Normally Paste is very critical of Saturday Night Live’s increasing dependence on random celebrity cameos for its current events-based cold opens. It’s a lazy and transparent bid for virality that has given us such all-time clunkers as Robert De Niro’s lifeless Robert Mueller and Alec Baldwin’s miserable Donald Trump impression. (There are more apt symbols of the media’s abject cluelessness over how to deal with Trump these last several years, but Baldwin’s the only one we have to be confronted with once or twice a month.) The regularity of these cameos contributes to the ancient show’s hermetically sealed nature; the more it jokes about recent events and news stories, the more distance seems to exist between the show and the real world it’s commenting on. Saturday Night Live is timeless in a bad way, a show that has largely been the same in structure and temperament since Lorne Michaels returned in the mid ‘80s. The only thing that stands out about it these days is when a famous person drops in without notice, and the show beats that drum so regularly now that it’s past the point of feeling desperate.
That’s what we’d normally say about a cold open like last night’s. But, y’know, this is Michael Keaton we’re talking about here. Beetlejuice! Batman! Mr. Mom! That weird haunted snow-man who just wants to see his kid, or whatever. It’s hard to say bad things about Michael Keaton in this day and age—his recent resurgence isn’t just a triumph for the man as an actor but also comforts a certain type of middle-aged man who longs to shirk the responsibilities of adulthood and return to the carefree days of the 1980s, when all we had to fear was nuclear annihilation and the occasional ninja outbreak. So we’ll go slightly easy on this sketch, in which a mixed assortment of celebrity criminals somehow all wind up in the same cell on an episode of MSNBC’s Lockup.
Yes, that’s an unannounced Michael Keaton showing up in an untamed beard as Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder and accused rapist who was arrested in London on Thursday after seven years of asylum in Ecuador’s embassy. Keaton’s not especially good in the role—he struggles with the cue cards while staring directly at them, and that ruins his timing. He still has that roguish Keaton charm, though, which makes his cameo work better than Pete Davidson’s turn as Michael Avenatti or Melissa Villaseñor’s brief appearance as Tekashi69 (or 6ix9ine, or whatever the hell it’s supposed to be). There’s absolutely no reason Assange couldn’t have been played by a regular cast member, other than using that cameo to make sure sites like this one wrote posts like this about the sketch. It’s depressing but it works, guaranteeing cheap applause and YouTube hits.
This sketch’s laziness extends beyond the pointless cameo, of course. It’s another SNL staple: a series of celebrity impressions joined together under a weak framework. Are you a relatively recognizable person who’s been in legal trouble in the last few weeks? (Or, in the case of 6ix9ine, the last, like, year or so?) Let’s toss ‘em all together in a sketch that also plugs an NBC Universal IP and call it a day. That seems to be the extent of the thought process behind this thing.
Okay, sorry. We said we wouldn’t go too hard on this one, solely because of Keaton. We still love you, Michael. We’d rather watch 90 minutes (with ads) of you awkwardly reading cue cards than the majority of what makes the cut on SNL these days. In fact, we’re gonna go watch your Oscars-snubbed turn as McDonald’s emperor Ray Kroc in the underrated modern classic The Founder right now, maybe as the first half of a double feature with 1989’s The Dream Team. Everything’s gonna be alright.