The most notable thing about this spoof of Empire is how white it makes SNL look. Even though the show has the most black cast members it’s ever had, enough where they can hit most of the major Empire characters without anybody pulling double duty, it still treats black culture like it’s something foreign. The sketch hits a wrong note almost immediately, when it says that Empire, a smash hit with broad demographics and ratings that have improbably grown week after week, somehow doesn’t appeal to “white America.” It’s like the misguided Hollywood perception that white audiences won’t watch shows with minority casts that has been dispelled by multiple shows (Empire, Scandal, Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat) is still alive and thriving at SNL.
Satirizing Empire is hard enough already—it can be as melodramatic and over-the-top as any soap opera—but the direction SNL takes is both obvious and empty. It’s basically just a series of impressions, as if the recognition of an SNL actor doing an Empire character is enough to get laughs. (Although Kenan Thompson, whose impressions tend to all the sound the same, does do a great Terence Howard.) The only twist is the introduction of a white character (so that Empire, one of the most widely watched shows on TV, can “now have something for everyone”), a business manager played by Chris Hemsworth, who basically fills the role of nonplussed professional white guy reacting awkwardly to the outlandish behavior of Empire’s characters.
There’s no meat to this joke. Empire and what it says about American culture is rife for parody, and SNL settles for the easiest and safest route. It’s especially disappointing in light of the conversation over SNL’s own diversity issues—it was just last season when the show’s lack of black performers, and particularly women of color, was major news. This almost feels like some kind of weirdly personal, delayed reaction to that—what if other shows were coerced into diversity, this sketch can be read as saying. SNL has always been hit or miss, but this is one of the more obvious misses in recent memory. Watch above, and let us know what you think.