Lorne Michaels’ Saturday Night Live news summer camp has been whatever the benign opposite of a pleasant surprise is. Trotting out some extended, prime-time editions of SNL’s venerably above-average fake news broadcast is a low-risk way to ride the momentum of last season’s ratings success while keeping in shape for the upcoming campaign’s satirical broadsides. Michael Che and Colin Jost are young and confident, and each has forged a much more enjoyable onscreen style than their dead-air first season together promised. With Donald Trump in the White House, dumping gaffes and horrific statements and actions pretty much indiscriminately, there are more than enough targets to choose from. Weekend Update: Summer Edition isn’t reinventing the phony newscast format at this point, but what it’s put out this summer has been entertaining enough.
The SNL pre-season workouts have also let us know that the show—which Che announced will return on September 30th, with guests Ryan Gosling and Jay-Z—is likely not planning any drastic overhauls, either in terms of comedic approach, personnel, or Michaels’ policy on attention- and ratings-grabbing guest impressionists. Which means a return of Alec Baldwin’s Trump to his customary cold open spot—even though previous Update specials have jumped right to the desk. Baldwin’s Trump remains what he is. It’s amusingly clownish, broadly reprehensible, and largely innocuous, as far as a satirical portrayal goes. Baldwin clearly relishes being able to make fun of his nemesis, and while his fish-mouthed Trump runs through the expected mannerisms and weeks’-worth of mock-worthy bullshit, he’s rarely revelatory. (And, yes, it’s accurate to call Baldwin and Trump nemeses when the president goes out of his way to tweet insults back at an actor portraying him on TV.)
Tonight, our first glimpse of season 43 Trump picks up where Baldwin left him, here addressing the gung-ho (if unimpressively sized) pro-Trump crowd at his recent, eight-months-in campaign/self-esteem rally. All the big beats were covered, from Trump omitting his equivocal statement on the Nazis and anti-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville while repeating it to his cheering fans (“And then I didn’t say a single word after that”), to the fact that that the one (as it turns out, loony) black guy at the rally got a prime spot on camera, to Trump having looked directly at this week’s eclipse (lord help us), to his dangled promise/threat to pardon recently convicted racist sheriff and Trump booster Joe Arpaio, to saying an oblivious goodbye to recently canned, equally racist advisor Steve Bannon (once again presented as the Vader-like Angel of Death), and so on. It’s all funny, and all pretty disposable, Baldwin’s breezy buffoonery doing essentially what his Trump promises his crowd, running through Trump’s checklist of predictably awful, glibly insulting talking points. “You want the hits,” says Baldwin’s Trump.
So we get the hits, and not much else. It’s fun for Baldwin and SNL to take big swings at such an invitingly ludicrous comedy piñata, and they don’t put anything too challenging inside. When Trump starts off by accidentally reading his sleazy Access Hollywood misogyny rather than his Charlottesville bigotry, it’s about as biting as the bit gets, the show’s willingness to rip open old scabs a statement of comedic purpose going forward. But SNL seems content to count the act of mocking Trump towards the effectiveness of mocking Trump, with Baldwin-Trump’s stupidity trumping all other satirical priorities. Even when Trump here says something truly terrible (like defending Arpaio for targeting people “merely because they look Latino”), SNL’s Trump is operating more out of thoughtless vapidity rather than racist, anti-LGBTQ, sexist animus, for all of which there is bountiful evidence.
There are plenty for whom that will be enough, either to rile up the blood or to engender some head-nodding chuckles. And that’s fine—like I said, Baldwin’s Trump is funny. But Saturday Night Live has not only set out to satirize Donald Trump, it’s got his reddening-in-anger ear, and, as lucrative and crowd-pleasing as Baldwin’s Trump is (Baldwin’s coasting for a possible Emmy on the strength of it), it’s also becoming less effective in its predictability.
Anyway, this is a Weekend Update special, right? Jost and Che were solid once again, with Jost’s smirky, to-camera one-liners and Jost’s knowing, mordant deadpan landing a handful of decent lines each throughout the show. (Although Baldwin’s Trump sucked up some of their time.) Che’s line about Trump’s plan to prolong the 16-year-old war in Afghanistan (“In two more years, it can fight in a war.”) is the best of the bunch, with Jost’s “Don’t say ‘yellow,’ don’t say ‘yellow’” when describing Trump’s thought process while trying to come up with the word “Japanese” a close runner-up.
But the feeling of Weekend Update: Summer Edition being more a warmup than a mission statement persists. The guys segue awfully fast into amusingly inconsequential gags (Tiger Woods’ troubles, a jazz-playing junkie dog), making the half-hour sail by without leaving much trace of itself behind. Pete Davidson returned for another of his correspondent spots, which have sharpened up in his time on the show. Here, taking on the NFL’s obvious blacklisting of Colin Kaepernick over his on-field activism, Pete stares down the camera to deliver the sound analysis that it’s not the mid-level Kaepernick’s activism that’s so controversial, it’s that “he’s not good enough to be controversial.” Davidson’s stoner little brother vibe has largely been abandoned, his plain-spoken commentaries emerging stronger with time. (For one thing, he’s shared that he’s given up the whole “stoner” thing.) The analogy of more popular NFL players needing to speak out on social issues to the fact that his stand would carry more weight coming from Kate McKinnon is sharp, as is his hooded ire at the league (of which he is a fan) caring more about punishing players who make a stand more than the fact that “none of [the players] will be able to stand once they’re 50.”
Another disappointment this pre-season has been a lack of adventurousness as far as letting the returning cast try out some new impressions. But Alex Moffat (clearly on the road to full cast member at this point) trotted out a solidly silly Conor McGregor (to go along with last year’s impressive Al Franken) to liven things up with a big, old-fashioned showpiece. The conceit that the, well, conceited McGregor is boastful might traffic in Irish stereotype (oh, you’ll get a Lucky Charms reference), but Moffat commits, his Irish accent is over-the-top funny, and he nails the cocksure UFC fighter’s secret doubts about his ability to survive against actual boxer Floyd Mayweather. Moffat got the biggest laugh of the episode when he responded to Jost’s admonitions that kicking is not allowed in boxing with an exquisitely deadpan “All right... just 10 kicks then.”
And Cecily Strong cut her vacation short to bring back Che’s loquacious, gabbling neighbor Cathy Anne, here sporting an eye patch (and a glass eye in the other socket) and addressing “Donald Trunk”’s Nazi-apologist Charlottesville comments. In short, the eternally pugnacious, malaprop-spitting Cathy Anne isn’t a fan, either of Trunk or Nazis. It’s a one-note character, but Strong imbues Cathy Anne with a survivor’s gumption that gives her an enduring comic grace. When Cathy Anne tells you she only knows three things (“Weed ain’t as good as it used to be, pizza is as good as ever, and Nazis is bad”) Strong makes it hard to argue.
- Mikey Day’s bit as globe-trotting correspondent Wes is a simple gag. Wes introduces NBC’s big “Where’s Wes?” contest (which is set up as having its own hashtag and app), only to blurt out his location immediately. (He’s in Belgium.) I’m a sucker for the “big buildup-anticlimax” joke construction.
- Cathy Anne advises people in the South to be proud of things other than their Confederate monuments. Like the fact that they have “the fried-est food.” She’s not wrong.
- “And I’m Dick Gregory, good night!”