When President Obama took office eight years ago, political satirists took shelter. How exactly were they to cover this nerdy-cool statesman so resistant to easy caricature, whose very skin-color lent his election a historical heft? Saturday Night Live never quite figured it out, although The Onion certainly had some ideas up until the very end. Now that Obama has been succeeded by a doddering racist buffoon, basically the photo negative of his predecessor, SNL again finds itself in a politically target-rich environment. The show never truly did quite find itself, though–until now.
Although Alec Baldwin’s Trump impression has been a huge cultural hit, and Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer will cast a shadow over the press secretary’s entire career, these were mere highlights from a show that suddenly had more material than it knew what to do with, and still bore the self-inflicted bruise of inviting Donald himself to host back in November of 2015. Having Baldwin in-house assured that SNL would have a viral hit each week, letting the show opt sometimes for political satire that amounted to just recreating the week’s most major Trump moment. Bold sketches like the post-election Bubble ad were few and far between. What changed this week, however, is that the staff seemed to throw absolutely everything they had at Trump, his cabinet, his daughter, and, yes, the liberal opposition, with boundless creativity and bite. The result is SNL’s most consistently entertaining, most politically astute episode in years.
The Scarlett Johansson-hosted show kicks off with an unusual cold open. Perhaps bored by catching up with Baldwin’s Trump in the White House each week, this episode placed him in a military base–during a 2018 alien takeover. The inhabitants of the planet Zorblatt 9 have arrived to give Earth what-for, and now Trump is here to give an Independence Day-style speech to the troops who’ll be fighting them. It goes about as well as can be expected. The sketch is by no means a total home run, but it’s the first hint that the show has shaken up its formula.
The next sketch to touch on politics also abandons any specific events from the week to make a statement about just how divided the country is at this moment. Scientists have created an interlocutor device that translates the thoughts of animals into human speech. The miraculous novelty of this invention, however, is quickly dwarfed by the scientists’ disgust that the test subject, a dog, turns out to be a Trump supporter. What works so well here is that the dog–played by a real, live, helmet-averse dog–isn’t a grotesque depiction of Red-staters, but rather a kind of polite modern conservative with whom too many liberals refuse to even engage. In fact, the joke is on the scientists themselves, who write off the dog as a monster and the experiment a failure, because they morally object to the beliefs he represents. It’s a perspective the show has often ignored, to its own peril.
The most talked-about sketch of the night, however, is a fake ad for Ivanka Trump’s latest perfume. It’s a devastating look at the woman whose PR machine is working overtime to paint her as The Good One, and the scores of people who just are not buying it at all. As the First Daughter walks into a lavish ballroom with billion-dollar confidence, everyone else looks at her with barely disguised disdain. What’s that unmistakable fragrance she’s wearing? It’s . . . Complicit. While it’s a bit hypocritical of the show to call out Ivanka’s complicity without ever quite atoning for their own complicity in having her dad host the show during his campaign, the line about Titanic alone elevates it above reproach.
After a supercharged Weekend Update that goes after Jeff Sessions and, uh, Trump’s entire cabinet, the show wrapped up its topical content with a sketch to mark this week’s Day Without a Woman strike. Rather than make fun of how the president’s remarkably misogynist past has fostered an environment that’s hostile toward women, the show takes aim at the White Knights defending those women. In a brief intro, Scarlett Johansson and Aidy Bryant explain that because the show’s women were striking on Wednesday, two male cast members jumped in and wrote a sketch at the last minute to make up for a gap in the show. Although Scarlett and Aidy hadn’t read the sketch yet, they’d been assured it would involve the entire female cast. What follows is a pointedly dull scene in which Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett talk in the most surface-level terms about how they interpret feminism. The women on hand are mere props in a sketch that’s supposedly about how unfortunate it is that the system reduces women to props. It’s an appropriate follow up to the previous week’s Girl in a Bar sketch, which roasted predatory male feminists, and a fitting end to an episode whose wokeness fully informed its humor and vice versa.