Critic's Notebook: 'SNL' Starts Strong With Alec Baldwin's Donald Trump, Then Goes Downhill Fast

Alec Baldwin, Kate McKinnon on SNL - Publicity - H 2016
Will Heath/NBC

In the buildup to this week's 42nd season premiere of NBC's Saturday Night Live, all of the talk was about the departures of Taran Killam and Jay Pharoah (and Jon Rudnitsky if you're a member of the Rudnitsky family) and then this week's diversionary announcement that Alec Baldwin would be playing Donald Trump in the fall's lead-up to the election.

In the aftermath of Saturday's premiere, you can pretty much expect the conversation to relate only to the five-minute cold open, built around Baldwin's Trump and Kate McKinnon's Hillary Clinton, and nothing from the last 85 minutes, as we were treated to possibly the most disposable, but not necessarily the worst, Saturday Night Live launch in recent memory.

Fortunately for Lorne Michaels and company, the Baldwin play paid off nicely. The Emmy-winning 30 Rock star and ABC's new Match Game host was gone by the time host Margot Robbie charmingly bungled the episode's closing send-off, but he was fully committed and prepared for his moment in the spotlight, which was more than you could say for the man he was playing this past Monday.

While probably not the note-perfect impressionist's take on Trump that Darrell Hammond has provided in the past, Baldwin's Trump echoed the real presidential candidate in gesture, cadence and "Wrong!" interruptions and the writing stuck mostly to moments from the debate and not the familiar superficial chestnuts that SNL ran into the ground last year. As you'd expect from a show that gave Trump a dignity-draining episodic forum last year, the critique of the GOP candidate was politically gentle and focused on sniffles, technological gaffes ("They took my microphone to Kenya and broke it and now it's broken") and a reference to Trump's 3:20 a.m. tweeting from later in the week, but at least the writing managed to be funny, which wasn't often the case with the show's Trump stuff last year.

McKinnon's Clinton, which played a big role in her Emmy win, remained characterized by her inability to be spontaneous ("She is a strong, beautiful political prop who I almost forgot to mention tonight," her Clinton said of former Miss Universe Alicia Machado) and her awareness that people seem to hate her ("If you don't elect me, I will continue to run for president until the day I die and I will never die"). 

Actually, to backtrack, the highlight of the cold open and probably the entire show was McKinnon's entrance as Hillary, coughing and limping with a cane, followed by a flawlessly executed Willy Wonka somersault, a wonderful nod to the late Gene Wilder and just a worthy piece of physical comedy. So if the episode was downhill from the cold open, it was possibly even downhill from earlier than that. 

Robbie's hosting stint got off to a promising start with a monologue built around the idea that the Australian actress was astounded by how much lying goes on in American politics and she would be fact-checking herself. Robbie, a tremendously good sport who has proven her comedic chops on the big and small screen in the past, approached the bit with energy, but also with a confusion as to the location of the second camera that kept draining the scene's energy whenever she looked away to offer her truths, like when she said how much fun it was that Suicide Squad co-star Jared Leto stayed in character the whole time before admitting, "Not fun. It was kinda uncomfortable." Robbie was then joined by various castmembers who welcomed the opportunity to start the season with individual applause.

What followed, then, was an episode in which Robbie and many castmembers were wasted or underutilized. Somehow we had to wait until the very end of the episode before a Mr. Robot parody gave us Pete Davidson as a too tall, but otherwise uncanny Rami Malek, and Leslie Jones referencing her summer cyber-nightmare by asking Elliot to find out who hacked her. Jones' roller-coaster summer was one of many timely things that I might have hoped the episode would have addressed after the show's four-month absence, but rather than turning Jones loose, the skit fizzled out with the reveal that she may have hacked herself, which is more than a little offensive if you stop and think about it, but SNL would probably prefer you not think about it, so I guess I won't, but boy, I would have loved to see Jones tear it up on "Weekend Update," instead of the introduction of yet another Cecily Strong guest character prone to malapropisms and mispronunciations. (I never need to see Strong's Cathy Anne again, but I hope that "Melania Moments," featuring Strong as Melania Trump in contemplation, continues through the season.)

In general, the episode was as finger-away-from-the-pulse as possible after the cold open. Politics were limited to a Family Feud sketch that featured the introduction of eight Clinton and Trump campaign luminaries, including Larry David returning as Bernie Sanders and Melissa Villasenor making her debut as Sarah Silverman. It was one of those SNL game show sketches in which the introductions and impressions take up most of the running time and then nothing else matters and it pretty much said nothing about anything, other than making the first of the episode's two comparisons between Hillary Clinton and prunes. The linkage also was made during the excruciating "Weekend Update" segment, which made no effort to address anything since Monday or Tuesday, ignoring the right-before-taping release of information about Trump's taxes, which was exactly the sort of liveness "Weekend Update" tried going for on several occasions last year. In a parade of shoddy false equivalencies, Colin Jost and Michael Che drove home what will presumably be the show's ideological stance this year, which is that Trump and Clinton are both awful and maybe Trump is more dangerous than Clinton, but if either of them want to drop by for cameos, Michaels will happily take the ratings.

In lieu of sketches that were truly political or referenced anything cultural that happened over the long summer, Saturday Night Live premiered with an assortment of fairly evergreen sketches. Had it been in the last half-hour, I think I really would have liked the Tampa Sinkhole bit, which was mostly built around the idea that Robbie was much too attractive to be married to a character played by Mikey Day and didn't go anywhere beyond that. Day, elevated from writing after showing some chops this summer on Maya & Marty, and fellow new featured player Alex Moffat had a busy introductory episode, playing Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump and also appearing in a filmed segment starring Robbie as a sexy librarian harboring some dark and ugly secrets. They almost got more screen time in one installment than Rudnitsky got all of last season outside of his one superb moment reenacting Dirty Dancing, as they both seemed ready to vie with a busy Beck Bennett for all of the straight-man roles left by Killam.

Vanessa Bayer was entirely absent, Davidson's screen time was limited and Sasheer Zamata appeared only in a late sketch designed for McKinnon, playing a classic Hollywood starlet named Debette Goldry, to make Robbie crack. It worked.

Maybe the only other change on people's minds coming into the season premiere was the introduction of a reduced ad load meant to increase episodic content. I can't say that I noticed anything different, either in terms of additional comedy or the threat of increased product integration. In general, this just felt like an episode of Saturday Night Live, with a lot of sketches and material in the first half of the episode and then a lot of commercials in the second half, but that could be completely a matter of perception. 

So I guess we should be glad that Baldwin's Trump and the debate opening were funny, because otherwise the premiere was hit-and-miss sketches, a host who was probably better than anything she was given to do and a couple OK performances by The Weeknd.

In other words, Saturday Night Live is back and it's still Saturday Night Live.