It was a pretty typical season opener for Saturday Night Live. Something like 60% of the sketches clicked, and the ones that didn’t were at least ambitious. The problem was what was happening offscreen.
In the wake of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico is currently enduring a full-scale humanitarian crisis. The island still doesn’t have electrical power, and 42% of its citizens don’t have potable water. More than 10,000 homes were destroyed, countless roads remain blocked, and several bridges have collapsed. Meanwhile, Donald Trump has only made this ordeal more difficult by tweeting about the NFL from one of his golf courses in the immediate wake of the hurricane, and then victim-blaming Puerto Ricans while only committing the bare minimum of U.S. resources to help–and grudgingly, at that. Trump’s response to this crisis was the foremost topic in the news heading into Saturday night. SNL had to cover it–but how? The president’s chaotic approach to governing has thrust the show into an impossible situation.
With an enormous disaster unfurling in real time, the show has two options: respectful silence, or a headlong dive into the fray–catharsis through confrontation. The first option isn’t really an option. People have certain expectations for the show, especially in the Trump era. Before SNL’s summer hiatus began back in May, the president had committed many late-breaking blunders that ended up mocked on the show by Emmy award-winning Trump impressionist Alec Baldwin. This week’s blunder was something else, though. It isn’t just a matter of shattered norms or dogwhistle racism. Lives are hanging in the balance. A lot of them.
Cut to 11:30pm Saturday night. The show starts with a sketch about the many personnel shakeups in the White House over the summer. Kate McKinnon’s elfin Jeff Sessions is worried he’ll be the next to go. It’s an opportunity for some physical comedy at the expense of one of the most detestable figures in an administration stocked with them. Before we get to this section, however, there’s a sop to audience expectations for SNL‘s hyper-reactivity. Baldwin’s Trump gets on the phone with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz (Melissa Villaseñor), who in real life appeared on CNN the previous night wearing a t-shirt that read, “Help Us, We Are Dying.” The real Trump spent a portion of his Saturday belittling Cruz in a series of tweets such as “The Mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump.” Competition is stiff, but this moment of pettiness amid crisis just may be a new all-time low for the president.
This portion of the sketch had the feel of being funny. “FEMA Prime” is a clever idea, and who doesn’t enjoy a good “Despacito” reference. But in order to enjoy the moment, viewers have to silence the part of their brains that may be screaming, “This is happening in real life right now, while real people are really suffering.” Just watching Baldwin go through the beats of what actually happened, with very little exaggeration, is not cathartic–it’s infuriating.
Saturday Night Live has if not a responsibility then a mandate to provide up-to-the-minute coverage of current events. It’s part of what makes the show feel like a unique high-wire act on its best nights. Adding eleventh-hour adjustments to squeeze in fresh news felt counterproductive in this instance, though. It reduced Trump’s latest low point to a box that needed ticking, rather than the watershed moment it should be.
Later in the show, however, there’s a course correction. Michael Che and Colin Jost spend a significant portion of Weekend Update attacking Trump for his response to the crisis in Puerto Rico, and their righteous anger–Che’s, especially–feels appropriate and meaningful.
The Weekend Update desk is simply a better medium for reacting to breaking news than the cold open. A moment like Trump’s botched hurricane relief benefits from the joint-monologue format, the space to go long, and the freedom of not being in character. When the writers have a high-concept idea for Baldwin to act out, it translates into successful sketches. But tacking on a kabuki version of something Trump actually did feels like an empty gesture. Especially when what he did is as despicable as victim-blaming Puerto Rico, in sharp contrast to the way he handled hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
“This is not normal,” was the rallying cry after Trump was elected president. It was a prophecy that has been fulfilled on a near-daily basis. Portraying particularly egregious Trump transgressions with the rote flippancy of a campaign gaffe, though, makes them feel like something worse than normal: inevitable.