago, in a sketch about city governments competing for Amazon’s new headquarters. Dratch and Fey were perfectly enjoyable, but… why were they in this sketch? It’s not like they were returning to play famous characters; they just did accents from their respective hometowns. Either of these roles easily could have been played by a regular cast member, say, Melissa Villaseñor, who was a nonentity in this episode. Cameos for the sake of cameos play as gimmickry, which I realize has never been a deal breaker for SNL, but the show can only win when it puts more faith in its main cast (see: that thing I just said about Pete Davidson).
The other cameo was by Andy Samberg, who showed up for a verse in “Natalie’s Second Rap,” the sequel to the Lonely Island short from her first hosting gig in 2006. This was… fine. I don’t care about it. It’s Natalie Portman rapping. Either you’ll like it or you won’t. Me? I didn’t. But maybe you will, that being the other option.
I’m looking at my notes for Weekend Update and they say this: “fine, whatever, funny Ruth Bader Ginsburg joke, Che’s Trump impresh better than Baldwin, Brigitte Bardot/Catherine Deneuve MeToo bit is so long.” That seems thorough. Other noteworthy sketches include a (relatively) tight Stranger Things parody in which Eleven (Portman) meets a succession of fellow supernaturally endowed characters: Strong as a telepath whose telepathy causes her to fart; Luke Null as a talented chili chef, whose brain bleeds whenever he cooks his famous chili; Kenan Thompson as a guy who can end sketches. It’s a fun riff on a hyper-specific aspect of Stranger Things—whenever Eleven uses her powers, her nose bleeds—and probably the most successful sketch of the episode. Then there was a baffling, pointless sketch where a group of past First Ladies appear to cheer up Melania Trump (Strong) before the State of the Union. What? Why? Who cares? Okay, maybe Melania Trump herself, according to reports that she likes SNL’s take on her, which… isn’t a good relationship for a political comedy show to have with its subjects? Ah, whatever, nothing matters, SNL’s off until March.
Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.