Saturday Night Live has been going through a rough patch this season. The show hit political comedy gold in the lead up to the 2016 election, thanks to some timely guest appearances from the likes of Larry David and Alec Baldwin, driving it to its highest ratings in decades and giving it more cultural relevancy and cache than it has had since the Sarah Palin/Tina Fey mind meld of 2008.
Ever since that white hot 2015/2016 season, the show's writers have struggled to chase the relevancy dragon. Cast members have commented about how exhausting the 2016/2017 season was, how it became "a completely different machine" from the show previously. The overuse of Baldwin, whose Trump impression quickly curdled into a lumpy caricature after those initial electric pre-election appearances, has become both an albatross for the show and representative of everything wrong with its political comedy. Baldwin's Trump made sense pre-election, because it could be over-the-top and vague when we all thought Trump was just a blip on the road to Hillary Clinton; once he became president, the shallow comedic reading of Trump's characters got tired quicker than a video compilation of the man himself saying, "China."
Restrictions often breed true inspiration—SNL is hampered now by its giant machinery, by the fact that Lorne Michaels can call up any celebrity who owes him a favor—and who has a passing resemblance to an administration member—and have him or her pop down to 30 Rock for a cold open. Yes, the celeb cameo has long been part of SNL tradition, but it's in overdrive now. Instead of being an asset, it's a crutch. Instead of allowing the cast to truly dig into the Trump administration through new angles, the show has come to rely upon big guest stars to push the ratings: some, like Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer, were good, but most—Scarlett Johansson as Ivanka, Jimmy Fallon as Jared Kushner, Robert de Niro as Robert Mueller, Ben Stiller as Michael Cohen—have fallen far short of nuanced satire.
That lopsided dynamic was on display en large during the overstuffed cold open of Saturday's episode of SNL, which gave each guest star (and the real Stormy Daniels) about 30 seconds of air time before jumping to the next one, with no comedic angle beyond "stuff that happened this week" (the exception to this was Martin Short morphing into the insane visage of Dr. Harold Bornstein). It was everything wrong about the current iteration of SNL, struggling to find anything new (or funny) to say about Trump.
Thankfully, the rest of the episode showed everything great about this iteration of SNL, thanks in large part to its host, Donald Glover. After trying out for SNL several years ago (and ending up as a writer on 30 Rock), Glover killed in his SNL debut, part of a late season resurgence for the show thanks to episodes hosted by Sterling K. Brown, Bill Hader, Chadwick Boseman, and John Mulaney.
Glover has the reputation of being a polymath, and he put those skills to great use on the show this weekend, whether he was performing a pair of great new Childish Gambino songs, commenting on the lack of black faces in the Star Wars universe, or digging into the state of Kanye West. The Kanye/A Quiet Place mashup was one of the highlights of the episode— it even made Kanye smile.
Some sketches, like the Jurassic Park-referencing "Courtroom," were throwbacks to Glover's days in his own comedy troupe, Derrick Comedy. So too was "80s Music Video," which was the best kind of parody: an incredibly specific riff on Oran "Juice" Jones’ hit song "The Rain." It turned a micro-obsession into a love letter.
Another example of the comedy being elevated by intense specificity was "Friendos," a Migos parody in which their triple flow was given a therapeutic angle.
While Glover was the center of just about every sketch Saturday, credit should also go to Melissa Villaseñor, who has slowly been carving out a place for herself in the cast with her many impressions. She put her gifts to great use for "Dirty Talk."
You can check out the unforgettable Childish Gambino perfromances of new songs "Saturday" and "This Is America" below.
Also, don't miss the remarkable music video for "This Is America," which Glover released on Saturday night as well.