Having contributed to the “Oh, Donald Trump, he’s such a funny fellow” atmosphere that helped get the Republican nominee elected, Saturday Night Live tried to apologize to America this past weekend. The show commenced with Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton, sitting at a piano, singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” simultaneously a salute to the singer-songwriter who died last week, and turning the song into a dirge for America’s future. Nowhere to be seen: Alec Baldwin’s Trump impersonation. I’d like to say this was because Lorne Michaels had the decency to retire this softball Trump satire, but it’s probably really because Michaels is hoping to rebook Trump as a host sometime soon.
Host Dave Chappelle came out with some strong material about the election, mixed with amusing, barbed jokes (such as a bit about the shooting spree in an Orlando nightclub in June) that sounded as though they may have been well honed in his standup act during the past year.
Nevertheless, Chappelle’s influence was all over the night, and thank goodness for that. His Walking Dead sketch, basically a one-man taped piece with Chappelle playing Negan and all his victims, was an excellent call-back to his Chappelle’s Show glory days. He brought out Chris Rock to deliver a bittersweet election-night sketch in which Chappelle and Rock were grimly amused that a group of white millennials were shocked by Hillary’s loss. (My favorite line — Chappelle to the weepy white-wine sippers: “You’ve got a big day of moping and writing on Facebook tomorrow.”) And Chappelle helped give Leslie Jones the best showcases she’s ever had during her time on SNL.
Certainly among the regular cast, McKinnon was the night’s MVP: Her “Weekend Update” appearance as Ruth Bader Ginsburg — hopped up on Emergen-C and feisty with anti-Trump zingers — was one of the high points of the night. So, a good show, easily the season’s best. In the end, however, one feeling was inescapable: Where was this kind of pointed humor during the campaign? Where were the strong black voices on the show before this night?
Once again, SNL demonstrated that although it traffics in political satire, it never bites down hard on one side or the other, preferring instead to give a gummy kiss to both sides. Then when it’s too late to exert its modest influence on the culture, it tries to pass off 20/20 hindsight as cutting commentary. Sorry: Apology not accepted.
Saturday Night Live airs Saturdays at 11:35 p.m. on NBC.