In just a few short weeks, Saturday Night Live has become perhaps the single most vital show on TV. After a rocky start to its 42nd season, every new episode feels like an urgent must-watch. With a president who’s both hosted the show twice and who’s on record, repeatedly, as deploring its portrayal of him, the show is inevitably tied to the news cycle. What’s new is how nimbly the show has learned to use that entanglement to its advantage.
This Saturday, Alec Baldwin, currently the resident impersonator of President Donald Trump, will host. Presumably, it’ll be more full than usual of political humor at the president’s expense. This, like many recent decisions, seems carefully calibrated to needle the chief executive. Last week’s masterful sketch in which Melissa McCarthy disassembled White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer suggested Trump was watching, and made a series of delicately chosen decisions (the first being the casting of McCarthy, the world’s greatest living physical comic) to represent Spicer as oafish and unseemly.
SNL has come a long way in a short time. I’ve written before about its seeming confusion at how to move forward after an election its writers seemed to presume Hillary Clinton would win. The show treated the loss as a tragedy, but thanks to its legacy as an institution intended for a mass audience, wouldn’t or couldn’t express why. The show also seemed, for a time, to fundamentally misunderstand various people in the Trump orbit. For example, Kellyanne Conway was characterized as a frustrated do-gooder cleaning up Trump’s messes, when she in fact has the tendency to catalyze controversy.