Saturday came and went, with a national women’s march, festering reports about the president and a porn star, and — incidentally — a government on ice. In other words, “Saturday Night Live” had material. It just didn’t have much of a clue what to do with it.
You win some, you lose some. “SNL” lost this one.
Except for one skit, even Jessica Chastain was largely squandered as host. A late-in-show taped skit, “Doctor’s Orders” — about a doctor smitten with Pete Davidson — was inadvisable, to be polite. An early skit, “Car Hunk,” was an easy score on “The Bachelor” (but aren’t they all?) A “Google Talk” skit revolved around one joke — the guy who looked like Bart Simpson (Mikey Day). A digital short about a radically re-imagined “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” embraced the Chastain of popular imagination, as tough and hardened female protagonist. The rest of her skits played against type.
In fact, by reputation alone — by the roles she’s assumed, along with the awards and acclaim she’s received — Chastain might as well be one of Hollywood’s unofficial leaders of the Times Up movement. The “Zero Dark Thirty” actress embodies the credo, lives by it and certainly acts by it. A vast march up Sixth Avenue and Central Park West Saturday was a tribute to public figures such as Chastain, who certainly aren’t gonna take it anymore — and in her case, never have.
So what happened, then, on an edition that should have reminded viewers of all this, celebrated all this, and reinforced it all, too? Not much, as it turned out. She was perfectly good (she always is), just not dynamite. “SNL” doesn’t seem to get it: This show has to be explosive every week, has to take the world by the scruff of its collar and tell that world just why A) it remains the single most important program on late night TV, and the most important comic interpreter of our world; and B) that it can still make us laugh.
Plus, when you have an actor of Chastain’s magnitude as host, remind the world that women can rule, and one day will rule. She rules, after all. (But that sketch about a doctor who swooned over Pete? Please.) Her opening monologue was fine — a cast singalong that attempted an anthem to #Metoo — but it felt almost lukewarm, not quite convinced of the sentiment espoused: “You don’t own me, don’t try to change me . . . don’t tie me down cuz I’d never stay . . . ”
The best skit was the one that speaks directly to “SNL’s” predicament and the predicament of so much topical political comedy at the moment. “What Even Matters Anymore” cast Chastain as an increasingly deranged talk-show host who asked contestants whether what President Donald Trump does or says “even matters anymore.”
“Does it even matter when the president says ‘all Haitians have AIDS’? Or “has a relationship with a porn star?’ ”
“Does it even answer to his evangelical base?”
She answers her own question.
“There are zero consequences.”
The best skit of the night reminded everyone, and “SNL’s” writers too, that comedy thrives on actions with consequences. For something to be funny, there has to be a baseline that everyone can agree upon, or that everyone assumes to be the point beyond which is the point of no return. When a president calls African countries an epithet, then that’s material — except when there’s no baseline. There was no apology for the remarks, no remorse, no apparent anger from the “base,” not even a raised eyebrow.
Late night TV has been getting this stuff on a daily basis for a year, but without that baseline, or without consequences, one day — or one comment, or tweet, or action — melts into the other, then into the ether. Without consequences, comedy is screaming into a gale-force headwind.
“What Even Matters Anymore” was best of night because you now understand “SNL’s” existential plight. Without any consequences, satire shrivels because satire is about results. With this administration, those may be impossible to achieve.