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Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump on 'SNL' hosts People's Court; Melissa McCarthy returns

Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump on 'SNL'

Alec Baldwin plays President Donald Trump on "Saturday Night Live" on Feb. 11, 2017. (Credit: YouTube / Saturday Night Live)

We fully expected a surprise when Alec Baldwin returned as host of “Saturday Night Live” for a 17th time — not wrong and not long to wait for one either. He didn’t reprise Donald Trump in the cold open and didn’t even mention Trump in his monologue.

Surprise!

Instead, Melissa McCarthy did some reprising of her own — the now-classic Trump press secretary, Sean Spicer — while Baldwin used those precious five-or-so monologue minutes to send up his own record run, with cast member Pete Davidson in the assist role. (Example: After a brief overview of that “SNL” run that began April 21, 1990, Davidson joked, “It’s like someone soaked you in water the last 20 years.”) He later starred in a “Cheetos pitch meeting,” but not in a Kellyanne Conway (Kate McKinnon) skit with Jake Tapper (Beck Bennett) in a “Fatal Attraction” encounter.

All good. All mostly funny, McCarthy especially (this week, the Spicer lectern morphed into a Segway). There was a genuine surprise too, much later in the show, when Tracy Morgan played one of Beyoncé’s (Sasheer Zamata) twins, in utero, alongside Keenan Thompson. Baldwin played the doctor.

But no Trump, or rather “Trump,” at least in the early part of the show. Why? An old Lorne Michaels dictate perhaps: Never give the audience what they expect when they expect it.

To that end, Baldwin’s Trump did arrive later in the show, appearing in “The People’s Court” to adjudicate the decision on the travel ban from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. (Best line: “Mr. Trump, this is a TV court.” Baldwin/Trump: “That’s OK. I’m a TV president.”) But no blood drawn, all fairly tame.

Was Baldwin’s 17th a letdown? For plenty of viewers, certainly, because at some point over the past two months he was no longer just “Alec Baldwin” but “The Guy Who Plays Donald Trump.” That may have been precisely the point Saturday night, for by playing down the latter he could remind viewers of the former. He does have a movie that’s coming out one of these months (“Downsizing,” with Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig). Trump — or his Trump — will not be making a cameo.

That a Baldwin-hosted “SNL” would turn into a TV and cultural event is unusual — there were those 16 others before this one, after all — but that it would also become a political event is a shocker. This may say more about the most comically extravagant administration in modern U.S. history than either Baldwin or “SNL,” and so far, the new president has been very, very good to late-night TV.

As tides go, Trump has lifted just about all boats. “Late Night with Seth Meyers” is doing particularly well while “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” recently won only its second week since Colbert became host in 2015.

But “SNL” has been greatest beneficiary. The show always gets an election-year bump, and through late January was averaging about 7.5 million viewers per episode. That’s hardly a record, even down slightly from the last election cycle. But as in all late-night TV, the real action arrives later in the week, when “SNL” picks up another 4 million streaming viewers. NBC says the “SNL” audience now stands as the biggest in 22 years.

So . . . why? Because late-night TV has become the fifth column of the Trump “oppo,” and whether you like his performance or not (whether Trump does or not) Baldwin is leading the charge.

He’s leader by virtue of his talent, his movies, “30 Rock,” the Emmys, the tabloid battles, the “Words with Friends” and that whole sprawling “fame” thing that makes public figures seem even bigger than they are. But “SNL” and Baldwin together are part of television history, which makes this current run as Trump double so much bigger than even all that. Moreover, Trump as president-elect had tweeted his own blunderbuss critique of Baldwin (nothing yet as POTUS). That makes all this bigger still.

As an “SNL” host, Baldwin is literally without peer. He’s an FOL — “Friend of Lorne” — which means he has proximity to power, and like Steve Martin, he’s also the rare host who created an indelible character. As the other half of the Czech-born Festrunk Brothers, Georg (Dan Aykroyd was Yortuk), Martin may have created the more indelible one, but Baldwin’s Pete Schweddy and his holiday culinary specialties were unforgettable — which is maybe even better (or worse) than “indelible.”

Baldwin was always a good host, and very good performer, something less of an impersonator (Tony Bennett and Robert De Niro were the exceptions.) His Trump isn’t even close to perfect. He may have the jutting lip right, but the voice is all wrong. He may have the hulking slump close to the original, but not the actual physical presence. Trump blows out word clouds that quickly dissipate. Baldwin’s Trump mostly grumps.

Doesn’t matter, and no one cares. Alec Baldwin is now TV’s de facto Trump, the default Trump, the sendup Trump, the “SNL” Trump. The new president may tweet his disapproval, but that only feeds the power of his TV caricature, providing more material.

As Twain said, don’t pick fights with people who buy ink by the barrel, and Trump probably doesn’t want to pick a fight with a franchise that’s 42 years old, survived half a dozen presidents, and is hot as ever — paradoxically thanks to him.

Resistance is futile. Resistance by Baldwin may now be futile too.

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