The political cold open has been Saturday Night Live’s glaringly prominent weak spot for years now, Alec Baldwin’s hammy, superficially written Donald Trump giving way to Jim Carrey’s hammy, superficially written Joe Biden. (With a brief stopover for Alex Moffat to take a crack at our 46th president for a few episodes.) So viewers might be forgiven a little trepidation when the show’s (mind-boggling) 47th season began with the familiar presidential seal, as they wondered which celebrity pal of Lorne Michaels was going to get the call this time out.
As it happens, this cold open was a pleasant surprise, with new featured player James Austin Johnson shuffled out in SNL’s reliably elaborate prosthetics to debut a brand new Biden. And he pretty much killed it. Johnson (who rose to fame on the back of an especially good Trump impression) found the sweet spot between slavish imitation and necessary exaggeration, his Biden—here trying to broker peace with those Democrats holding up Biden’s defining spending bill—quickly winning over an in-studio audience at first clearly uncertain who they were looking at.
With Aidy Bryant (Joe Manchin), a stellar Cecily Strong (Krysten Sinema), Ego Nwodim (Ilhan Omar), and Melissa Villaseñor (AOC) all chiming in with their ideas for either obstructing (in the former two cases) or improving (the latter) Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, Johnson’s president displayed an uncanny resemblance in both body language and cadence, to the actual Biden. For new hire Johnson, it would appear that the traditional SNL gauntlet of scrap roles and sweating out airtime has been waved off, as a featured player taking on a sitting president (and, again, killing it) hints at a much more comfortable first year than is standard over there.
With Johnson’s Biden characteristically both effusive and halting in his oratory, the sketch called out lone Democratic holdout conservative senators Sinema (D-AZ) and Manchin (D-WV) for gumming up the works on behalf, it’s implied, of their wealthy benefactors. Meanwhile Johnson’s Biden, in the real Biden’s hushed, slightly rushed verbal style, found that the two sides are too far apart even for his folksy entreaties for necessary infrastructure and other public needs. “C’mon, don’t take trains away from me!,” pleaded noted railway enthusiast Biden, having discovered that such other helpful and life-improving things as clean water, bridges that don’t fall down, and paid family leave are just too expensive for Manchin, Sinema, and whatever lobbyists are holding their leashes. Or perhaps, as Strong’s Sinema states when asked about her opposition to roads as a concept, her only motivation in standing in the way of the Democrats (who hold the House, Senate, and Presidency) getting anything done is simply “Chaos.” It would explain some things.