There was actually a little bit of good news this week, somehow: for the second episode in a row Saturday Night Live didn’t feature Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump impression. That doesn’t mean the show was good, or anything, but that’s always a relief. This is a streak worth keeping alive.
SNL’s political comedy works better when it presents Trump in a way similar to how he impacts our lives: as this ominous, inescapable malignancy clouding almost every aspect of life today. The show captures that properly in its pretape about the presidential alert texts we all received this week. The thought of Trump using that emergency system to send us the kind of cruel, nonsensical, self-congratulating messages that make up the bulk of his Twitter feed isn’t an original joke—just check Twitter itself to see hundreds of similar comments—but the specific texts used in the sketch, along with the way it captures the look and feel of a TV ad, make this piece work. The stinger at the end might be unnecessary, but up until then this is one of the better Trump pieces the show has done, because it’s aware of both the desperation at the heart of Trump’s attention-seeking and the constant sense of frustration and hopelessness that so many feel today.
Weekend Update was also stronger than usual last night, at least at first. The first few jokes about Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation were more pointed than you usually see from SNL, especially Colin Jost’s line about 50 yeses being the lowest ever for a Supreme Court justice but the most Kavanaugh has ever heard. It quickly settled back into its typical banality, with Jost and Michael Che especially feeling ill-prepared to discuss how this past week made women feel. For the second week in a row Weekend Update was almost rescued by Pete Davidson, who appeared as himself again to talk about Kanye West’s controversial rant at the end of last week’s episode. Davidson, presumably speaking on behalf of the show’s cast and writing staff, lambasted West’s speech and basically said the rapper was lying about being bullied backstage for wearing a Make America Great Again hat. Davidson, who regularly makes himself the butt of jokes even when going hard against somebody like Kanye, is able to air legitimately cutting political commentary in a way that’s conversational and almost friendly, which makes their true impact kind of sneak up on the viewer. He doesn’t try to excuse Kanye, who’s bragged online about going off his meds, but jokes from experience about why nobody should be proud to not take their mental health medications. Davidson’s journey from a wise ass stoner kid to an unlikely mainstream celebrity who’s somehow actually wise is the most interesting thing that’s happened on SNL over the last few seasons, and at this point the show should make his commentaries a weekly part of Weekend Update.
I haven’t mentioned the host, Awkwafina, yet because, for the second week in a row, the show hasn’t done much to let the host stand out. At least Adam Driver got that one showpiece sketch as a furious old oil baron last week. Other than her charming monologue, where she talks about how excited she was to see Lucy Liu host the show in 2000 (the only other Asian American woman to do so), Awkwafina mostly disappeared into the ensemble in every sketch. If you didn’t know better you’d maybe think Cecily Strong was the host—she had what felt like the lead role in multiple sketches, twice playing the focus of attention for broad cartoon characters played by Awkwafina. I know we regularly ask for the cast to be allowed to do more in this age of celebrity stunt-casting for most political roles, but this was a weird episode that both lacked any of those cameos and also still didn’t really prioritize the host. Some of the best episodes ever are ones where the host effortlessly feels like a regular member of the cast, but despite being really likable and doing well in almost every sketch she was in, Awkwafina didn’t quite pull that off. She felt just a little too awkward, and tended to rush through her lines a little too quickly and a little too quietly. At least she didn’t break, as a couple of cast members did throughout the show.
This episode didn’t lack for high concepts. The first sketch after the monologue was about a dance battle featuring a crew who only danced to game show music. Later on Awkwafina was the contestant in a game show about dating magicians. Another political pretape focused on Ted Cruz’s attempts to make himself look cool in his tight race against Beto O’Rourke, who’s probably the closest thing the Democrats have to a young, rising rock star right now. All three had some good sight gags—Kenan Thompson and Kyle Mooney made me laugh just with their magician outfits and facial expressions, and the constant stream of embarrassments faced by Cruz (as played by Beck Bennett) nicely summed up that guy’s terminal stiffness. They weren’t especially memorable, though.
That’s true of most of the episode, though. Other than Davidson’s Weekend Update appearance, Awkwafina’s feel-good monologue, and the fantastic staging of Travis Scott’s second song, this episode kind of evaporated from memory as soon as it was over. Mediocre SNL is better than the offensively bad show we’ve seen too much of over the last few seasons, but it doesn’t make it any easier to get excited about it again. At least next week features two familiar faces, Seth Meyers and Paul Simon, who might be able to pull it around and give us the first good episode of the season.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.