Kate McKinnon, Cecily Strong, Leslie Jones, Tina Fey, John Goodman, Fred Armisen, Aidy Bryant
Screenshot: Saturday Night Live

“Shut it down.”

Since Saturday Night Live is, indeed, shutting it down for the 43rd time, perhaps you’ll indulge me for a bit. As someone currently watching and reviewing two separate, ridiculously long-running TV comedy institutions (watch for The Simpsons finale review tomorrow, kids!), I’ll admit to occasional bouts of apology fatigue. After all, both shows are—without exaggeration—two of the foundation stones of modern American comedy, not to mention my own sense of what TV comedy is. Or, being a child of TV, what comedy is, full stop. With 72 seasons of comedy behind them, both series have to contend with their own legacies, plus their audiences’ passionate love-hate allegiance, which, one imagines, is fucking exhausting.

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On The Simpsons (now the longest-running scripted TV series ever, for better or worse), the “not what it used to be” sniping might be more excusable after yet another dispiriting season of wafer-thin self-imitation and effortful flailing. After all, as rewritable as that show’s continuity is, it still operates on a continuum that must at least be acknowledged. SNL, conversely, is, in theory, eternally renewable. A 90-minute creative blank check is a daunting and exhilarating opportunity, a weekly canvas for a group of talented, diverse, adrenalized-by-pressure comedy pros to do whatever the hell they want to do. God knows there’s an even greater superfluity of rich, earthy, real world bullshit to work with these days. Apart from that, though, that’s 90 minutes of airtime to fill with—standards and practices aside—anything funny. Unlike some other shows we may have been talking about, there’s no reason why that funny isn’t eternally energized with the influx of ever-changing and maturing talent attracted to SNL’s storied stages. And that means there’s no excuse for SNL to be as stodgy and self-referentially lifeless as it was in this last episode of season 43.

Tina Fey is Saturday Night Live royalty. Hell, she’s TV royalty, comedy royalty—Fey is the queen of all she surveys. (Throw in Broadway now, while you’re toting up her accomplishments.) As self-deprecating as she is whenever she talks about her lack of performing chops (as seen in her best-selling autobiography—dammit, there’s another accomplishment), Fey has built up the sort of comedic acting resumé that even she can’t brush off at this point. And, sure, Fey was never going to be the most versatile sketch performer SNL has ever seen. She donned a couple of capable accents tonight, and exuded the sort of hard-working professionalism that, in conjunction with her well-earned audience goodwill, allowed her to anchor what turned out to be a serviceable episode of televised live comedy.

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But that’s all this season finale was, and—again, if you’ll indulge the format-busting here at the finish line—it’s worth analyzing why. Especially since the weaknesses and pitfalls that dragged this last episode down to the resoundingly dead-center-average grade I’m giving it plagued most of this season entire.

Fey’s monologue saw her claiming her rights as queen to do whatever she wanted—which turned out to be the sort of guest star-packed, cameo-happy Q&A bit that the show wheels out, what, a half-dozen times a season? You know, only more so, as Fey called on [deep breath]: Jerry Seinfeld, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Rock, Donald Glover, Robert DeNiro, Anne Hathaway, Fred Armisen, and Tracy Morgan for some crowd-pleasing, drive-by jokes. The centerpiece of the bit was the celebs’ recurring question whether all these celebrity cameos of former SNL hosts, cast, and Lorne’s friends detract from the show’s ability to develop the current cast as a troupe, with Armisen especially doing his thing by stretching his elaborate query out interminably to talk of his favorite juice bar. Everyone in the piece was fine—except for DeNiro, who remains the absolute pits at live comedy. Two-weeks-ago host Glover was great deadpanning about his lost hat, and Tracy was Tracy. (It was genuinely sweet to see him plant a kiss on longtime co-star/boss Fey’s cheek at the end of the monologue.)

But winkingly calling out a major problem with the last few years is still perpetuating that problem. The cold open saw Alec Badlwin’s Trump reenacting the series finale of The Sopranos in a diner (“Don’t Stop Believin’” on the jukebox and all), which is at least a weirder approach than having Baldwin’s Trump stand at a podium and restate all the imbecilic and/or heinous crap Trump’s done that week in a funny voice. But the sketch plays out limply (the cut to black ending is undercut by a big group “Live From New York” after a few noncommittal seconds of blank screen). And the group in question (Kate McKinnon’s Giuliani, Ben Stiller’s Michael Cohen, Mikey Day and Alex Moffat’s Don Jr. and Eric) all get in their one line before DeNiro’s Robert Mueller walks in like that indefinably menacing guy in the Members Only jacket that spooked Tony Soprano while he ate his onion rings with his family. Again, weird concept, which was appreciated. But the conceit that DeNiro’s Mueller seemingly only appears to Trump gives way to DeNiro making his Meet The Parents/Fockers/Smuckers/whatever “I’ve got my eyes on you” gesture before the blackout gracelessly and hesitantly comes down.

