Well, at least this guy hasn’t shown up—yet.
Saturday Night Live seasons bleed into one another. The faces in the opening credits might change, the credits themselves get refreshed every few years, but it’s largely the same show from year to year—the same structure, the same band, the same music, the same types of sketches and same specific characters for years at a time. They’re still doing parodies of daytime game shows decades after The Price is Right emerged as the only survivor of the network game show mass extinction event.
Like most institutions, Saturday Night Live is resistant to change. That’ll probably be more true than ever this season, coming right after its highest-rated year in decades and after winning every other Emmy a couple of weeks ago. SNL’s riding a commercial and critical high (well, kind of on that second point—how often do TV critics and Emmy voters overlap, anyway?) but creatively it’s about as stagnant as it’s always been. Last night’s season premiere, hosted by Ryan Gosling, was limp, overly familiar, and largely pulled its punches, and will be remembered pretty much only for Gosling’s near-constant breaking and one fantastic pre-taped segment that aired close to 1 AM.
Obviously it was going to start with Alec Baldwin bringing back his mannered Trump impersonation, and so that’s where it did, with another lifeless political sketch with characters rooted less in our reality than in the one that SNL has constructed throughout the course of Trump’s campaign and administration. Kate McKinnon playing Jeff Sessions as a cross between Pee Wee Herman and a demonic murderous doll is certainly a concept, and she commits to it as thoroughly as she does to anything, but what is it trying to say? What’s funny about that? It’s a caricature with almost no basis in the real world. The most egregious example of this is the sketch’s kicker, when Baldwin’s Trump and Alex Moffat’s Chuck Schumer bond over New York pizza, as if Trump at heart is just a regular guy from Queens and not the living embodiment of how wealth and opulence doesn’t just strangle you off from anything resembling reality but instills actual contempt for the rest of humanity. Portraying Trump as just dumb, bored and incompetent is bad, toothless, safe satire, but is about as far as the show is willing to go.
We’re suffering through a surfeit of political comedy today, very little of which is actually smart or beneficial or even just funny. SNL still has the loudest voice in that room, but it’s also the least essential. Take this week’s Weekend Update. Despite a rare burst of legitimate indignation from Michael Che, who swapped out his standard shrugging and smirking with a pointed condemnation of Trump’s undeniable racism, most of the jokes softly focused on obvious targets. The show’s still grappling with its unconscionable decision to let Trump host an episode during the campaign, a black mark that it’ll probably never fully erase. McKinnon’s Angela Merkel impersonation, which had exhausted itself long ago, and Moffat and Gosling’s “Guy Who Just Bought a Boat / Guy Who Just Joined Soho House” douche bro stereotypes just doubled down on Update’s aimlessness.
It’s telling that the commercial parody for Levi’s Wokes—formless, unflattering pants for those who don’t believe in labels and artificial constructs like style, size and gender—felt more pointed in its commentary than the Trump cold open. With its bad hipster stereotypes and clear derision of a cartoonish version of the concept of “wokeness,” this felt like something Drunk Uncle could’ve written.
Elsewhere the episode fell back on the familiar. McKinnon’s Ms. Rafferty, which was a fantastic character and sketch idea during its first couple of appearances, has already run head first into diminishing returns. Part of this is a problem inherent to reviewing every episode of a variety show; by design SNL isn’t strongly concerned with regular viewers, realizing that every appearance by a character will be the first time many viewers will be seeing it. It’s not the sketch itself—McKinnon’s physical performance as the worn down, matter-of-fact perpetual victim of circumstance is still great, each detail of her constant abuse still absurdly evocative—but the sheer repetition of it. Few regular sketches are strong enough to survive the SNL churn; the ones that do either add new details to every iteration (like the Falconer) or are so patently absurd to begin with that they remain surprising (see Stefan, What’s Up With That, or McKinnon’s cat lady). Tonight’s Ms. Rafferty sketch didn’t just follow the exact pattern of the other ones, it even returned to the original alien abduction framing. If you were familiar with the concept, you could predict the entire sketch from the start.
The one sketch with promise that aired before Weekend Update was an ad for an HGTV show called the Fliplets. Moffat, Gosling and Mikey Day’s triplets included a real estate agent, a professional house flipper, and the only one of the three who lived with their dad when their parents divorced. Day and Moffat would tell the kind of breezy, saccharine jokes found across HGTV’s labyrinthine network of forced reality shows, and then Gosling would say something dark and angsty and absurd. It’s the kind of pop cultural observation mixed with absurdity that SNL does well at times, and although this wasn’t something you should go out of your way to watch, it’s a totally fine segment in a 90 minute comedy show.
That was the prevailing tone after Weekend Update. The first two sketches after the fake news were new ideas that were theoretically funny and totally inoffensive but also nothing all that special. Aidy Bryant as a lovelorn chicken helping a fugitive escape justice in a parody of 1940s melodramas was a pleasant few minutes of comedy with some great physical work by Bryant. Gosling and Cecily Strong as angry customers in one of those fake Italian restaurants that Pizza Hut uses to show how nobody could tell a difference between their fast food pasta and the real deal drags on a little too long; it’s not necessarily inspired, in any meaning of the word, but it’s not as formulaic or pointlessly surreal as the show often gets.
The two best things on the show came at the very end. First was the Papyrus pre-tape, where Gosling plays a man obsessed with how the movie Avatar, a massively budgeted film that became the highest grossing movie ever, lazily used the basic font papyrus for its logo. We’ve probably all experienced that feeling of growing infuriated by a mundane, insignificant detail that nobody should care about, and this video, which is shot and edited like a psychological thriller, hilariously captures that inexplicable annoyance.
The last sketch of the night worked almost entirely because of Kenan Thompson, who remains an SNL MVP in what feels like his 30th season. He’s the singer of a jazz band in a sports bar whose only TV is small and located directly behind the band. There’s no real plot to this one, just a series of ridiculous details as Thompson introduces the band. Thompson absolutely carries this sketch with his seemingly stream-of-consciousness scat about NFL players taking a knee and his panic over his good, dark jeans getting stolen.
Despite its reputation for political comedy, last night’s season premiere proved that Saturday Night Live is much better when it avoids politics. The show’s committed to never actually saying anything of substance, so instead of bringing up serious subjects and dancing around their real-world implications with ridiclous details, it should focus on what it does well. Which, apparently, is ridiculing the posters of eight-year-old movies.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.