Critic's Notebook: 'SNL' Season Premiere Showcases Hillary Clinton, Wastes Miley Cyrus

On the season premiere of 'SNL,' Taran Killam's Donald Trump needed work but Hillary Clinton's Hillary Clinton was terrific.
Dana Edelson/NBC

The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon is leading a new paradigm shift toward increased on-air disposability in NBC late night. It hardly matters what happens for the majority of most Tonight Show episodes as long as Jimmy Fallon has a clip or two ready to, as the kids say, "go viral." The show is just a delivery mechanism for a couple of breakout stories going online that night or the next morning.

Saturday Night Live has been trending in that direction for a while, but that was rarely more the case than in tonight's premiere for the show's 41st season. By early Monday morning, everybody will have watched and passed judgment on the exact same two clips we knew to expect going in and all memory of the rest of the show will have evaporated.

The premiere started with "A Message From Donald and Melania Trump," as inevitable a cold open as one could have imagined. Sure, you might have predicted a big-stage mockery of the clown-car Republican debates, but Saturday Night Live knew that Donald Trump gets the breakout stories, not Jim Gilmore.

With an entire summer to prepare for lambasting the Republican frontrunner and an entire summer for Taran Killam to practice his impersonation, the result was a slew of predictable non-jokes about Trump's bombast, his hair and Cecily Strong doing a globe-spanning accent as Melania. Conventional wisdom seems to be that Donald Trump is such a caricature in his native form that you don't need to write punchlines about him. But would it have killed the SNL writers to try? Killam, a savvy mimic who often catches unexpected undertones to stars like Brad Pitt or Vin Diesel, made his Trump debut with a performance that was 75 percent lips-and-teeth and 25 percent wig. A cameo later in the show by Darrell Hammond offered a reminder that SNL has done good Trump work in the past when it mattered significantly less. Whether Trump is a central figure from now until next November (and beyond) or he implodes earlier, we're going to have to see Killam's Trump an unimaginable number of times and it would have been nice for the show to stake out a perspective on Trump from the beginning.

As Pete Davidson put it during his Weekend Update visit, he initially found Trump's candidacy funny. "But that was four months ago, and he's winning. It's not funny anymore. I think America needs to stop doing things because it's funny."

Davidson went on to compare Trump to American Idol punchline Sanjaya Malakar in a much more pointed bit of commentary.

The contrast to Killam's lackluster Trump is Kate McKinnon's Hillary Clinton, which emerged fully formed when she debuted last season. Like Trump, Clinton has been lampooned in various forms on SNL for years, but McKinnon's depiction of Candidate Hillary's desperate need to fulfill her long-gestating presidential destiny has been unique.

McKinnon's Hillary met Real Hillary in a poorly kept surprise appearance that came after Saturday Night Live set aside several filler sketches so writers could do blog posts on the Trump open. McKinnon's drunk and weary Hillary met up with Real Clinton's bartender Val, leading to a long discussion of McKinnon's Hillary's aspirations and positions, including a spectacular tweaking of Real Clinton's delayed opposition to the Keystone Pipeline and support of gay marriage ("Could've been sooner." "Fair point."). Was Real Clinton playing into SNL Clinton's version of her crazy-eyed, strained enthusiasm or was she exposing how uncanny McKinnon's impression is? It hardly matters. Clinton's prepared to try too hard, right down to dueting with McKinnon on a chorus of "Lean on Me."

Clinton even stuck around for five minutes to introduce the first of two eyebrow-raising musical performances by Cyrus, who eschewed her predictably provocative sexual high jinks to perform her first number dressed like Marie Antoinette fronting Parliament Funkadelic and her second number shrieking about her dreams at a piano bedecked in either beads or the shimmering entrails of an exploded cow.

Cyrus also hosted the premiere, but you'd be forgiven for having forgotten entirely. The monologue was Cyrus singing "My Way" and getting upstaged by flash-in-the-pan personalities from the summer, including Aidy Bryant's Kim Davis and Vanessa Bayer's Rachel Dolezal. I had absolutely no interest in Rachel Dolezal when that pseudo-story was pseudo-developing, but I lament that we'll never have cause for Bayer's Dolezal to return.

The SNL writers appeared to have forgotten that Cyrus is a former sitcom star who has done well in previous SNL appearances, because after a first sketch in which her character anachronistically rapped to interrupt a chaste Grease-style musical number, Cyrus was never the focus of another sketch. Perhaps respecting her apparent desire to steer away from trademark salacious behavior, a skit about women faking orgasms, Meg Ryan-style, at Katz's didn't even try to let Cyrus fake a bizarre orgasm.

Sketches were in short supply anyway. Weekend Update devoured the entire middle of the show with appearances by Davidson, Kyle Mooney's almost Stefon-esque take on the pope and relationship expert Leslie Jones, who dominated the close of the show bringing shouting intensity and needed energy to some late material, including one of two straight episode-ending filmed bits that left the audience in near silence.

New castmember Jon Rudnitsky had a visible, if not necessarily amusing, debut with a number of featured extra roles that didn't quite rise to the level of characters, but at least he was absolutely there. Sasheer Zamata, Jay Pharoah and Bobby Moynihan had quiet nights.

This is a pretty good Saturday Night Live cast, featuring both diversity and versatility. For at least the opening week, though, Saturday Night Live was content to get the unfunny Trump opening and the somewhat better Hillary Clinton appearance out into the world and little more. And now we'll all just sit back and wait to see how long it is before Trump makes his own visit or, heaven help us, gets to host.