‘SNL’ Season 42: They Knew We Were Watching, and It Showed

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Saturday Night Live closed out its 42nd season with one of the biggest movie stars on the planet who will still agree to host the show. Though a few huge names (Will Smith, Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt) don’t seem especially gettable, Dwayne Johnson, who has a recent box-office track record to rival almost anyone, feels an obvious loyalty to SNL for helping him break out of pure wrestling mode. He first hosted in 2000, before he had appeared in a single theatrically released feature film, showing off his game-for-anything persona and burgeoning comedic chops. He’s returned periodically as his movie career has continued to ramp up — always in the spring, for some reason — and joined the elite Five-Timers club at the end of this season.

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Typically, SNL gets an extra-bright spotlight during the presidential election season, and recedes a little bit — at least in terms of broader cultural notoriety — after the president is sworn in. But little about the last nine months has been typical, and the show found itself continuing to receive massive ratings and a lot of press attention as President Donald J. Trump took office, still played, in an unusual arrangement, by frequent host and friend of the show Alec Baldwin, rather than a member of the show’s large repertory company. The show added even more heat when they brought in Melissa McCarthy to play easily flummoxed and irritated press secretary Sean Spicer.

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McCarthy hosted the season’s penultimate episode, and so she wasn’t back this weekend for the sole Trump-centric sketch, which was barely a sketch at all but a nod to another SNL bit from earlier in the season. After Hillary Clinton suffered a surprise defeat in November, SNL obviously felt shell-shocked, too, and opened not with a zany sketch about Trump selling condos at the White House or something, but with Kate McKinnon, dressed in Hillary garb at a piano, singing “Hallelujah,” by the recently deceased Leonard Cohen. No real jokes; she sang the song, and said: “I’m not giving up, and neither should you,” before starting the show. Whether it was guilt over the show’s decision to have Trump host in 2015 or just straight-up grief over a national disaster in waiting, it was a rare moment of utter sincerity. Some teared up, some cringed, and some probably did both. The show seemed to keep this wistful thread going when, in the last week of the Obama presidency, Cecily Strong and Sasheer Zamata sang “To Sir with Love” in tribute. They made some light jokes, but the basic sentiment wasn’t in jest.

But the show reneged a little on this odd but not unwelcome sweetness when it revisited its Hillary moment in the finale. Baldwin’s Trump sat at a piano, slowly joined by members of his administration as impersonated by the cast (and Scarlett Johansson, reprising her Ivanka from the “Complicit” perfume ad she did earlier this spring). They all sang “Hallelujah,” in what felt both like the show poking fun at its own seriousness after the election and, perhaps, calling a shot a little too early, clearly speculating that Trump might not be such a big presence on the show next fall if he’s, say, out of office by then.

Beyond any self-mockery or bold predictions, this sketch (or non-sketch) was notable for another reason: It capped off what has been one of the more continuity-heavy years in Saturday Night Live history. Of course, there are limits to how much episode-to-episode continuity a 90-minute live sketch/variety series can bother with, but traditionally SNL has still erred on the side of the stand-alone. Even its sometimes heavy use of recurring characters only seems like continuity; in fact, so many of those sketches repeat so much rhythm and material that they’re pretty clearly designed not for diehards to rejoice in the repetition but for casual viewers who might drop in and out of the show to watch and understand — maybe even enjoy more, if they haven’t seen the sketch eight times already.

But for Season 42, the show interacted with itself a little more, perhaps feeling confident that more people might be watching week-to-week. In this episode alone, they made a reference to another cold open that would be baffling to anyone who didn’t happen to catch that bit on TV or online; they pulled in Scarlett Johansson to appear in it not because she had repeatedly impersonated Ivanka Trump but because she did so once, on a recent episode; they brought back friend of the show Tom Hanks, who hosted a particularly strong episode back in the fall, and featured a brief reprisal of his instantly beloved character David S. Pumpkins (appearing in a comically overloaded rap video as “David S. Pimpkins”); and, pulling further from the show’s history, revived two characters Dwayne Johnson played on previous hosting gigs. There’s also been a season-long running gag about a fabricated romance between cast members Kyle Mooney and Leslie Jones — the subject of two filmed segments but also a few stray references within the show. The bit also plays off of Jones’ “Weekend Update” flirtation with Colin Jost. It may be in the service of silly jokes, but these touches create more of a world around the show than the traditional recurring-character bits (which the show has been blessedly light on over the past couple of years).

