Overnight ratings for this weekend’s first ever live coast-to-coast episode of Saturday Night Live are in, and from a numbers standpoint, it was a huge success. It fetched almost 8 million viewers, and in the 18-49 demographic, it was the third most watched telecast episode of the week behind only Big Bang Theory and Empire. It was also the most watched episode of SNL since February, in the midst of a season that hasn’t seen higher ratings since the Chris Farley, Julia Sweeney, Phil Hartman, Adam Sandler, Mike Myers, Al Franken, and David Spade years.
What separates the 2016-2017 season from the 1993-94 season, however, is that the latter was buoyed by a strong cast and would-be stars, popular recurring characters (Tiny Elvis, Matt Foley, the Herlihy Boy, Wayne’s World, It’s Pat, Phil Hartman’s assortment of characters, and Sandler’s break-out years), and great writing (Bob Odenkirk, Sarah Silverman, Dave Attell, Norm McDonald, and Jim Downey, among others, populated the writer’s room). This season of SNL, on the other hand, has soared in popularity for one reason only: Donald Trump.
It’s not been a terrible season of SNL, mind you (and certainly not as bad as it was in the 39th and 40th seasons), but what’s remarkable about this season of SNL is that — with the exception of Kate McKinnon — it’s not the cast of SNL that viewers are tuning into see. They’re watching for Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump impression, or Melissa McCarthy’s brilliant Sean Spicer send-up. The political sketches are being carried by non-cast members (and McKinnon, who pulls triple duty as Kellyanne Conway, Jeff Sessions, and Hillary Clinton). It’s noteworthy that this week’s cold open featured only one actual cast member, Beck Bennett, who plays a forgettable Mike Pence (accurately, as Pence is largely forgettable at the moment, too). Baldwin played Trump, someone in a Grim Reaper mask played Stephen Bannon, and Jimmy Fallon played the second most powerful man in the country, Jared Kushner (meanwhile, the third most powerful person in the country, Ivanka Trump, has been played by non-cast members Scarlett Johansson and Margot Robbie).
It’s worth noting that this week’s ep was the most popular since February’s episode, which was hosted by Alec Baldwin. There has to be some irony to the fact that SNL’s surge in popularity is mostly attributed to non-cast members (and Trump), while the actual cast members provide what often feels like filler. If politics are the reason why viewers are tuning in this season, why isn’t the show doing more to exploit that beyond “Weekend Update,” where the anchors — the worst since Kevin Nealon — remain defiantly out of step and have managed only to tread water despite having better material than in any era of SNL in 42 years. Nine million people didn’t tune in this weekend to watch Jimmy Fallon perform “Let’s Dance” and bounce basketballs off his face (as funny as that might have been). Viewers are turning out to see how America’s most popular comedic institution will comment on the week in politics, and beyond McCarthy’s Spicer and Alec Baldwin’s increasingly toothless cold opens, the show hasn’t had much to offer in that vein.
That might be because SNL relies too heavily on outside voices. Days after Sean Spicer made the gaffe of all gaffes, in fact, SNL had to resort to building a set in Los Angeles to accommodate McCarthy’s impression, which led to a flatter than usual appearance because McCarthy could not interact with the cast or a live audience. Meanwhile, on weeks in which Baldwin is unavailable, SNL won’t even do a Trump sketch, reduced instead to, perhaps, Mikey Day and Alex Moffat’s impressions of the Trump sons.
Look: Baldwin’s Trump impression is great, and I love McCarthy’s Sean Spicy, but I think SNL is missing out on a chance to fully exploit this moment in politics by outsourcing its two most popular characters, letting Kyle Mooney dictate too much of the rest of the show, and allowing two bros to deliver superficial Trump zingers on “Weekend Update.” There’s no better time than now for SNL to manufacture stars, but beyond McKinnon, this season of SNL seems mostly interested in repurposing existing ones.