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‘SNL’ struggles with return after extended break

Alec Baldwin, back as President Donald Trump, crams as much as he can in cold open’s six minutes just days after saying it’s “agony” to play the role.

Beck Bennett as Vice President Mike Pence, Alec

Beck Bennett as Vice President Mike Pence, Alec Baldwin as President Donald Trump, Kate McKinnon as Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Cecily Strong as Sen. Dianne Feinstein during "Saturday Night Live" on March 3, 2018. Photo Credit: NBC / Will Heath

Agony or not, Alec Baldwin returned as POTUS on “Saturday Night Live” in a scatter-shot cold open that took on guns, school safety, Hope Hicks, Jared Kushner, Jeff Sessions, Waffle Houses and whatever else the writers could cram into six minutes. In others, “SNL” — back after four weeks — had a whole lot of catching up to do.

There were even some good lines:

“I said I was going to run this country like a business,” said Baldwin/Trump. “That business is a Waffle House at 2 a.m. Crazies everywhere, staff walking out in the middle of their shift, managers taking money out of the cash register to pay off the Russian mob.”

Of Dianne Feinstein (Cecily Strong:): “She’s looking at me like a cartoon pork chop.”

Or: “They’re all beating us — China, Japan, Wakanda . . .” Kate McKinnon’s Jeff Sessions closed out the open, suddenly appearing over Baldwin like a shoulder troll.

But hey, if it’s agony, why keep doing this? (In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter last week promoting his new ABC talk show — bowing, incidentally Sunday after the Oscars — he called the impression “agony.”)

Because “SNL” and Baldwin are now the culture’s equivalent of a runaway train, and if a wheel pops off now and then, or it leans into a curve just a little too sharply, then that’s the price they must pay for such psychic pain. It’s “agony” because Baldwin knows he can’t leave, and “SNL” can’t have him leave. After a month in the cooler, “SNL” needed to come back hot, and got the requisite heat last week when the president himself tweeted that “Alex Baldwin’s” impression of him is “terrible,” and that “Darrell Hammond should come back.” Whether Trump’s assessment is right or wrong, he thus becomes the only president in history who specifically requested a star to ridicule him. Makes sense, under the circumstances, but as “SNL” — especially Lorne Michaels knows — such publicity is the magic hand that moves the needle. Once again, the president inadvertently provided the magic hand.

And you really can’t make this up.

How was the rest of the show? “SNL” always struggles after extended breaks, and last night was no exception. “SNL” needs the sleepless nights and the crazy deadlines and the sense that everything could and likely will implode at the last minute to forge something memorable and funny. Time spent on the bench is time wasted. Last night was only OK.

The opening sketch, “The Grabbies,” was a great idea in principal: an awards show where the Grabby (a pair of eagerly reaching hands) is given to the skeeviest actor. But it lingered (and lingered), and ultimately felt too perverse.

At least the Grabbys sketch did perhaps establish one unassailable point — there’s nothing remotely funny about sexual harassment. Never was, and never will be.

The best bit of the entire Charles Barkley-hosted edition featured Barkley in an “SNL” commercial for a product called “Ned’s Roach Away” — a slyboots rip of the NRA, with its mob of roaches armed with AR-15s. It was both repulsive and deeply disturbing — which was exactly the whole point.

Oh, why Barkley, you ask? As a friend of Michaels, he’s always a good host. He’s reliable, up for anything, learns his lines, and is about as versatile a host as any former NBA star could possibly be. He was in every sketch last night, or almost every one, and didn’t miss a beat. (Alex Rodriguez made a surprise appearance too, by the way, and his beats looked a little off.)

So: “SNL’s” back, Baldwin’s POTUS too, and now, let’s all get set for the rest of the season. “SNL” has its work cut out. Mostly it still has to prove that those 22 Emmy nominations last year — and nine wins, mostly deserved — weren’t a fluke. There’s still time. Just not a lot of it.

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