Critic's Notebook: With Alec Baldwin as Host, 'SNL' Takes Trolling Trump to Next Level

Plus, Melissa McCarthy's Sean Spicer returns and Kate McKinnon's Kellyanne Conway finally goes crazy.
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Kate McKinnon as Kellyanne Conway on 'Saturday Night Live'

We're throwing out pages of the rule book every day, but as a rule we don't usually know what TV shows presidential administrations hate. After all, TV critics have the ability to waste their time watching shows they hate, but presidents are supposed to have better things to do.

Right?

Even when the first Bush administration picked fights with the boob tube, there was never the impression that George and Barbara were sitting around watching The Simpsons each week or that Dan Quayle was hate-watching Murphy Brown back before hate-watching was a thing.

TV shows have been perceived as part of the resistance against presidential reigns since the Smothers Brothers and Laugh-In, but that was more about triggering a mainstream audience than triggering the guy in the Oval Office. So we're in uncharted territory when it comes to Saturday Night Live at this moment.

Of course, we'd never elected a person whose résumé included "Saturday Night Live host" before, so thanks for that, Lorne Michaels!

The show has always chided presidents, and presidents haven't always been pleased with seeing themselves as bumbling or idiotic, but I don't think SNL has seen itself as trying to bring down a president, or at least bring on a tweet storm from a president.

Put a different way, tweets of "Did you see that sketch?" and "Has Donald Trump tweeted yet?" have started coming in equal volume, and the ratings have improved — and not just in the vicinity of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (an address that changes all the rules).

Call me old-fashioned, but Shonda Rhimes and Josh Malina should live-tweet television shows. The President of the United States should not.

But here we are.

This week's Saturday Night Live set itself up as an almost perfect storm. First, you had Alec Baldwin building on his five-plus months of Trump impressions to take full hosting duty for the 17th time. SNL, meanwhile, was basking in a week of hype because of Melissa McCarthy's surprise turn as White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer and rumors of some sort of regular primetime slot for the series. And then there was the avalanche of speculation that Rosie O'Donnell was willing and available to guest as Trump svengali Steve Bannon, which snowballed into the possibility of an elaborate all-female cabinet sketch.

Once upon a time, pre-show buzz used to center on how SNL would reflect on reality from the week before.

Now we wonder what the show will do out of curiosity about how POTUS will respond — a morbid curiosity, indeed, when your goal is to troll the most powerful troll in the world.

And troll SNL did, troll with impunity. There were four different sketches related to Trump and his administration (five if you include "Weekend Update," which was predominantly Trump-y as usual) and even if they were variably effective as humor, it was clear that "funny" wasn't always what the show was going for when it came to its former host.

But still … no Rosie O'Donnell. Alas.

The episode began with McCarthy back as Spicer for the cold open, taking notes from the press secretary's critique by adding a giant superwad of gum, rather than consuming small pieces by the handful. It was, once again, an uncanny impression that mixed fairly literal gags about Spicer's daily belligerence with quality prop work, illustrating extreme vetting with the help of Barbie ("We know she's OK because she's blonde") and a brown-skinned doll ("Uh-oh. It's Moana"). And we all now mourn the victims of the Slaughter at Fraggle Rock.

Normally SNL doesn't like to do return engagements of a popular character/sketch this rapidly, but I suspect the logic went something like this: Yes, there might be diminishing returns in bringing McCarthy back this quickly, but they don't have another new episode until March and what are the chances Spicer will still be employed by then?

Like all sequels, McCarthy's Spicer encore went for bigger over better. A mechanized Segway-style podium isn't bad, but last week's breakaway podium was funnier. Attacking Cecily Strong with a leaf blower? Funny, but last week's super-soaker bit was better.

While we were denied an all-female cabinet, the cold open also debuted Kate McKinnon as Jeff Sessions because McKinnon should probably just be allowed to play nearly every political figure for as long as the show has her services.

We may, however, have reached the end of McKinnon's superior Kellyanne Conway, a character SNL has struggled to understand. The initial take when McKinnon started playing her was as a slightly apologetic figure struggling to justify her boss' eccentricities and becoming increasingly fatigued by needing to explain everything he did. That evolved into Conway as ruthlessly fame-hungry and razzle-dazzlingly musical. On Saturday, we got Conway as straight-up psychopath, going all Fatal Attraction on Jake Tapper for not booking her last weekend (even though Tapper did a long interview with Conway a couple days later).

The filmed segment was a tribute to McKinnon's commitment and generated a lot of discomfort, but for me it also reached for the bottom of a barrel. After weeks of trying to get a read on Conway as a complex, multidimensional character, this week the show finally got to, "Well, she's just crazy." That's where you go when you're either surrendering or you decide your goal is just to provoke. The insanity culminated with Conway falling out of a window, seemingly dying and then readjusting her limbs and walking away after saying she only has three lives left. I might hope for fewer than that.

Another filmed segment with Leslie Jones deciding she wanted to play Donald Trump went the same way, but unlike the viciousness of the Conway sketch, this one pulled punches. It used Jones in a blond wig and eyebrows as a sight gag, but it actively denied any underlying insecurities it could have poked at. "Melania" picking up Leslie-as-Donald in her limo felt like it was a toothless conclusion that was two or three punchlines away from being something really dangerous. 

With McCarthy's Spicer kicking the night off, Baldwin's appearance as Trump didn't come until deep into the show as POTUS took the 9th Circuit judges to People's Court, even though he was told this was only a TV court. 

"It's OK. I'm a TV president," he replied.

The scene continued SNL's use of Death as Steve Bannon, rather than including the Rosie cameo Twitter was clamoring for. Instead we got Beck Bennett's Topless Putin serving as a character witness for Trump.

The sketch could have been much funnier, but if the show has decided that what riles Trump up is being depicted as a patsy and a puppet, then that's what we got.

The rest of the episode? Limitedly funny.

Kenan Thompson and special guest Tracy Morgan played Beyonce's twin fetuses in a sketch borrowing heavily from the "Boy Meets Girl" babies in Free to Be ... You and Me and using a bunch of jokes Twitter made about Beyonce's twins a week ago, which is also what "Weekend Update" has become more and more frequently. 

There were two sketches with Baldwin as authority figures nurturing Mikey Day. 

There was a sketch in which ad teams pitched Cheetos, presumably lampooning last week's socially conscious run of Super Bowl commercials. And there was an OK parody commercial for Russell Stover's Black History Month Candies.

Plus, McKinnon played Elizabeth Warren as well, completing an odd political impression trifecta for the episode.

Ed Sheeran was also present. Twice.

But now we wait.

Has Donald Trump tweeted yet?

Update: Conway replied to SNL on Sunday night, taking to Twitter at 6:30 p.m. ET.

Directing her tweets to the "inquiring minds re: #SNL," Conway said she and CNN's Tapper spoke in the morning, just before brunch time, and that there were "no boiling bunnies on the menu."

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