Sometimes two facts that seem contradictory can both be true. To wit: last night’s Saturday Night Live was a mostly boring and forgettable episode. It was also a definite step in the right direction, with the show addressing some of the most common complaints about it, whether intentionally or not.
The biggest change for good has been the continued absence of Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump. Perhaps Baldwin’s legal troubles are to blame, or maybe the show has finally realized that, despite the buzz his impression gets online, it’s long been an anchor weighing the rest of the show down. Last night’s cold open was another parody of Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show, and although it wasn’t as sharp or as pointed as the one from two weeks ago, it was still a more effective way to pillory the Trump administration and its enablers in the right-wing media than another cameo-heavy stab at virality. If the show continues to run it out every other episode, as they’ve done the last month, it’ll quickly feel as immediately deflating as Baldwin’s Trump, but for now it’s still a nice change of pace.
Last night’s host Steve Carell doesn’t have to prove his comedy chops to anybody, but he was surprisingly a big reason for the show’s listlessness. He was never flagrantly bad, or anything, but he also never seemed fully there. His most committed performance was as Jeff Bezos in a pretape where the Amazon founder addressed speculation that he was openly trolling Trump with the locations of the company’s new headquarters. There were some funny sight gags, but it didn’t comment on how a personal feud between billionaires (or at least a billionaire and whatever Trump is actually worth) that treats people and places as mere playthings sounds like something straight out of the Gilded Age. Still, it was far from the worst offender in the show’s continued failure to treat the Amazon HQ2 story with the contempt it deserves—but more on that later.
Carell was curiously flat for the rest of the night. The live sketches were definitely trying to avoid the clichéd trappings the show often falls prey to—there were no game show or talk show parodies, no local news sketches, no recurring characters (other than Kate McKinnon as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a pretape rap video parody), and lots of the unexpected weirdness that usually only pops up in the last sketch of the night. Still, most of these didn’t quite land, sometimes stating their premises too plainly (as in the post-monologue “dumb dad” sketch), other times sticking too closely to its initial premise, and sometimes both. Meanwhile a sketch like “Friends-giving,” about a table full of Thanksgiving diners gradually remembering the lyrics to an absurd German pop song about “turkey day,” would’ve worked better if Carell’s role was performed with more gusto. I’m not saying the episode underperformed because of Carell, but he was definitely one of the handful of factors that made it more disappointing than it should have been.
There was one unqualified success among the sketches. “Space Station Broadcast” bolstered a darkly absurd premise—an incident on the International Space Station leads to rampant monkey death during a live internet Q&A with middle school classes—with ridiculous props, great direction and top-notch physical comedy from McKinnon, Mikey Day and Leslie Jones. Carell isn’t quite a black hole at the center of it all, but even if he was there’d be enough good work in his orbit to make this sketch a hit.
Heidi Garner gave the best performance of the night as a wife forced into a miserable existence aboard an RV by an oblivious husband. Garner captured the body language of a woman struggling to support her partner despite obviously despising their situation, finding new ways to say “I love it” while clearly not loving any part of life on an RV. It’s a one-joke sketch, but Garner’s so good in it that it still works.
Garner also made a good impression in ”’50s Sleepover,” although Aidy Bryant, Carell and a gaggle of backup dancers are the stars of this Grease-aping bit of goofiness. Most sketches from last night started with a clear premise that they never really deviated from or expanded on—it was just an idea followed by a number of jokes growing out of that idea before fade out. ”’50s Sleepover” had more of an arc than the rest of last night’s sketches, from the revelation that Carell’s Frankie Avalon-esque Teen Angel was actually Bryant’s dad who had walked out on the family a few weeks earlier, to the increasing creepiness of his midlife crisis driving him to “help” teenage girls. Again, it’s not really something that made me laugh out loud, but I can definitely admire the writing and performances.
The final live sketch of the night deserves special mention, as it turned into a Saturday Night Live trainwreck for the ages. It was hard to tell where “Space Thanksgiving” was headed, because it completely went off the rails after a technical mishap messed up one of Pete Davidson’s appearances as a talking piece of alien corn. The sketch just sort of stopped at that point. The version uploaded to YouTube fixes that mistake, and makes it a bit clearer where the joke was headed, but this is totally one of those situations where the mistake was way more entertaining than what was supposed to happen.
And then there was Weekend Update. If you’re looking for a quick summary of why Colin Jost and Michael Che aren’t the right hosts for this moment in time, the jokes about Amazon’s second headquarters more than suffice. Jost, who spent his summer writing guides to the Hamptons for Hollywood Reporter, addresses the complaints over New York’s bid to the trillion dollar company, and immediately dismisses them as privileged whining. Because apparently the promise of 25000 jobs (in a city whose job market isn’t really hurting) outweighs the devastation tech companies bring to local housing markets, or the billions of dollars in kickbacks and tax incentives that New York will be giving to the richest man in the world. Here Jost (and whoever wrote this material) proves that they don’t have the slightest understanding of why people are angry about Amazon’s HQ2. Instead of targeting the absurdity of corporate welfare and giving huge sums of public money to the richest companies on the planet, Jost reminds us how clearly and deeply out of touch with the average American he is, despite the Staten Island upbringing he likes to brag about at every opportunity. And he’s so passionate about this joke, delivering it with a smug anger that’s far removed from his typical robotic calm. I don’t expect SNL to be the home of brilliant left-wing political commentary, or anything. I just want it to not kowtow to corporate power and rip off South Park’s lazy “caring is dumb and everybody is bad” bullshit. That’s mostly what Jost and Che do, though, and it’s made Weekend Update (and, by extension, the whole show) almost impossible to tolerate.
This episode largely avoided politics, focusing instead on goofiness and weirdness for the sake of weirdness. That’s a much better path to take if it’s unwilling or incapable of actually saying anything smart or insightful about the world we live in today. I’m not necessarily asking for SNL to parrot my politics back at me, or even to be more conscientious in how it discusses the powers and systems that rule us; I’m saying the show should just avoid politics altogether if it doesn’t want (or simply can’t) do that second part. The rampant silliness of this episode didn’t always work, but it was vastly preferable to the terrible Amazon material.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.