Critic's Notebook: Jim Carrey's Joe Biden Can't Save Toothless 'SNL' Season 46 Premiere

Jim Carrey as Joe Biden on 'Saturday Night Live.'
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Jim Carrey as Joe Biden on 'Saturday Night Live.'

'Saturday Night Live' struggled to keep up with the dizzying news cycle with host Chris Rock, musical guest Megan Thee Stallion and Jim Carrey's Joe Biden impersonation launching a new season.

I feel bad for Saturday Night Live.

I really do.

The stupid line — one I've written myself a couple of times, I'm sure — is to look at a season premiere episode and say, "That's the best they could come up with after being off the air for four months?"

But what's even the point of trying to pretend to go through a traditional comedy writing process when you know that whatever you write on Tuesday night will be usurped by five crazy things on Wednesday, a dozen earth-shattering developments on Thursday and a steady stream of idiocy and insanity all day Friday and even Saturday.

In his monologue to open Saturday night's season 46 premiere, Chris Rock joked, not particularly amusingly, that President Trump has "the most energy of any 75-year-old person on Earth." I don't believe that for a second, but one surely can't dispute that when it comes to making news that practically demands to be lampooned, the guy doesn't take days off.

So why bother carefully crafting a debate sketch when five days later, we barely even remember why we were so worked up about the debate? Just go broad and lazy, says I! Why bother crafting an approach to either Donald Trump or Joe Biden when you can just fall back on, "They're both old and unfit to lead..." and know that that level of satire is going to be evergreen for at least the next few weeks?

Sigh.

It's hard to exactly pinpoint the targets of the season-opening debate sketch, which introduced Jim Carrey playing Joe Biden as if he were Joe Biden from 2008 (or maybe 1988) or possibly just Fire Marshall Bill after skin grafts and a hair piece.

The bizarre thing is that Joe Biden is a tough figure to lampoon — at this point he's almost self-lampooned in the same way that nobody can make a bigger caricature of Donald Trump than Donald Trump — but SNL has done reasonably well with him in the very recent past as played by either Jason Sudeikis or Woody Harrelson. Jim Carrey brought a wiry energy to his impersonation, an energy that has absolutely no connection to the guy running for president currently. The idea that Joe Biden spent Tuesday's debate at perpetual war with himself trying to keep from attacking Trump is projection and little more, completely unconnected to what audiences watched Biden doing.

I guess "half-addled/half-enraged" is an interpretation for Biden and remains more than the autopilot that Alec Baldwin has been on for several years now. Tonight's Trump take was probably 85 percent sniffling, a not-inaccurate critique, but not one that really said much about what happened at Tuesday's debate (or anything subsequently). Unless you figure he's been a man on the verge of a respiratory ailment his entire presidency and his hospitalization is all just a worrisome punchline.

Even Rock, never afraid to step on toes, took a "The system is broken, top to bottom" approach that was sometimes clever, but more often toothless. The notion that becoming president requires too few qualifications, but also that we need term limits because people spend too much time in government, is the rhetorical equivalent of a shrug emoji. But I always like a Bell Biv DeVoe joke, so thanks for that!

From Trump's taxes to the new Supreme Court nominee to 50 other things from the past 10 days, there was a lot of substance left on the table. At least we got Cecily Strong doing her impression of Kimberly Guilfoyle from the Republican Convention, which was funny — but not the Kimberly Guilfoyle news anybody was talking about this week.

The softness of the show's political prism — Michael Che and Colin Jost, able to concentrate exclusively on Trump's COVID diagnosis, were actually much sharper on Weekend Update — was exposed by musical guest Megan Thee Stallion transitioning from a rousing performance of "Savage" to harsh condemnation of Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron. She had a sense of the stakes.

This was the show's first taping at Studio 8H since March 7. Remember when Daniel Craig was there to promote a James Bond movie that was JUST ABOUT TO PREMIERE? Man.

After three "SNL At Home" shows, there was an attempt at normalcy that was either weird or just felt weird because we've been away from normal for so long. My instinct is the former. There had to have been a health department-dictated reason for why the crowd of masked first responders were packed into a pair of grape-like clumps, practically sitting on each other's laps, rather than spread out.

Other than that, though, it was mostly a business-as-usual episode, and I winced every time the castmates appeared too close together. Then over the final bows, you had Rock wearing a mask around his chin to tell everybody to wear a mask, as the tightly packed cast members initially hugged and then made a big show of bumping elbows. In terms of behavior and optics, the whole thing was a mess.

And the episode itself? Mostly just not memorable. Chloe Fineman's Drew Barrymore impression stole the show especially when Fineman's Barrymore interviewed Fineman's Reese Witherspoon. Saturday Night Live has a long tradition of giving male impressionists endless showcases and then struggling with female impressionists — see also the struggle to get value out of Melissa Villaseñor — but Fineman may be on the brink of forcing herself into a central role. This would be an asset if we assume that eventually Kate McKinnon is going to want to do other things. In the premiere, McKinnon's biggest contribution was a touching, wordless tribute to Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The rest of the sketches? Well, there was a commercial for Playstation (and Peacock) and a long list of dirty names and a genuinely awful NBA Bubble Draft sketch that they shoehorned Rudolph into for no justifiable reason. New featured player Lauren Holt popped up in a couple of sketches and Punkie Johnson was in the Drew Barrymore sketch, but I'm not sure if Andrew Dismukes made an appearance at all? I don't know if this is a larger-than-normal cast or if there were fewer sketches than usual tonight. It all was spread thin.

OK. That's about it. I've been watching Letterkenny this weekend and I'd rather go back to something funny.