Look, I love Saturday Night Live. Anyone who’s glanced at my long-running string of critiques against the show might argue otherwise, but I do love it. Not just in the fashionably detached way of having loved it as a kid and dunking on its current incarnation. (People who do that mostly tend just to miss being a kid.) I love the ongoing, ever-morphing messy enterprise of SNL. I laugh at least twice during even the subpar episodes, and with those I always keep in mind what a Sisyphean struggle it must be to throw together a state-of-the-art, up-to-the-minute hour of fresh sketch comedy each week.
I love the show, truly.
And I think you have to love the show in order to be let down by it on the almost existential level I was last night.
This week’s James McAvoy-hosted SNL was a textbook depiction of everything the show gets wrong these days, its glimmers of promise only reminding one of what the show can be when it doesn’t get in its own way.
Things start out promisingly enough, with a Tucker Carlson takedown that actually has some teeth.
The cold open, for better or worse (but mostly worse), is often the most politically charged part of the show. When it falls into “worse” territory, it’s usually because the writers have decided on a barely exaggerated rehash of the week’s bullet points, alley-ooped by a distracting celebrity guest star and a forever-ready Alec Baldwin. Even for the Trump era, this past week was especially bloated with political news, and most of it broke on Friday. SNL smartly approaches the waning days of the government shutdown and its conclusion through the lens of Fox News, this administration’s uncredited advisor and constant cheerleader.
Tucker Carlson (Alex Moffat) and Judge Jeanine Pirro (Cecily Strong), who in real life seem like talking heads from a Paul Verhoeven satire of white nationalism, explain why ending the government shutdown with none of his demands met was a big win for Donald Trump. It won’t be news to any of SNL’s largely liberal audience that Fox News functions as state propaganda for Trump, but for five minutes the show sharply deconstructs how the network spins all of Trump and company’s f-ups into either betrayals or secret victories. (A major highlight is 5-tool player Kate McKinnon’s grotesque take on Secretary of Commerce “and man of the people,” Wilbur Ross, who earlier this week downplayed the plight of furloughed government workers.)
Then it happens. Out of nowhere, SNL snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. Steve Martin appears as the just-indicted Roger Stone, coming in like a stunt-cast wrecking ball to tear down five minutes of funny momentum. Stone has made himself such a ridiculous spectacle of a person that there’s no real way to improve upon him comedically. The best you can do is describe him in a funny way. It’s smart to show Carlson having to remind Martin-as-Stone that their spin is supposed to be that Stone’s a feeble old man who’s been woefully mistreated, but that’s in between Martin’s cartoonishly broad vamping as the character, who already is a character in real life. (Specifically, the villain in a live-action Rocky and Bullwinkle movie.) Martin is a comedy legend, but including him here for the sake of guest star wattage just feels like self-congratulatory white noise.
After James McAvoy’s good-natured monologue comes the return of SNL’s Bachelor parody, which is nowhere near as sturdy or reliable a go-to as the show seems to think it is.
If you’ve seen one of these sketches before, you know the formula backwards and forwards. A sadness parade of glossy women keep interrupting each other to steal some face time with the clueless titular character. (In this case, he’s Virgin Hunk.) It would be impossible to get the talented team of comedy writers behind this show together without coming up with a few great lines in this sketch. But you can feel the sweaty desperation to fill time with this umpteenth Bachelor parody that is a near-carbon copy of all the others. (Well, except for that Robert Mueller/Bachelor finale mashup last spring, which was its own separate brand of disaster.) The inclusion of this creaky parody at all reminded me of not only just how threadbare this formula is by now, but also the shallow bench of recurring sketches the show has to draw from these days. There’s “Black Jeopardy,” “Whiskers R We,” and . . . not a lot else.
Finally, there’s the Charmin sketch, a bit of seeming #sponcon so egregious that its title on YouTube is simply “Charmin.”
What is happening here? A few weeks ago, a friend DM’d me to ask whether I thought SNL’s amazing Weezer sketch from last December was actually sponsored content from a band about to release a new album. I shrugged it off at the time, but then Weezer just released a surprise album of cover songs six weeks before its promised new album is due. Now I don’t know what to believe. If Weezer’s label did indeed pay NBC to cook up a sketch about the band, at least the integration was playful, extremely well-observed, and not obviously coordinated.
The Charmin sketch, which takes place in a focus group for Charmin’s Super Bowl ad–where attendees rattle off their own wildly inappropriate ideas for toilet paper ads–just feels like a business transaction as writing assignment. The company’s actual logo and slogan are present onscreen during the entire runtime.
When IFC’s dearly departed sketch/talk-show hybrid, Comedy Bang Bang, did brand integrations, the writers found clever, postmodern ways to acknowledge that the show was doing a brand integration. And that was IFC, a channel that needs all the ad dollars it can get. Is NBC really this hard up for cash, too? The sketch is nowhere near as nefarious as last year’s segments propping up Amazon just as the monolithic brand announced its move to New York, but it’s distracting and sort of depressing.
[UPDATE: From a Charmin representative: “Charmin is flattered to be included in an SNL skit, but to clarify, we did not sponsor or pay for that segment.”]
Toward the end of the episode, an unpredictable oddball of a sketch arrived, in which frequent collaborators Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney play Step Brothers-like arrested development cases, with hilarious specificity. (Those Cross Colors Bugs Bunny shirts sent me right back to 1992.) It was a refreshing break from most of what preceded it: original, silly, and not in any way playing to the rafters. If you took a broad poll, this sketch was likely among the least-loved of the night. (As of this writing it has half the YouTube views as “Virgin Hunk.”) But it’s sketches like this one, and the night’s other pure gem, “Mr. H,” that remind me I still love this show. That they’re so rare sometimes only further highlights how often the show gets in its own way.