During his opening monologue on the final Saturday Night Live before the 2016 election, Benedict Cumberbatch described the moment as “the last week in America as we know it.” He had no idea how right he would turn out to be.
The SNL writers who put those words on giant cue cards for him had no idea either. They seemed to look at that singularly contentious election as a storm to endure, rather than a jaunt through purgatory on the road to hell. Surely, Good would prevail! Jokes about “the last election ever” or “the final season of America” were merely meant to acknowledge that the plane could potentially, maybe crash into the mountain. The people making the jokes likely knew in their hearts that it couldn’t actually happen.
All that has changed now, though, and the final episode of the show before the midterms is the proof.
Before turning attention toward SNL as it stands now, let’s stick with the 2016 version. In the penultimate episode before the election, Tom Hanks used his role as America’s Dad to assure us during his monologue that everything would be fine. The whole show was a premature victory lap, in which the Access Hollywood tape and something about Clinton’s debate performance were depicted as dueling coffin nails for Trump’s chances. Confidence was surging. Forget Wikileaks’ steady drip of Clinton campaign manager John Podesta’s emails! Forget any unforeseen last-minute disasters! This thing was in the bag.
Then came the Comey letter, wherein the director of the FBI informed America that the federal investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails had been reopened. This revelation, which ultimately came to nothing, gave Trump’s campaign the shot in the arm it needed. It’s directly responsible for Benedict Cumberbatch’s feigned concern in that last SNL before the election. The show remains cautiously optimistic nonetheless. The cold open started by demonstrating how mainstream media was willing to view all of Trump’s astoundingly glaring flaws as the equivalent of Clinton’s emails–before the sketch interrupts itself. In a whimsical bit of escapist fantasy that goes down like poison when viewing at this late date, Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon break kayfabe, running out into the night to hug various Times Square denizens, regardless of whether they happen to be wearing a Trump That Bitch T-shirt.
We all know what happened next. The division in America proved impossible to bridge using any amount of hugs. The suggestion that everything was going to be okay, that there was some mythical Obama-era Golden Age that could be restored suddenly seemed tragically naive.
The writers on SNL understood very quickly how the white, liberal contingent of viewers had shared their delusions. In the very next episode, hosted by Dave Chappelle, an Election Night sketch reveals just how thoroughly the White Liberal Bubble had insulated so many Americans from reality.
In the two years since the election, SNL has enjoyed an (inconsistent) uptick in relevance while trying to adapt to the Trump era in real time. Sometimes, they’ve nailed it. The Ivanka Trump sketch, “Complicit,” for instance, was an especially unsparing jugular-cut. Too often, though, the show has suffered from Trump fatigue, parachuting in a growing cast of ringers like Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller to join the most overexposed public-life retiree Alec Baldwin in re-creating the week’s biggest spectacle. As we barrel relentlessly toward this week’s midterm election, the show has demonstrated a markedly different attitude from its 2016 incarnation.
Rather than trotting out Baldwin’s Trump to mock any of his recent rally behavior, the cold open takes on Fox News for its nonstop coverage of the caravan–that swirling locus of GOP-stoked racial paranoia.
Baldwin may have simply been unavailable due to his having been arrested the previous day for allegedly punching someone in the face during a parking dispute, but his absence is welcome. Making fun of the apparatus that has been poisoning the brains of conservative voters since before Trump even landed on the political landscape is a fine way to comment on the GOP’s closing argument in this election. Ironically enough, a tasteless Pete Davidson joke from later in the episode seems to be the only thing Fox News wants to talk about right now, perhaps encroaching on its caravan coverage.
Elsewhere, SNL squeezed some political laughs out of truly exploring how Sarah Huckabee Sanders can possibly sleep at night. But the real signal of how things have changed in the past two years is the one sketch explicitly about the midterms.
Despite some encouraging polling for Democrats, the SNL writers appear to have shed themselves of any confidence they’d had going into the 2016 election. Common wisdom from history indicates that a blue wave is coming, but nobody at SNL seems to be taking any chances this time. In a fake ad, blue-district citizens attempt to project 2016-era confidence, only to reveal they’re barely hanging on by a thread. They desperately want that blue wave, but they have also lived through the last two years and now understand that obvious calamities don’t simply avert themselves.
This sketch isn’t Benedict Cumberbatch’s performative fear about “the last week in America as we know it.” This is the work of writers at the end of a two-year constant panic attack who may never trust or reflect the common wisdom ever again. Good.