It’s hard to remember these days, but there was a period in American history when former Saturday Night Live host Donald Trump would spend a week or so doing unspeakably awful things to the country, and then on Saturday his one-time castmates and a crew of celebrity ringers would dress up in silly costumes in a misguided attempt to help the nation process its trauma. This week, the show returned to those glory days (minus the celebrities), with a cold open that dealt with Trump’s acquittal, starring Kate McKinnon and a lot of makeup as Lindsey Graham, Aidy Bryant and a lot of makeup as Ted Cruz, and Beck Bennett and a lot of makeup as Mitch McConnell. The results were not great:
The “stunt-cast a female SNL star as a male Trump crony” trick worked spectacularly back when it was Melissa McCarthy and Sean Spicer, but that was four years and several lifetimes ago. Take a look at that ancient sketch again, though, and it becomes clear this week’s dull cold open isn’t just an example of SNL wearing out an old bit:
Melissa McCarthy is ridiculously funny, and back in 2017 it was still surprising to see SNL have a woman play a male political figure, but there are two other factors that made that sketch work where this week’s did not. First, in sharp contrast to the cast-of-thousands approach SNL adopted by the end of the Trump administration, the 2017 cold open stays focused on Sean Spicer and (briefly) Betsy DeVos, and it only really has one point to make about each of them: Spicer was absurdly hostile to the press during his first press briefing; DeVos was absurdly unprepared at her confirmation hearing. This week’s cold open, on the other hand, has so much to say about so many people that it ends up not saying much at all. The second thing that’s changed since 2017 is more fundamental, and probably can’t be fixed in the writers’ room. That first press conference was weird, provoking nervous “is this really happening?” laughter from anyone who saw it. SNL’s version played as well as it did in part because it confirmed to people how unbelievably strange, craven, corrupt, and stupid the Trump administration was, at a time when much of the public still expected the more civilized depravity of George W. Bush. Nearly half a million deaths later, we’ve all gotten so used to living in a failed state that there’s not much catharsis to be had when a comedian points out that Ted Cruz is a coward. We know, and we also know it doesn’t make any difference. No matter which politician SNL makes fun of on any given week, the joke is gonna be on us.