For anyone who feels “Saturday Night Live” spends too much time each week trying its hands at political satire, particularly by skewering the Trump administration, Saturday’s episode might feel like a Christmas miracle.
The show took a giant step away from politics in its final episode of 2018. Replacing the biting social commentary was an hour of oddball sketches and surreal humor.
That’s pretty shocking, considering SNL has spent the past few seasons bringing in a multitude of guest stars, such as Alec Baldwin, Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro to portray people in President Trump’s orbit. It’s even more surprising given this week’s host was Matt Damon, who famously portrayed Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh earlier this year — prompting many to expect a Trump-heavy episode.
The cold open suggested that’s exactly what we were going to get. It featured all of those guest stars in a spoof of “It’s a Wonderful Life” that imagined a world in which Trump lost the election.
After the cold open, though, it’s almost as if the show stuck with this premise. Aside from Weekend Update — which, by its nature, is somewhat forced to cover current events — and a few passing references in other sketches, the comedy show avoided politics in general. In fact, for the most part, it avoided current events. That’s particularly surprising considering the amount of news from the past week. There was so much that it prompted Colin Jost to joke, “Last week was a pretty bad year for Donald Trump.”
There were plenty of opportunities to bring politics into the fold.
In one sketch about the end of Christmas, Damon and Cecily Strong play a married couple with children. The kids are in bed. Their presents are unwrapped. Their dinner has been eaten, and the guests have departed. The couple snuggle on the couch and go through the day. Each insists it was a “a perfect Christmas,” even as they continually flash back to disasters ranging from an unwanted early wake-up from the kids to a Fisher-Price toy house whose construction turns into a Sisyphean task.
The sketch could easily have been written with a political end in mind, with families arguing over politics. But aside from one passing reference to a cousin who showed up in a “Make America Great Again” hat to their chagrin, it avoids the subject.
Ditto a sketch in the back half of the show with three couples having Christmas dinner. It’s quickly clear the comedy will be built around two of the holiday diners having a disagreement. Will it be about Trump? The Russian probe? Hillary Clinton? Maybe even Beto O' Rourke or the midterm elections?
Nope. It was about . . . the rock band Weezer. Leslie Jones’s character thinks the band peaked with its second record, “Pinkerton.” Damon’s character digs the new stuff. They nearly come to blows over this. Not one current event is mentioned, unless you consider Weezer’s cover of Toto’s “Africa” to be a current event.
One sketch came close to commenting on social issues. It was a casting audition for a new Oscars host, since Kevin Hart decided to forgo the job as host rather than apologize for a number of homophobic tweets that he sent out at the turn of the decade. But instead of focusing on Hart, the sketch simply allowed various cast members to show off their best impressions of random celebrities from Allison Janney to Matthew McConaughey.
The most biting moment comes in one line, when Kate McKinnon’s Ellen DeGeneres says, “I haven’t done anything controversial in my life, except being gay. But people like that now, except for the guy who was supposed to host, you know.”
Yes, a sketch featuring reject ornaments that are hung on the back of the tree makes a crack about Harvey Weinstein. Damon plays a promotional Christmas tree ornament from “Good Will Hunting.” “On the back of me, you know what it says?” asks Damon’s ornament. “It says ‘Happy Holidays from the Weinstein Company.’ Yeah, that holds up.” Next to him is a Rudolph W. Giuliani ornament from 2001 with a “America’s Mayor” sash.
But these are little quips compared to the full sketches that the show usually spends on politics.
In fact, the only overtly political sketch of the night to run after the opening credits came at the end — and it was about England. The sketch was of Prime Minister Theresa May after having survived a recent no-confidence vote, triggered by those in her Conservative Party who oppose her compromise on how to leave the European Union.
At one point, Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter series appears but worries that doing so might hurt his reputation.
The episode was certainly an anomaly in the Trump era, and it’s likely SNL will beat its political drum again when it returns in January. But anyone hoping to tune out politics for (most of) an hour received an early Christmas gift.