Johnson’s two recurring sketches, where he played a pro wrestler with an aggressive trash-talking game against his opponent and an uncouth, mook-ish fellow bothering a couple, may have also been included to beef up roles for Bobby Moynihan (as the unlucky wrestler) and Vanessa Bayer (as the more irritated half of the couple), who are both leaving the show after nine and seven seasons, respectively. In recent years, SNL has been more likely to acknowledge departing cast members; Moynihan and Bayer didn’t receive a Kristen Wiig–style tribute, but they did turn up noticeably often. They each did a guest shot on “Weekend Update,” Moynihan returning to his popular and long-dormant Drunk Uncle character, and Bayer repeating a much more recent bit as addled meteorologist Dawn Lazarus. Sasheer Zamata, whose departure from the show after four seasons was confirmed on Sunday, wasn’t given quite the same leeway. She appeared in several bit parts and played them well — mirroring her tenure on the show, where she always seemed promising but rarely seemed well-utilized by the show’s writers. I’d bet on her pulling a Jenny Slate or Noel Wells post-SNL.

With all of the Moynihan and Bayer and references and fan service, there wasn’t much time for the show to get political in sketches — or maybe the writers are just as weary of the never-ending Trump news cycle as everyone else. A few weeks ago, the Chris Pine–hosted episode was refreshing in part because almost all of the sketches were triumphantly, exuberantly silly. It’s not that I crave quasi-apolitical nonsense from SNL, but the show’s political satire is hit-and-miss, and Trump is such a broad and infuriating target that he can be deceptively tricky to actually nail. Though Baldwin’s impression can be funny (and metatextually is funnier with the knowledge that it does actually bother Trump), sometimes the show has benefited from concentrating its political satire into the “Weekend Update” segment, which has been especially sharp and biting in the past few weeks (after some rocky patches earlier in the year).

Despite a return to Pine-style silliness, this wasn’t the most consistent episode of the season: An extended fart-joke sketch with Bayer as an old-timey movie actress couldn’t get by on her charm (and was also the second extended-fart-joke-with-no-real-ending sketch of the season; who keeps submitting these?!), and a late-show bit with the usually hilarious Beck Bennett as a bartender playing bizarre wingman opposite Johnson didn’t ever take off. But there was an absolute keeper in the final half-hour as Johnson played a mad scientist entering a competition for most “evil” invention, beating the competition (mostly fixated on toying with national monuments) by coming up with a robot that molests children. The gag was in spectacularly, gloriously poor taste, and Johnson helped sell it by underplaying his character’s analytical approach to evil (his vocal tone was, presumably unintentionally, reminiscent of his surprisingly decent Barack Obama impression).

All in all, it was an episode roughly in the middle of a typically uneven but often inspired season. Tom Hanks, Aziz Ansari, Dave Chappelle, Louis CK, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Kristen Stewart, and Chris Pine all had strong outings, while Benedict Cumberbatch, Margot Robbie, and even Baldwin had disappointing showings. It was an unusually strong year for the Five-Timers Club, with McCarthy, Johnson, and Johansson all joining, and for actual stand-up comedy in the monologue, with Chappelle, CK, and Ansari all doing strong sets.

Even knowing that Moynihan and Bayer are gone in the fall (and that Kenan Thompson will likely break Darrell Hammond’s record to become the longest-serving cast member), it’s hard to predict how things will go next season. Assuming Trump will still be in office, they may not be able to call upon Baldwin as frequently — nor should they, necessarily. Despite the in-jokes and pretend-continuity, it’s a little strange that a show with such a large cast has come to rely on megafamous ringers like Baldwin and McCarthy, inspired choices as they may be. They leave regular cast members competing for fewer spots on the show, especially when new featured players Mikey Day and Alex Moffatt made surprisingly frequent appearances (Day, a talented longtime writer with a competent but mild on-screen presence so far, may have an unfair leg up: as an established presence in the writers’ room, he’s well-positioned to facilitate notable roles for himself). Even a beloved figure like Kate McKinnon would wind up with light weeks (she barely appeared in the finale, though it’s not as if she lacks for exposure).

The current cast is talented but sometimes diffuse as a unit — which may not be a drawback, as the show is often consumed in discrete chunks anyway, so Kyle Mooney fans can check out his weirdo videos and Leslie Jones fans can watch the sketches where she plays herself or does stand-up on “Update,” and Mikey Day fans can just watch the show straight through because he’s in everything most weeks. The political material that gets the show so much buzz is just one more of those pieces. Even as the show allows itself more in-jokes and running gags, it remains a complicated piece of machinery. 

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