Review: ‘SNL’ Keeps It Political in Premiere

Last season, Saturday Night Live epitomized the constant criticism that the sketch comedy series can be uneven. While some performances can be the subject of the “water cooler” the next day or even set the internet and social media ablaze, the majority seemed flat and it strained for laughs. In its 41st season premiere, SNL had a bevy of material to tackle, but the weak second half of the show almost ruined the strong opening.

When you have a figure as big as Donald Trump threatening to run the entire country, it’s time for SNL to swoop in and shine with its political humor. Taran Killam has the honor of playing the presidential hopeful, and his impersonation is eerily spot-on. The cold open had Trump and wife Melania (played by Cecily Strong) explaining that his public appearances may have painted Trump in a poor light, and he wanted to give “everyone the chance to get to know the real Donald.” They poke fun at Trump’s insane comments about Megyn Kelly (“She’s talented and beautiful. But she’s a heifer who’s always on her period and I hope she dies”) and they mention how much money they have –“Welcome to our humble gold house,” Melania declares at the top of the sketch.

Killam has Trump down. He pouts and even gesticulates with his mouth like him. Killam is one of the most used current cast members, but his impersonation is pretty awesome. There is enough fodder for SNL to play with for the entirety of the presidential debate, and they have the opportunity to make it as big as Tina Fey as Sarah Palin. Don’t mess it up SNL!

Miley Cyrus clearly raided Phyllis Diller’s garage sale to find the right shower curtain to wear for the opening monologue. I’ve complained that SNL has too many hosts singing for their opening, but Cyrus crooning Sinatra’s “My Way” as a tribute to those we will never hear from again is pretty fun. Vanessa Bayer got to throw on a Rachel Dolezal wig, and Aidy Bryant had the audience applauding with her trembling Kim Davis.

SNL kept the political commentary coming with a short commercial for Abilify for People Who Think They Can Be President. The Republican Party has well over 10 hopefuls, and I will laugh at anything that pokes fun at Rick Santorum’s serious bids for any higher office.

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SNL introduced its new cast member, Jon Rudnitsky, in a quick spoof on 1950’s sock hops. Taran Killam, Kyle Mooney, and Rudnitsky all see a girl they want to dance with at the high school dance, but the new guy gets more than he bargained for with Miley Cyrus. Cecily Strong and Kate McKinnon sing chaste responses to their new beaus, but Cyrus busts out a hardcore rap. Guess you aren’t really initiated to SNL until a musical guest/host lathers your face up with whip creams and licks it off, right?

It was only a matter of time. Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton is down on her luck and enjoying a scalding hot vodka when the bartender, Val, lends Clinton her listening ear. Did I mention that Val is played by the actual Hillary Rodham Clinton? The crowd went nuts when she appeared, and the writers joked about Clinton taking her time to speak out against the Keystone Pipeline and rally in favor of gay marriage (“could have done it sooner,” she laments to Val). Clinton seemed rather at ease on the stage and not as stiff as one might expect. Get that younger demographic, Hillary!

Here’s the quality turning point of the episode. Head writer Colin Jost and the underused Michael Che make jokes about Joe Biden and Lemony Snicket’s Planned Parenthood donation. Kim Davis is called a homophobic Forrest Gump. The groaning begins with Kyle Mooney wheels out as Pope Francis to recap his trip to the United States. Mooney sounds like a cross between Borat and a pizza proprietor, and the stint is designed to make Francis look like an overreaching, out-of-touch figure. It fails. Mooney doesn’t even seem to buy it with his unenthusiastic chest thumping. Later on, Leslie Jones appears to dole out advice on texting with the opposite sex. Jones is always great with her aggressive delivery, but does anyone buy her lust for golden boy Colin Jost? I sure don’t. The best appearance is from Pete Davidson, but that might be because he never feels like he’s forcing anything. He compares Donald Trump’s possible presidency to Sanjaya winning American Idol—we all think it’s a joke, and then it’s up to the terrified young people to stop it before it becomes a reality.

Since I’m an old man, I thought the commercial for the FOX drama The Millennials was funny. McKinnon plays a girl who has been at a job for 3 days and she demands a promotion—no, she deserves one. Cyrus and resident young person Pete Davidson also work in the office, and all the young people can’t do anything without their fingers constantly texting.

The sketches begin to get strange when Cyrus, Strong, Jones and Vaness Bayer visit the famous deli where Meg Ryan faked an orgasm for Billy Crystal in the beloved romantic comedy When Harry Met with Sally… The women take turns faking it, but Jones makes it awkward with her loud and unusual orgasm. Apparently, she does it in public places and the condom always breaks. I’m starting to worry for Jones’ vocal chords, because they only let her scream all of her lines.

SNL continues its awkward relationship with race in this PBS spoof on late night talk shows. Late night has been called out for its lack of diversity, and the network presents an “uncovered” episode of Too Late with Ruby Nichols, featuring Leslie Jones as a host who has to overcome racism. In her opening monologue Nichols says, “They wouldn’t let me into the theater to the premiere of Vertigo. They wouldn’t even let me in the front door of this theater and it’s my show!” When it comes to an interview between Nichols and Hayley Mills, they show a clip of Mills in an uncomfortable show. And then the sketch…just…ends. It was incomplete and strange.

Back in 2013, Bobby Moynihan and Beck Bennett discovered that Kyle Mooney made a sex tape with Cyrus. The final skit involved with Moynihan and Bennett walking in on Mooney and Cyrus getting hitched in a dressing room. Mooney immediately freaks out and questions whether he wants to go through with the ceremony. Every time he opens the door to the dressing room, it seems that time has flashed forward and he watches his life flash before his eyes. A man fearing commitment and questioning his decision to raise a family isn’t original, but the ridiculousness of it all it kind of amusing. It’s not a strong ending, but at least the end wasn’t one of the previous sketches from the second half.

If Saturday Night Live would have focused entirely on the politics, it would have been a stronger episode. It’s a good start, but it’s disappointing that the second half didn’t live up to the front end. Would it have been better if the show recapped the silly events of summer?

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