If President Donald Trump’s shock-and-awe attack on truth, decorum and liberal sensibilities is intended to bludgeon his opponents into submission, “Saturday Night Live” felt like his latest victim this weekend.
Not that the show, which has been one of his most outspoken and popular antagonists, didn’t remain on the attack. Melissa McCarthy reprised her savage impersonation of Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, and Alec Baldwin (in his 17th appearance as host) donned his flaxen wig and prosthetic jowls to play Trump in a “People’s Court” sketch mocking the president’s attempts to have his travel ban reinstated. Kate McKinnon — who, in a Tatiana Maslany-style tour de force, also appeared as Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Sen. Elizabeth Warren — played the presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway trying to seduce her way onto CNN in a “Fatal Attraction” spoof.
But there was a sense of exhaustion — of “How long can we keep this up?” — that was made explicit in the court sketch when Cecily Strong, as the judge, said to Baldwin’s Trump: “You’re doing too much. I want one day without a CNN alert that scares the hell out of me.” It was delivered plaintively, not as a laugh line but as a weary, nervous plea.
McCarthy opened the show as Spicer, and the news-briefing sketch was again the high point. Its simple premise — take the thin-skinned venomous attitude and brazen duplicity the Trump administration has exhibited and render them as naked, schoolyard-bully aggression — was still effective, coupled with McCarthy’s absolute commitment.
But the sketch was even more underwritten than before, name-checking controversies rather than illuminating them, which has been true of most of the show’s Trump-related material. In the absence of new ideas, old ones recycled from last week’s sketch were simply amped up: The wad of chewing gum was bigger, the weaponized rostrum was now motorized. The physical attacks on reporters here included an assault with a leaf blower, which was jolting and kind of fascinating when the machine was pointed at the face of a reporter played by Strong, but not so funny when it was used to blow her skirt up over her head.
Baldwin came out as himself for his monologue, which did not address politics. He finally appeared as Trump an hour into the show, facing off against the judges of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and asking for a reinstatement of the travel ban, as well as $725. It was a routine sketch, briefly enlivened by the appearance of a bare-chested Beck Bennett as President Vladimir Putin of Russia, calling Trump “my little American Happy Meal.”
Bennett also played CNN host Jake Tapper in the Conway sketch, which never quite found its tone and had a queasy edge of sexism, but at least wasn’t boring. Lying in wait for Tapper at his apartment, McKinnon’s Conway writhed and moaned, desperate to get back on TV. (Last week, CNN turned down the offer of an interview with Conway.) When Bennett’s Tapper said, “You’re just going to keep lying,” she replied, “You need to reach inside me and pull out the truth,” before threatening him with a kitchen knife.
The episode’s funnier moments were mostly Trump-free. An amusing sketch in which competing ad agencies pitched a new Cheetos campaign had political overtones but no overt Trump references. A bit in which Kenan Thompson and Tracy Morgan played Beyoncé’s twin sons in the womb was pedestrian, but at least had the pleasurable jolt of seeing Morgan. The best moment of the night was when Baldwin appeared to flub a line, saying “cookie chillout” instead of “chili cookout.”
As Trump’s political fortunes have risen, “Saturday Night Live” has benefited, at least in ratings, from its perceived status as the official television opposition to him and, now, his administration. Based on Saturday’s episode, it will be a hard if not impossible task to keep up for four years, if Trump stays in power that long and keeps making news — and outraging much of the country — at his current rate.