You’ve got to give SNL’s 44th season premiere this much: it was definitely 90 minutes of television, minus ads, on a Saturday night in late September.
SNL returned last night as if the summer break hadn’t happened. Another big name celebrity made a surprise appearance as the latest infamous figure in the ongoing Trump circus, with a funny Matt Damon bellowing his way through a Brett Kavanaugh impersonation. As usual, this celebrity cameo sucked all the oxygen out of the show, overshadowing both the actual host (a fully committed Adam Driver) and the large cast (none of whom were able to make much of an impact, other than Pete Davidson in his Weekend Update bit). The political comedy in the cold open and Weekend Update was mostly shallow and perfunctory, and few of the other sketches stood out to any noticeable degree. You could say the show returned in midseason form and not be wrong, if you’re talking about the listless and forgettable midseason episodes from the last few years.
Damon might’ve nailed the white privilege and prep school entitlement of Kavanaugh, but other than mimicking the Supreme Court nominee’s ugly mix of rage and self-pity, that cold open didn’t really say anything about the major political news of the week. Kavanaugh’s hearing and Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony are being viewed collectively as a crucial, galvanizing moment in the fight against a culture of sexual harassment and abuse, and all that SNL could muster is that Kavanaugh yelled a bunch and partied like an ‘80s college movie. Once again SNL has proven itself not up to the task of effectively satirizing or responding to today’s political environment. Perhaps the show would have a better track record at this kind of thing if at least one of the three lead writers was a woman.
Not everything was a bust, though. Driver, again, was good in everything he appeared in, which amounted to four sketches and two pretapes. His best work was as the cartoonish oil baron Abraham H. Parnassus, who, despite lifting liberally from Charles Montgomery Burns and There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview, was absurd and imperious enough while berating his high school son at career day to basically steal the whole episode. Driver might seem like an odd choice for a season premiere host—despite his lead role in the current Star Wars trilogy, he isn’t exactly a big name, and we’re about a year away from one of those movies in either direction—but across his two hosting gigs he’s established himself as a natural fit for SNL. He’s a legitimate actor who can legitimately do comedy, and after almost singlehandedly making this episode at least watchable, he should probably be looking forward to more of these opportunities in the future.
The show’s logic seemed to be that it didn’t need a huge star as a host, as it’d have a massively popular musical guest. That was supposed to be Ariana Grande, capitalizing not just on her popularity but on the outsized media attention devoted to her romance with SNL cast member Pete Davidson over the summer. Grande cancelled her appearance late in the week, but the show grabbed an even bigger name to fill in on short notice. Of course that performer is now about as well known for his weird, trollish political statements as his music. SNL was one aspect of Kanye West’s rise to the top of pop culture last decade, and his performance on last night’s episode will no doubt go down as one of the more memorable moments during his current prolonged collapse.
We don’t typically devote much time to the musical acts in our SNL reviews, but two of West’s three performances have gotten more attention than anything else from this episode, except maybe Damon’s cameo. The first was simply bizarre in a laughable and embarrassing way, with West and Lil Pump dressing like bottles of Perrier and Fiji Water with a massive backdrop of a woman watching on behind them. West had a huge smile on his face the whole time, as if it this was the most hilarious thing any musician had ever done on SNL, expectantly looking at the crowd for validation that never quite came. West returned during the cast goodnights at the end of the show wearing a Make America Great Again hat and singing lines that seemed to reference what he seems to believe is some kind of daring political iconoclasm. The TV feed cut off after 1 AM, right as he extorted the SNL cast to join him on stage; apparently after the song finished he delivered a “political rant” that drew boos from the audience and made the cast look uncomfortable. So, you know, standard business for the Kanye of 2018, who’s confused being an asshole with being a free thinker.
Kanye West and Matt Damon are the only things from the season premiere most people are talking about today. That sums up where Saturday Night Live stands as it enters its 44th season. It’s less of a comedy show now than just another arm of the celebrity gossip industry, a place for big name celebrities to score easy headlines by dropping in for a few minutes on a Saturday night before hitting the after-party. The regular cast has been increasingly diminished over the last few years, and if last night’s episode is an indication, it’s happening to the hosts, now, too.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.