Since taking several post-election weeks off, following a record-setting six live shows in a row, Saturday Night Live has been in a period of relative calm. Things seem back to normal even: They’re two shows into their usual three-show December lineup; the set was decorated for the holidays this week; and next weekend sees another alum-hosted episode — an unofficial pre-Christmas tradition. What’s more, Jim Carrey, Alec Baldwin, and Maya Rudolph have been MIA for two weeks in a row, and those labored debate sketches are a thing of the past. In a sense, SNL has felt almost like comfort food.
In lieu of room-temperature political takes, the show has re-shifted its focus over the last two episodes to the ensuing pandemic. It’s an understandable pivot, seeing how December has seen some of the largest spikes across the country, and it’s one that more or less picks up where the show left off back in spring. (You know, back when they retooled the entire program with remote, anxiety-fueled solo showcases.) Now that production appears back to normal (sort of) — there have certainly been some sketchy workarounds (smaller and paid audiences, for one) — it’s intriguing to see their narrative on the pandemic continue.
To its credit, SNL certainly isn’t shying away from it. Last night’s cold open featured Dr. Anthony Fauci (played by Kate McKinnon), while the first proper sketch was a high-concept number about a “Rona Christmas”, with a family of coronavirus particles reuniting for the holidays. The latter sketch’s execution was refreshingly old-fashioned: silly costumes, lots of puns, no real character work beyond last night’s host, Timothée Chalamet, playing a rebellious virus threatening to vaccinate himself. The jokes were half-amusing, half-amusingly corny in their attempt to mitigate a sense of terror or despair.
This tone was more successfully (and satirically) deployed in a sketch where Cecily Strong and Bowen Yang played cabaret singers trying to make the best of a mid-pandemic show at a hastily reopened venue, masquerading as a restaurant in order to circumvent public-gathering regulations. It’s a shame that Timothée Chalamet didn’t have anything quite so delightful; his gameness was used instead on “Tiny Horse”, an absurdist music video about a farmer’s son saying goodbye to his favorite animal (solid Julio Torres imitation), and a bit where he played a one-hit SoundCloud rapper (why now?).
If much of the episode felt even more like business as usual, that’s part of the weird hybrid SNL has wound up with as it re-emerges from the election madness. It simultaneously provides the uneasy spectacle of mounting a live comedy show during a pandemic, where guests as big as Bruce Springsteen still show up in person (even as some cast members seem to occasionally demur), comic catharsis comes from making jokes about our terrible situation, and hit-to-miss ratio of sketches remains about the same as it ever was.
For these roiling contradictions personified, look no further than beloved showcase cast member Kate McKinnon.
At the top of this week’s show, she was playing Fauci as a modest hero, contrasted with Heidi Gardner’s ridiculous Dr. Deborah Birx. Then on Weekend Update, she gave another medical character, Dr. Wenowdis, a second go-round. If you missed it back in October, the routine involves McKinnon, barely costumed and ambiguously accented, repeating variations on the phrase “we know this” as Update anchor Colin Jost peppers her with pandemic-related questions, culminating with McKinnon breaking character and revealing her genuine anxiety about the myriad unknowns of daily life.
That this routine is tremendously unfunny is almost beside the point. (But also, yikes. It really isn’t funny.) McKinnon is a cast member who can seemingly get almost any character on the air; she’s talented, beloved, and, at this point, any more seasons she remains with the show will probably be met with gratitude. So, there’s meaning in the fact that she chooses to half-ass this shticky character, then abandons it to tell us how she really feels: scared, worried, uncomforted.
At the same time, the vulnerability feels compromised when the bit gets repeated, beat for beat, two months after it debuted. McKinnon doubtless still feels those feelings, but the show wants the easy laughs of her mugging through an inane catchphrase. Candor, unease, and hackiness: They’re all wrapped up in what is now on its way to becoming one of the all-time worst recurring characters in the show’s history.
In a way, Saturday Night Live has become one of the most honest shows on television: It’s going through the pantomime of routine, sometimes quite successfully, while cracking some rueful yet half-optimistic jokes and quietly desperate to get back to a regular life that may no longer be possible.