This was predictable. Last week I wrote about how obsessed with its past SNL has become in recent years—how it’s basically rendered its current cast obsolete under the constant stream of returning cast members and celebrity cameos. I’m far from the only person to write about that, of course—it’s pretty much the most common complaint about the show these days. Former cast member and head writer Tina Fey hosted last night’s season finale, and from the start the episode went out of its way to comment on those criticisms. The result was a lifeless start to what might have been the worst and most forgettable episode of the season. Between Alec Baldwin’s calcified Trump impression, the self-congratulatory defensiveness of the star-studded and critic-baiting monologue, and the cold open’s laughably out-of-touch-with-pop-culture parody of the final Sopranos episode (Pete Davidson was still in middle school when that thing first aired), the first 15 minutes dug a hole that almost no episode could’ve climbed out of. Instead of trying the rest of the show just kind of dropped the shovel and hung out down there until it was time for the good nights.
Here’s a list of the stale clichés this episode deployed last night. It started with those various cameos, first in another witless Trump sketch that barely even attempted to have any actual jokes outside of recounting last week’s news, and then in Fey’s monologue, which followed the tired “crowd Q&A” format and was just an excuse to squeeze in a lot of famous faces while also making fun of the show’s critics. After that was a Royal Wedding home movie sketch full of mediocre, blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em celebrity impersonations. There was another Morning Joe sketch, which checks off the boxes for both news show parodies and recurring characters who repeat the same jokes as before in a slightly different phrasing. A high school talent show sketch fulfilled the show’s semi-regular quota for making fun of high school performances. And then another political sketch during the show’s back half once again featured recurring characters (Fey’s Sarah Palin, Leslie Jones’s Omarosa) and celebrity cameos (John Goodman’s Rex Tillerson) AND the show’s weird fixation with making its host and cast sing. This episode felt like it went down a checklist, hitting every tiresome trait that can make SNL feel so hidebound today.
A few things worked. Kenan Thompson is basically bulletproof at this point, able to get laughs out of almost any material through line delivery or facial expression alone. He knows when to go broad and when to stay subtle, and over his long tenure on the show has developed into the best all-around performer on Saturday Night Live since Phil Hartman. He salvaged the talent show sketch as the principal who kept talking about the affair he was having with Fey’s PTA member, and introduced a new role to his roster of Weekend Update characters as Bishop Michael Curry. The parody of Dateline’s To Catch a Predator was another archaic pop culture reference, and also was built around unnecessarily shaming adult sex workers, but Fey and Beck Bennett had great chemistry as the host and pervert (respectively). The pretape about Fey trying to land a role in her Mean Girls Broadway musical felt like little more than an ad for the show, but it was an inoffensive bit of silliness that had some fun with Fey’s public image. And the night’s other pretape, “Chicago Improv” (which you can watch and read about here), was a similarly slight bit of insider-y self-parody of the comedy industry; there’s a bit of a bad look to successful comedians making fun of struggling young hopefuls who would kill to be where they are today, but since two of the cast members in this video, Luke Null and Melissa Villaseñor, barely ever made it onto the screen this season, it’s hard to hold that against them.
There was also a Weekend Update. It was fine. You know what to expect from it every week, and despite reciting a bunch of jokes that were supposedly “too edgy” to air earlier in the season, this felt like every one of these things they’ve done this year. A couple of jokes were solid, most were predictable groaners, and Colin Jost and Michael Che were both too dry and smug to make much of a connection with the audience. Thompson’s appearance as Bishop Curry brought some life to it, and Mikey Day and Alex Moffat returned with their popular take on Trump’s sons, and most importantly it gave a solid mid-show break to Fey and all the cast members who didn’t have to appear in it.
Musical guest Nicki Minaj doubled down on her Asian fixation in a performance of “Chun-Li” that had little to do with Street Fighter but lots to do with cultural appropriation. She was joined by Playboi Carti in a second song that I may or may not have fast forwarded through after a minute. Our music team will have more on this soon, no doubt.
I was tempted to lead this review off with the end of the show. With the whole cast behind her, Fey said good night to the audience and thanked all the episode’s special guests, who formed a solid wall of famous faces at the front of the stage that blocked out sight of all but one or two cast members. Saturday Night Live’s 43rd season ended with former regular Tina Fey thanking Alec Baldwin and Ben Stiller and Benedict Cumberbatch and Anne Hathaway and Robert De Niro, as that line-up of all-stars forced the performers who were there week in and week out over the last year to the back of the stage and out of the camera’s eye. It was a perfect summary of how little faith this show has in the comedians on its payroll. This season squandered the talents of its returning cast members, largely ignored its new hires, and made many viewers wonder if the “Luke Null” guy who was mentioned in the opening credits and pretty much never seen on TV was a real person or some kind of elaborate in-joke to amuse the show’s staff. This utterly forgettable episode was a perfect sendoff to such an uninspired season.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.