With Saturday’s Kevin Hart-hosted 2017 wrap, “Saturday Night Live” has just reached the end of the year, and just about the midway mark of the 43rd season. If there’s a consensus we can all agree upon, it probably would be this: It’s not the 42nd season.
Not by any stretch. The 42nd was beneficiary of a made-for-TV comedy — the election. The 43rd has been saddled with the aftermath. The 42nd had Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton. The 43rd has her Jeff Sessions. (The difference is hardly negligible.) The 42nd had Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump as candidate and president-elect by this point in the season. The 43rd has his president. (That’s not negligible either.)
The 42nd had great material, while the 43rd is grappling with the hangover. The 42nd had energy, passion, anger and a pervasive sense that the world had gone mad. The 43rd is tentative, inconsistent, sometimes funny, more often not, and is suffused with a sense that the world is mad and (well) there’s not much anyone can do about that.
Postelection slumps are an honored part of the “SNL” tradition, and in fact, so honored that they’re almost a curse. Take the seventh season in 1981: That was the year a new boss came in, along with a mostly new and forgettable cast, and then it was shut down by a writer’s strike. Take the 19th season in 1993. That’s the season after Dana Carvey, Chris Rock and Robert Smigel quit. The 23rd season, which began in 1997 — how can we forget? — was the season Norm MacDonald was fired over O.J. Simpson jokes, then later, former cast members Chris Farley and Phil Hartman died. The 31st season in 2005 was the end of Tina Fey’s run. Darrell Hammond quit before the start of the 35th season in 2009.
The 27th season was immediately preceded by 9/11 — then NBC was racked by an anthrax scare.
Either due to coincidence, tragedy, happenstance, or the end of contracts, there is a colorful history here, but one that also occasionally speaks directly to the problem that has beset the 43rd. “SNL” traditionally has been strongest on election years, traditionally weakest the following ones. So far, this one’s no different, but it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why. Baldwin’s Trump, for example, is still the same, but not the same: more predictable, less cutting. He’s appeared in fully half the cold opens, including last night’s, but not one as memorable as the one that closed out 2016, when John Goodman made a cameo as Rex Tillerson. Beck Bennett’s Vladimir Putin is a show classic, but Bennett as anyone else really isn’t. He played Vice President Mike Pence last night, but take off the suit and tie, and he’s still “Putty.”
McKinnon was and remains “SNL’s” most valuable player, but her Sessions is a mean, sour homunculus. Reprising Kellyanne Conway again last night during the “White House Tree Trimming” cold open, she reminded viewers of one of her standout impressions, but of course Conway probably won’t be back anytime soon. Asked what she wanted for Christmas, she replied: “I want out.”
“SNL” sometimes has seemed overwhelmed by the Trump presidency, as if there’s almost too much material. There almost is. Then there’s the rest of history unfolding before it, and at lightning speed. Along with the rest of the world, “SNL” also has struggled with how to make sense — or at least fun — of the sexual harassment tsunami, which even took out one of its own, Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota. A few weeks ago there was a terrific digital short that captured a sense of the horror and absurdity of male predation. Last week, there were a few lame, misguided jabs at the subject, while last night, the show effectively conceded the fight.
Can “SNL” get back on track in 2018? Sure, why not? The season is only half-over. The Trump presidency isn’t going anywhere, and neither is sexual harassment. There’s time for “SNL” to figure this stuff out, and get funny again — also time to figure out how to break the curse.
The problem is, time moves awfully fast.