Saturday Night Live is known for an inconsistent standard of quality—across seasons, across decades, and even from episode to episode. Part of this is baked into its conception; executive producer Lorne Michaels was quoted in Tina Fey’s autobiography, Bossypants, as saying “the show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 11:30.” SNL’s 46th season was no stranger to errors in judgment, only some of which can be chalked up to the stranger–than–fiction circumstances of its airtime.
The show, once a paragon of incisive political satire, was faced with a presidential candidate (for the second time) simultaneously more absurd and more deadly serious than anything the writers’ room could caricature. While the season premiere tried to sink its teeth into the first presidential debate, it came out looking relatively toothless.
A few weeks later, SNL welcomed host Issa Rae and chose to utilize her in a sketch that read like a Fox News talking point. Rae's comments, such as how “Black voters will vote for any Black candidate," came off as highly insensitive, especially when set against a backdrop of Black Lives Matter activism. You might argue that Saturday Night Live should stop trying to position itself as countercultural and politically savvy altogether. “Your Voice Chicago” was certainly political, but fell very short on savviness or nuance.
However, paying no attention to current world events and retreating into its own insular world could put Saturday Night Live even more out of touch with its audience. Tellingly, this season’s African sex tourism sketch bore no explicit political intention, but as Complex Networks' Shenequa Golding wrote on Twitter, was still “tone–deaf, insensitive, and inappropriate.” Saturday Night Live foregoing left–leaning political ideology could mean a further descent into "privileged enabling" and capitalizing off a "cult of personality"; this was exemplified by Elon Musk’s performance just this past month.
As a weekly live television event, SNL had to work extra hard when it came to navigating COVID–19 restrictions, but some of the show’s funniest moments stemmed from embracing these circumstances. While programs like Grey’s Anatomy and The Good Doctor dramatized the pandemic, SNL provided the much–needed relief of caricaturing it. Characters like Kate McKinnon’s fortune–teller Madame Vivelda or Chloe Fineman’s nightmare AirBnB guest Ooli perfectly captured the absurdity of lockdown. Now that CDC restrictions are starting to ease up, the atmosphere of relief during the finale was palpable amongst the cast. They had gotten through a year that was “so crazy it made a lot of us crazy.”
Amidst the season’s rocky ups and downs, it was easy to forget that SNL is in a golden age when it comes to the show’s current roster of not–ready–for–primetime players. But seeing Cecily Strong, Aidy Bryant, McKinnon, and Kenan Thompson on the stage of Studio 8H reminded audiences of just how much talent is in this cast. There was a part of me that thought this episode might be our farewell to these four all–stars, but instead, it was a less conclusive kind of victory lap.
If this is the end of Strong’s tenure, for example, it would be hard to imagine a better way for her to go out than her triumphant, Franzia–drenched return to Weekend Update as Jeanine Pirro. The setup of the Mexico–United States Border Crisis was really just an excuse for Strong to submerge herself into a tub of boxed wine while performing Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” splashing Colin Jost from in front of the update desk with superhuman aim. This segment was just one example of how sometimes, SNL is at its most enjoyable when it operates like a sitcom, relying on a rotation of beloved characters and tried–and–true formats.
Take “Lingerie Store,” which falls into the lineage of two–person sketches like “Choir Fashion” or “Apple Picking.” The sketch, taking place at Astrid & Enid’s Brawr Barn (because “bras” are for boobies, “brawrs” are for breasts), tossed off jokes with ease, rattling off names (like "the fortress" or “the load–bearing wall”) which sounded more like scaffolding than undergarments. Instead of McKinnon, who usually features in this type of setup, it was guest host Anya Taylor–Joy who played opposite Bryant who—pardon the pun—brought some much–needed joy to the night’s proceedings. The two also had great chemistry as college panel moderators who take themselves a little too seriously, like asking Bowen Yang’s character “How has being gay and Chinese prevented you from being happy?”
This year’s Saturday Night Live often felt like a goodbye, but that also means saying hello to a new era. That can mean moving on from the pandemic or letting newer cast members move up through the ranks. “Pride Month Song” did both at once, featuring Yang, Punkie Johnson, and other cast members relishing that we even got to deal with the unique struggles and cynicism of LGBTQ pride this year. The episode’s celebration of queerness continued with two performances by Lil Nas X, which would’ve been made a statement by merit of his identity alone, but also sent a clear message through impactful staging choices. The opening number, a fiery performance of “Montero,” showcased a dramatized metamorphosis into a bona fide sex symbol. But, the image that truly lingers is of Lil Nas X performing “Sun Goes Down” in a bright white suit marked with two bullet holes.
Blessedly, instead of one more attempt at skewering the current political climate, Saturday Night Live’s season finale used its cold open as a heartwarming and hilarious capstone for this messy era. Actors recounted stories from the past year, like a member of their first responder audience reading a medical textbook during the show. The cast and crew also acknowledged the spotty episode–to–episode quality. In response to his rhetorical question of “was every sketch perfect?” Kyle Mooney jokingly answered that “yeah, pretty much, we crushed it.” A “look at some of the highlights” was just Elon Musk dancing as Wario. There were mea culpas for the interminable booking saga of Morgan Wallen and the equally interminable Mike Pence fly sketch.
And yet, credit is due to everyone who persevered to ensure that SNL still went on at 11:30 every Saturday night. It's a struggle not to get emotional watching McKinnon brush away her tears, as she says “This was the year we realized we’re more than just a cast; we’re a family.” Despite all of the slip–ups and spottiness of its trajectory, this season of SNL was the best possible representation of a chaotic year. When all of the cast sidles into frame together to announce “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” it feels like a triumphant goodbye to a messy era.