7:45am PT by Daniel Fienberg
Critic's Notebook: 'SNL' Season 45 Kicks Off With Limp Trump Jokes, No Shane Gillis Mention
Saturday Night Live is back, kicking off its 45th season — and, as is always the best of signs when it comes to NBC's Emmy-winning topical weekly sketch show, the water cooler conversation will mostly be about either Aidy Bryant's recurring case of the giggles or musical guest Billie Eilish paying homage to a Fred Astaire dance routine from two-and-a-half Billie Eilishes before Billie Eilish was born.
Whenever SNL returns after a long break, there's an inevitable temptation to look at whatever the show delivers and grumble, "With four months, that was the best they could come up with?" as if the writers room has been open non-stop since May, crafting and honing and refining six Platonic ideal sketches to start the season off right. Yeah, season openers are just as slapdash as any other episode, which is especially true at a historical moment in which the gap from one episode to the next could force the writers to choose between 10 or 15 bumbles, gaffes or scandals relating to former SNL host Donald Trump.
By that standard, the writers actually got incredibly lucky this week, with most of the conversation points around President Trump concerning impeachment, whistleblowing and the Ukraine, which all yielded a cold open in which a lot of castmembers did quickie impressions of people in Trump's sphere and Alec Baldwin remained on Emmy-winning cruise control.
So we got Alex Moffat and Mikey Day as Eric and Donny Junior, no punchlines, but definitely their impressions. And we got Kate McKinnon as former SNL host Rudy Giuliani, no punchlines, but definitely her impression. New castmember Bowen Yang appeared as Kim Jong-un, which also had no punchlines, but how nice that SNL actually has a castmember who can play Kim Jong-un without accusations of yellowface. Chris Redd popped up as Kayne West, even though West had nothing to do with this week's news cycle, nor did Don King, whom Kenan Thompson got to play.
The open culminated in Trump calling "Ray Donovan" for help, only he called former SNL host Liev Schreiber, which was funny for two reasons: First, the audience cheering when he explained he was Liev Schreiber and not Ray Donovan, as if this were some grand reveal to them, and second, that for some reason nobody made any reference to Ray Donovan co-star Jon Voight's terrifying weekend video impugning the patriotism of any of Trump's adversaries or critics.
With four months, that was the best they could come up with?
I kid, but I also don't. What does SNL's Lorne Michaels think would happen if the show retired Baldwin's take on Trump? There's no way Baldwin wants to be doing it anymore and it shows. And because Baldwin has no approach to the "character" at all anymore, he doesn't leave the writers with anything to have fun with. Maybe you find a way to address the former SNL host without showing him at all? Or what would happen if next week, they started the show and suddenly Darrell Hammond was back doing the character? I'm reasonably confident Baldwin wouldn't mind and the writers would be relieved to have a full reboot. And yes, I'm presupposing Hammond's availability.
The show did a bit better with a comparable around-the-horn impressions sketch in which CNN did a town hall debate for Democratic presidential candidates about impeachment. Again, there was almost no edge or perspective and there was no particular reason why they had to pretend "impeachment" was the focus of the debate, but there were definitely impressions and guest stars!
Probably the highlight of that sketch was guest Maya Rudolph as California Sen. Kamala Harris, who referred to herself as America's fun aunt, or "funt," and kept pitching herself as the star of shows on TNT, then USA and finally NBC. Larry David returned to do his Bernie Sanders impersonation. Host Woody Harrelson had fun with Joe Biden's teeth and also saying "Cornpop." And Yang entered the politician rotation as Andrew Yang, and again we can express some pleasure at SNL finally having a regular castmember capable of playing Andrew Yang, even if nobody had any way to make him funny. I smiled at Chloe Fineman's debut as Marianne Williamson and when it comes to SNL, smiling is the new laughter.
It may be a nightmare that we still have over a year to go before the 2020 election, but that gives SNL a lot of time to find a meaningful angle on two or three of these candidates. Nothing so far! There were light jibes directed at 10 of the Democratic contenders, none of whom is likely to tweet in outrage about it later. Then again, neither is Trump, because we've reached the point at which even Trump's affection for Nazis hardly feels like it has teeth. That came up in a rushed "Weekend Update" segment that was light on jokes and light on risk, though I'm always going to laugh at Kenan Thompson's David Ortiz.
If you thought that SNL was going to address the half-a-Scaramucci tenure of Shane Gillis, you were probably being foolish. One could argue, I suppose, that Harrelson's opening monologue, which played halfway as an attempted yuck at "cancel culture," or at least "apology culture," was how the show addressed Gillis. Of course, Gillis didn't really apologize for anything. One thing I can say with absolute, iron-clad certainty: There was no point in Saturday's premiere when I thought, "Man, this is where the show really could have used Shane Gillis."
The show still can't figure out how to use Ego Nwodim, added as a featured player last season, or Melissa Villasenor. Yang had those two impressions, which made for a memorable debut, and Fineman popped up a couple times. It was a big night for Cecily Strong, central to a few sketches, and for Aidy Bryant, especially when a series of rapid costume changes in a news panel sketch left a costumer stranded temporarily onstage and Bryant unable to regain her composure.
Honestly, I thought Eilish was the night's real standout, which is very rarely the case with musical guests for me. I liked the rotating stage homage to Fred Astaire's Royal Wedding ceiling dancing in "Bad Guy," and Eilish smartly went with a toned-down, vocals-centric duet on "I Love You" with Finneas O'Connell. She seemed to be wearing very comfortable pajamas in both performances and, added to Harrelson's pajamas in the opening monologue, that's a trend. The closing cast introductions, with Harrelson thanking Greta Thunberg and wearing a Greta Thunberg t-shirt, made me wish SNL had found a way to talk Eilish into doing a Greta Thunberg sketch ... oh, well.
I'd try to figure out other things to say about Saturday's premiere, but good or bad, Saturday Night Live just doesn't offer much to talk about these days. There's an election in 13 months, though. Plenty of time to find something to say again, guys!