Saturday Night Live: Baldwin is a flawless Trump but spoof falls flat

The show’s season premiere relies heavily on election gags but needs to develop more substance to regain legendary status

In the 21st century, Saturday Night Live has lived or died by its presidential election coverage. For all the flak that the show receives for not living up to its “glory days” – and those glory days generally happen to line up with the speaker’s teenage years – it redeems itself in the cultural landscape with presidential debate sketches that hit the mark and justify its existence.

So it’s understandable that the show’s writers tilted so heavily in favor of election comedy for this season’s premiere on Saturday. The opening sketch was, as is now de rigueur, a take on the first presidential debate. Recent Emmy-winner (and Ghostbusters scene-stealer) Kate McKinnon of course returned as an ecstatic Hillary Clinton, a shimmying, wide-eyed, over-prepared debater who can’t believe how easy it all is.

Donald Trump v Hillary Clinton debate

Facing her was the show’s latest take on Donald Trump, long-time SNL favorite Alec Baldwin, who had been teased earlier this week.

Baldwin’s Trump was technically flawless – the hair and make-up, the sneer, the bravado – but it felt somehow lifeless, as if the writers couldn’t imagine, or get away with, a more over-the-top caricature than the man himself. (Baldwin is pegged to play Trump for the entire season, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Last year’s Trump, Taran Killam, did not return this year; neither did long-running Obama imitator Jay Pharoah.) If anything, the show seems to have more fun writing great lines for Clinton – “If you don’t elect me, I will continue to run for president until the day I die. I will never die” – than their unmemorable Trump.

Introducing @AlecBaldwin as Donald Trump. #SNLPremiere

— Saturday Night Live (@nbcsnl) October 2, 2016

After a bland cold-open, wherein actor and host Margot Robbie “fact-checked” her monologue alongside a stream of available cast members, the show shifted to its secondary topic for the evening – how pretty Margot Robbie is. An entire sketch devoted to her attractiveness led neatly into a pre-taped sketch that imagined how hilarious it would be if she wasn’t actually that attractive.

And with that important point out of the way, we were back onto the campaign, with a Family Feud sketch devoted to “Team Trump” and “Team Clinton” battling it out. Game show sketches are almost always lazy excuses for a string of impressions, and that was as true as ever, with Larry David reprising his Bernie Sanders impression while Robbie took on Ivanka Trump and Cecily Strong premiered an irritating take on next week’s host, Lin Manuel-Miranda. The sketch’s strongest gag was Chris Christie’s inability to stop making bridge references; it ended with a non-joke about Jill Stein that implied that, perhaps more than ever, the SNL writers are taking a firm stand in who their viewers should (and shouldn’t) vote for.

Musical guest The Weeknd, host Margot Robbie, and Kenan Thompson on Saturday Night Live.
Musical guest The Weeknd, host Margot Robbie, and Kenan Thompson on Saturday Night Live. Photograph: NBC/Getty Images

Weekend Update, once a highlight of every episode, has not quite returned to its full-strength Seth Meyers days, but co-hosts Michael Che and Colin Jost are finally finding a groove. Their focus, of course, was on the recent debate and the upcoming election, but they eventually expanded to include Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest in a bit that showcased their growing camaraderie.

The last half-hour took some delightfully quirky turns. The show debuted Melania Moments, inane musings from Trump’s wife that mirrored the show’s classic Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey. It also had fun with a take on a “women in film” panel, which seemed to be taking advantage of its strong female cast but ended up being a showcase for McKinnon’s delightful weirdness. She made the loosely structured sketch entirely worthwhile; any scene that allows a bewigged, bespectacled McKinnon to conclude with a phrase like “the little baboon ran off with my broaches” is always welcome.

And in its final moments, the show went meta, with Pete Davidson stepping into the lead role in a Mr Robot sketch to address cast member Leslie Jones’ real-life hacking scandal. It was a cleverly done, if joke-light, sketch, and it ended the premiere in a genially amusing manner. Between Baldwin’s Trump and Robbie as host, SNL certainly looks the part of a glamorous television show; now it needs to work more on the substance that once made it the go-to for political satire.


Elise Czajkowski

The GuardianTramp

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