Critic's Notebook: At Least the 'SNL' Season 43 Premiere Amused Ryan Gosling

Ryan Gosling only occasionally got funny material and Alec Baldwin's Donald Trump impression may have run out of juice.
Screengrab/'Saturday Night Live'
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling on 'Saturday Night Live'

We're only a couple weeks past NBC's Saturday Night Live piling up an absurd haul of Emmys for the show's appropriately hyped, over-praised 42nd season, so that means it's probably time to hop off the SNL bandwagon with a resounding thud and announce, "Man, remember when this show used to be funny? Four months ago?"

The kindest thing I can say about Saturday night's 43rd season premiere is that host Ryan Gosling seemed consistently amused. He broke in at least four of his live sketch appearances, a tone that was set early when the night's first post-monologue sketch was the recurring thing with Kate McKinnon as a raunchy alien abductee. It's one of several recurring McKinnon characters who exist almost entirely to make the host lose it.

Gosling was practically convulsing after McKinnon pantomimed tossing his salad (or pantomiming the aliens tossing her salad on him, if you want to be technical), and it seemed as if McKinnon had achieved her goal in admirable fashion, but that achievement was lessened when we discovered that basically what Gosling was there for was to read cue cards and giggle. Nice work if you can get it!

The first thing that struck me about the SNL premiere is that Alec Baldwin should have been set free at the end of last season. Not fired, mind you. Set free with high honors. He did a send-off song. He stole an Emmy from several of TV's finest comedic supporting actors. He made his point.

The show probably needed to start from scratch this season and either find a new impression, bring Darrell Hammond back into the fold or perhaps ignore Donald Trump entirely, since he hasn't even tweeted about the show for a while. At the start of last season the game was, "Let's antagonize Trump and get him to tweet irrationally about us because that's fun," but after the election and nine months of his presidency, we've learned that nearly everything antagonizes Trump and he's willing to tweet about each and every insult and slight, no matter how petty and no matter how much you'd think being the Leader of the Free World would impose some measure of decorum, professionalism, maturity, restraint or dignity.

But just because it takes absolutely nothing to trigger @RealDonaldTrump doesn't mean that it's mandatory to do a Trump sketch even if you don't have anything funny to bring to the table, and the opening sketch was as perspective-free as anything SNL has done on Trump since back in the glory days when Lorne Michaels got killer ratings for letting Trump host and then just one year later collected piles of Emmys for "taking Trump on." After you've had it both ways, where else is there to go?

Basically the joke of the cold open was that Jeff Sessions is small and Baldwin likes doing the Trump "puckered anus mouth." The show got a wee bit of bad buzz last year for its initial take on Sarah Huckabee Sanders, so in this season's opener, Aidy Bryant did next to nothing as Huckabee Sanders. At least Mike Huckabee can't tweet that SNL was being sexist to his daughter. And in that rare and fortuitous moment in which SNL actually had a Latina actress to play the mayor of San Juan, they didn't give Melissa Villasenor anything to play.

It'd be better to celebrate Baldwin-as-Trump as a one-year phenomenon and figure something else out for tackling the currently administration. Maybe there's a different high-profile actor with Saturday evenings free and an appetite for an easy Emmy?

And if SNL couldn't figure out what it wanted to do with Trump in the season premiere, it was even more stymied by Gosling, who has a skill set diverse enough that the show could have given him a variety of things to do. I seem to remember the actor's first hosting stint fondly. I don't know which Gosling bit felt most endless: The "I saved jazz" opening monologue, his "Weekend Update" character with Alex Moffat or the sketch with Bryant as a chicken. And I'm sure there will be plenty of viewers who thought the filmed bit featuring Gosling as a man with an unhealthy obsession with filmmaker James Cameron using Papyrus font for Avatar was the most interminable of all, but I laughed at that one, darnit.

I also laughed at/with Michael Che's increasing anger about Trump's reaction to Puerto Rican hurricane relief and NFL players kneeling. Probably unleashing Che entirely is the best chance "Weekend Update" has of regaining relevancy. Colin Jost can just be there to awkwardly interview whichever character McKinnon is playing each week.

The premiere also did not make much use of this season's new castmembers. Heidi Gardner and Chris Redd both featured prominently in the Levi Wokes parody commercial and as straight-men to Cecily Strong in a sketch about two people who were very offended to be fooled into thinking Pizza Hut's new pasta came from an imaginary high-end Italian restaurant. Or at least they were visible. Probably Moffat and Mikey Day set an unreasonably high standard for new cast involvement through last season, and Gardner and Redd had a more typical debut. Was Luke Null in the episode at all? Would I recognize him if he had been? Also appearing somewhere between "Never" and "Barely" were Leslie Jones, Pete Davidson, Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney.

I'm sure I'll be checking in on Saturday Night Live repeatedly through the season. One bad episode, even a premiere and even coming after a season as revered as last season, probably doesn't mean much, but this wasn't a promising return.