Jay-Z christened Saturday Night Live‘s 43rd season as its musical guest, performing “Bam” while wearing a Colin Kaepernick jersey. He didn’t take a knee in solidarity of the NFL star’s protests, but the telecast otherwise checked most of the liberal outrage boxes.
Enlightened dreamboat Ryan Gosling hosted, pausing to check his privilege in a monologue that made fun of his jazz savior complex from La La Land. (Emma Stone offered a joke-affirming cameo.) He broke character and laughed four times, but coasted by being in on the gag with viewers.
There was Alec Baldwin wearing a golf polo for his Emmy-winning turn as President Donald Trump, complete with a timely bit during the cold open about POTUS’ hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico. He threw in a line about “Despacito” too, that caliente viral hit from Puerto Rican artists Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee. You know, the one that’s been streaming all summer while SNL was on break.
The guest stars defined the show’s Trump-era humor in the spring, but Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer overshadowed the young, revolving cast. Saturday’s season opener showed that SNL is still working in its latest wave of talent, but at least it has Kate McKinnon under contract. Her Attorney General Jeff Sessions—imagined as a doting, aw-shucks lapdog who lives “in the grandfather clock” near the Oval Office—is the first deliciously unhinged impression of the season.
The new faces were fine in bit roles, but no one popped. SNL hired six new writers, plus Heidi Gardner, Luke Null, and Chris Redd as featured players to replace the underrated comedy of Vanessa Bayer, Bobby Moynihan, and Sasheer Zamata. Standby Keenan Thompson, setting a record as the longest-running SNL cast member at 15 seasons, helped shepherd the oddball and fun skits that nowadays pepper the final third of the show. (He’s dynamite whenever he puts on a wig and plays any kind of weirdo musician.)
Gosling shined in skits about falling in love with a chicken, gender-nonconforming Levi’s dubbed “woke jeans,” and a pre-taped video about his disdain for the Papyrus font used in Avatar.
But SNL struggled to find guffaw-worthy humor to match the uncertain, partisan tone of America. The beginning of the Trump administration undoubtedly bolstered comedy back in spring: Ratings reached highs they hadn’t seen in 23 years, and every week brought an iconoclast from Washington with a seemingly built-in catchphrase for the inevitable TV parody. It’s all made SNL crave catharsis through biting truths, but also write chiefly for city slickers who dislike Trump and are plugged-in enough to wink at observational humor about Microsoft Word.
I’m skeptical that the show can retain its urgency.
How does “Weekend Update” riff on presidential tweets when the News Feed has become a singular tragicomedy you’re already conditioned to grapple with on the hour? Why make a joke about Fyre Fest, that poorly organized celebrity music festival for wealthy brats, when we all laughed at in the bygone days of April 2017? Can SNL riff at the speed of internet content?
At least there’s Jay-Z. His blistering and subversive “Bam” performance was vibrant, towering, and revitalized rap’s tired air horn sound effect by blasting it to death at an unsuspecting America. Reggae prince Damian Marley played hypeman, and a Lion of Judah flag from the era of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie waved on-screen.