A later sketch brings back Fey’s famous Sarah Palin—for a musical number set to A Chorus Line’s “What I Did For Love.” Surrounded by a gathering army of Trump enablers/apologists (including the visiting John Goodman’s Rex Tillerson) all singing their own Trump-ified versions of the lyrics, Fey’s reprise of her most popular (if-post cast member) character turned into a watery approximation of something Aaron Sorkin would have thought was a real killer on his tone-deaf, Gilbert and Sullivan-lovin’ Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip. Again, it’s cute, it’s fine, it’s creaky, and it’s forgettable.

But, I said we were going to look at the whys, and there it’s hard not to blame the man with his hand still serenely on the tiller. Enough’s been written about the inner workings of Saturday Night Live to fill a medium-sized bookshelf (trust me), and, as much as there’s been a gradual decentralization of power over the decades, SNL is still informed by Lorne Michaels’ sensibilities. Much is rightly made of SNL’s sluggish, stately, cruise ship-like efforts to steer away from its overwhelmingly male, white, middlebrow sensibilities, but it’s impossible to say that the show and Michaels haven’t made the effort to expand the comic voices on the show, both on- and off-camera. It ain’t where it could be, but this incarnation of the show is about as diverse as it’s been, well, ever. By sheer dint of talent, Kate McKinnon, Cecily Strong, Aidy Bryant, Kenan Thompson, Michael Che, and Leslie Jones have, in their individual ways, put their stamp on the show. (See the stray observations for this year’s Most/Least Valuable Not Ready For Prime Time Player tally for proof.)

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But how many goddamned talk shows? How many game shows? How many newscasts? How many guest star drop-ins per episode this season? I’m wiling to guess the ratio is the highest its been on the last count, complete with the plummiest role on the show going to ringer Alec Baldwin for the last two years. (With no end in sight, the actual Robert Mueller’s efforts notwithstanding.) If SNL is to coast on its reputation and drawing power to pad out each successive, record-breaking season with F.O.L. (friends of Lorne) rather than—as Fey joked on the square—buckling down to develop its repertory cast and strive after more original material, so be it. The ratings are good. Baldwin’s mediocre, cheap-seats Trump no doubt still sends the actual Donald Trump into a tizzy. And there are the occasional bursts of lunatic near-genius to please those comedy snobs who crave such things over yet another Family Feud sketch filled with brief, pedestrian celebrity impressions. (See the interminably dull royal wedding sketch tonight, where Pete Davidson’s Russel Brand was introduced, laughed a few times sort of like Brand, and then disappeared.)

Update remains solid, with now co-head writers (out of four) Colin Jost and Che each spinning the week’s Trump news according to their own finely honed styles. But, as B/B-plus as Update consistently clocks in these days, the venerable fake news segment exists in isolation from the rest of the show’s political material.

Which, as noted, has become the “Alec Baldwin wins an Emmy for reading off awful things Trump’s done while making funny faces” showcase. The show’s done consistently better when doing Trump without Trump, although tonight’s Morning Joe sketch was more about making fun of the self-congratulatory head shaking and canoodling from married hosts Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough than anything approaching trenchant satire. Since we’re signing off for the season, I’ll just say it one last time—SNL doesn’t have to be the comedy standard bearer for late-night political satire. But it’s taking up the standard and waving it lazily in Trump’s face. Sure, it might provoke a Twitter charge from the bullshitter-in-chief, but every week there’s the sense of valuable opportunities squandered.

There were laughs tonight, because there are always laughs. SNL’s best stuff can traditionally be found after the Trump wig and Kardashian jokes have been put away, when a premise-driven, writer’s sketch sneaks into the mix. Tonight, Fey and Beck Bennett made a good doubles’ team in the Dateline sketch, with Fey’s imperious host and Bennett’s hooker-seeking creep both getting caught up in the show biz side of gotcha journalism. (Bennett’s perp, asked to give three readings for his excuse for showing up with beer, condoms, and cookies, tosses in one in a British accent to mix things up.)

