The opening sketch of Saturday Night Live’s 43rd season finale epitomized the show’s direction this year. It was chock-full of celebrity guests, with Alec Baldwin in his usual role as Donald Trump, Ben Stiller as the president’s beleaguered attorney Michael Cohen, and Robert De Niro as a watchful, stone-faced Robert Mueller. It wasn’t laugh-out-loud funny, mostly just referencing the news of the week and expecting an audience reaction, but there were cute little moments that stood out, like the exaggerated, reptilian hand gestures that went into Kate McKinnon’s performance as Rudy Giuliani.
Despite the general mediocrity of the joke-writing, the sketch was elegiac almost by default, thanks to the piece of pop culture it was satirizing—the mournful, tense, famously baffling final scene of The Sopranos. Trump was the Tony Soprano analog, constantly looking over his shoulder for trouble approaching. Mueller was the man in the Members Only jacket, lurking in the background, a possible end to a story that has dragged on and on and on and on (as the refrain in Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” goes). Before we found out what happens, things cut to black; only this time, the lights turned back on for the cast to yell, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!”
The Mueller probe probably isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and neither is Saturday Night Live’s dependence on Donald Trump sketches to buoy its ratings. Only a few years ago, the opening sketch was often something as surreal and apolitical as a Lawrence Welk Show spoof; now, it’s almost always centered on politics. But Baldwin, who has called his Trump impression “agony” and mused about leaving his recurring SNL role on many occasions, might finally hang up his orange wig, giving the program a chance to move on from the many special guests that have come to define its recent seasons.
Since the departure of its prior core group of stars (the last of whom, Seth Meyers, departed midway through Season 39), SNL has struggled to build a major identity around its newer ensemble. McKinnon, the show’s one bona-fide star, and Kenan Thompson, its longest-running cast member, are two hall-of-famers. Everyone else is a mix of solid but unspectacular performers, some of whom (like Aidy Bryant and Cecily Strong) have been with the show for six years without ever quite making it their own.
Instead, producer Lorne Michaels has become more reliant on tapping his deep network of celebrity friends and famous SNL alumni for splashy, topical roles. In the age of YouTube (where SNL has almost six million subscribers), those are the sketches that tend to rise to the top of the next-day recaps, though the show’s TV ratings have also remained strong after a spike following the 2016 election. It almost doesn’t matter that SNL’s political humor has been toothless of late, with Baldwin’s once-fearsome Trump performance now feeling little more than creaky.
The season finale, hosted by famed SNL alum Tina Fey, tried to poke fun at the common “too many celebrity cameos” complaint in a monologue where she fielded questions from the likes of De Niro, Jerry Seinfeld, and Donald Glover. Maybe that’s an acknowledgement from Michaels that things will get scaled back next year; perhaps it’s just a wink at the audience. A radical revamping of SNL in the offseason wouldn’t be shocking, since that’s long been a regular part of the show’s decades-long life cycle. But it’s just as likely that things will plod along as they are, at least for another year.
After all, the ratings are still fine. McKinnon (who joined in 2012) could stick around for one last swan song of a season. The show’s Weekend Update hosts, Michael Che and Colin Jost, have never received the acclaim of predecessors like Fey, Meyers, and Amy Poehler, but they’re still hosting the 2018 Emmys. On paper, SNL is chugging along nicely. But so much of its 43rd season was staid and clumsy, and faced many of the same issues as the 41st and 42nd; beyond the growing staleness of its Trump material, SNL struggled to really address some of the biggest news stories of the year, especially the #MeToo movement.
The standout moments were mostly surreal one-offs, starting with the incredible “Papyrus” short film in Ryan Gosling’s episode. “Papyrus” was written by one of the show’s brightest talents, Julio Torres, but it certainly occupied a specific lane. The same went for “Sitcom Reboot” and “Diner Lobster,” both from John Mulaney’s episode, or the Lil Pump parody “Tucci Gang”; they were idiosyncratic entries that came later in the show, cult hits better designed to be passed around in the days after airing.
One of the season’s strongest all-around episodes was hosted by Glover, a veteran sketch performer and writer who auditioned for SNL years ago and wrote with Fey on 30 Rock before blazing his own path. Glover’s specific interests were apparent in plenty of that night’s sketches, particularly with the dead-on Migos parody and “’80s Music Video,” and his influence would be tough for the show to replicate week to week.
But there’s a lesson to be learned from Glover’s episode: Its distinctiveness is what made it work, and helped so many of its sketches travel online in the days following. More often than not, SNL succeeds when its cast members and writers build up recognizable brands of humor that can recur throughout the show. That’s never been true for much of SNL’s current cast, partly because they’re not given enough air time to define themselves onscreen, and some of the longer-serving veterans may have missed their chance to do so entirely. It’s a problem the show knows that it has—and a mistake it should steer clear of when it begins its next rebuild around newer stars.