Kenan remains the show’s glue, his genial charisma buoying everything he’s in. As the beleaguered principal riding herd over an unimpressive high school talent show, he can’t help but muse aloud over how his affair with Fey’s school mom and “PTA majority whip” has taken over his life.

And sneaky good Alex Moffat’s return as the childishly guileless Eric Trump (here goggling in wonder at brother Don’s demonstration of his Play-Doh Fun Factory) remains a singularly funny, improbably endearing piece of comic character assassination.

The last sketch of the season (a filmed piece) saw Fey returning to her Chicago improv roots for a clever, well-mounted ad for Dick Wolf’s newest Windy City TV franchise, “Chicago Improv.” The confused reviewer testimonials gag always works (although I might be projecting), with the ad’s voiceover guy reading off quotes like, “‘Too much improv,’ says Improv Magazine,” and the sketch peppered with enough super-specific improv jargon (“Oh yeah, ’cause all of your sweep edits were perfectly timed!”) to give the piece weight.

Saturday Night Live is and has always been a hit-and-miss affair. The joke is that people have been saying “not as good as it used to be” starting back around season 1, episode 3. But inconsistency on a live, 90-minute sketch show put together every week is a feature of the enjoyment. Seeing a ragged, half-formed piece sparking with a fully realized characterization, or a questing, ambitious noble ten-to-one failure is part of the thrill that SNL still provokes. Too often, though, SNL plays it safe, falling back on old formulas, trodden paths, and Alec Baldwin swanning in to list presidential failings while making a fish face. Meanwhile, talented performers who, you know, actually work there are left scrambling while the show’s identity takes on more and more lukewarm water. The season’s best sketch (in a walk) had no hot-button issue or impression to power it, just an escalating lunatic genius that carried us along on its peerlessly silly journey. The fact that it was an old, rejected sketch former writer John Mulaney couldn’t get on the show until he came back to host is as good an illustration as any to end on.

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Stray observations

  • The Mean Girls musical sketch was memorable mainly for how the sight of Fey (playing an egotistical yet insecure version of herself) at her office desk brought back a flood of Liz Lemon memories. Any time you want to carry through on those 30 Rock revival rumors is fine with me, Fey.
  • Fey as Trump-Russia figure and shady person Natalia Veselnitskaya describing the infamous Trump Tower (alleged) collusion meeting: “Very easy meeting, very fun, and no one was poisoned.”
  • Oh, Nicki Minaj was the musical guest, doing her thing on a typically enjoyable pair of new tracks that trafficked in both her love of Japanese cultural appropriation and her apparent ongoing feud with Cardi B.
  • “Look at al the hidden swastikas!” Poor Eric can’t help but spill all his dad’s dirty secrets.
  • Several times, Aidy popped up wordlessly as that scowling BBQ bigot lady, presumably calling the authorities at the sight of SNL’s black performers having a good time. As with McKinnon’s shoeless Kellyanne Conway before, this sort of Sergio Aragones doodling around an episode’s margins is encouraged, especially when the show has the good instincts not to elaborate on the joke.
  • After introducing herself as “the ghost of Sarah Palin,” Fey’s Palin explains, “I’m just kiddin’, I’m still alive. But you had to think about it, didn’t you?”
  • The final Most/Least Valuable (Not Ready For Prime Time) Player rankings for season 43 are as follows. (Rules: one point for MVNRFPTP, negative one for Least.) Cecily (7), Kate (5), Kenan (3), Aidy (2), Heidi Gardner, Leslie, Chris Redd, Che (all tied with 1), Pete (-1), Melissa Villaseñor (-2), and Luke Null bringing up the rear, with a hard to believe -12. What does all this mean? Well, nothing, naturally. (I mean, it is scientific as hell, but still.) This is a decent cast with one genuine star (Kate, regardless of the final tally), a handful of reliable scene-stealers, some promising newcomers (Gardner should be safe for next season), and, well, Luke Null. Null’s apparently a funny guy—no matter what some snarky internet jerk says, you can’t get on SNL without being funny. But this was sort of unprecedented, airtime-wise. Plus, Null’s best showcase sketch never aired, which is a real kick in the pants. Wishing him all the best—in his future endeavors.
  • Episode grade— C. Season grade— C+.
  • And that’s season 43 of Saturday Night Live and the A.V. Club’s coverage thereof. Thanks for reading, you kooks. Now lets all get some sleep.

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