Review: Melissa McCarthy returns as Sean Spicer on Alec Baldwin-hosted 'SNL'

Alec Baldwin may have logged his 17th turn as host of “Saturday Night Live” this weekend, but he has been a regular presence on the show since October, pinch-hitting as the NBC late-night comedy’s resident Donald Trump impersonator. Perhaps subverting expectations, it wasn’t Baldwin who started the show but Melissa McCarthy who arrived to preside over the cold open as White House press secretary Sean Spicer. It was a performance that worked all kinds of comedy magic when she debuted it a week prior — largely because her first appearance was so unexpected and so hilariously hostile.

There’s a law of diminishing returns with this kind of thing, not that the concept has ever stopped “SNL.” It can be hard to hit something as squarely and thrillingly as McCarthy’s initial surprise appearance, so you can understand why executive producer Lorne Michaels brought her back. But here’s the issue with recurring sketches: If you don’t advance the idea, what’s the point? With the “hey, isn’t that … ?” factor gone from McCarthy’s still amazingly ultra-combative performance — truly, the human embodiment of ALL CAPS, with metaphorical steam blasting from those ears — everything came down to the writing, which was decent, with a side order of standout lines here and there.

Asked by a reporter about flubbing the mention of a terrorist attack in Atlanta, we got this volley back from the podium: “Yeah, I said that wrong when I said it, and then you wrote it, which makes you wrong!”

But there was some “light terrorism this week when Nordstrom’s decided to stop selling Ivanka Trump’s line of clothing and accessories.” Let’s step back and admire the subtext and political commentary embodied in that phrase “light terrorism.” That’s economy in comedy writing.

Chicago and its crime rate came in for some absurdist exaggerations (long, exasperated sigh), with Spicer insisting: “Eighty percent of the people in Chicago have been murdered and are dead! And that’s on you” — fingering the assembled media — “you did that.”

Aside from the popularity of the original bit, I suspect it made a return for another more fascinating reason. As Elahe Izadi noted in The Washington Post, “Trump is running the government as a president who cares very deeply about appearances — so much so that a ‘Saturday Night Live’ sketch could affect how he does it.”

This is an unprecedented phenomenon and one that “SNL” has not had to contend with … ever. You have to wonder if this makes Michaels & Co. almost giddy — or sick to their stomachs. Maybe both. There’s a certain responsibility and a very specific sort of expectation that has suddenly been thrust on the show, and based on this episode, I don’t think anyone there wants it.

According to Politico, Trump was deeply unnerved that one of his male staffers was impersonated by a woman, which only fueled anticipation that Rosie O’Donnell might turn up as Steve Bannon. That she didn’t could be seen as the show pulling its punches; an O'Donnell appearance was guaranteed to generate a reaction from the president on Twitter. I actually think the show revealed its true level of discomfort with this new normal in a later Kellyanne Conway sketch.

Let’s not forget, this is the same show — the same executive producer — that feted Trump as host over a year ago. “Where does ‘SNL’ stand on anything?” I find myself wondering most of the time. The reason for this is that Michaels is not especially politically minded, I suspect, but more of a pragmatist when it comes to ratings and what will get people talking.

Back in the real world, rumor has it (if you believe a report out of Washingtonian.com) that someone else, perhaps Carl Higbie, might take over the White House press secretary job from Spicer. If that’s the case, “SNL” will probably shelve what should have only been a one-time performance by McCarthy anyway. Brevity is the soul of wit; there’s something in that old saw that “SNL” would be wise to embrace.

Other observations:

• An hour into the show, Baldwin finally made an appearance as Trump — as a plaintiff on “People’s Court.” (As a sincere fan of TV court shows, I will always be predisposed to like this type of sketch.) Like the cold open, the writing’s the thing, and the sketch only delivered right at the top.

Announcer: “This is the plaintiff, the president of the United States. He claims that some phony judges are being very mean to him.”

Judge Marilyn Milian (played by a perfectly no-nonsense Cecily Strong): “All right, thank you. First of all, Mr. Trump, you understand this is a TV court, right?”

Trump: “That’s OK, I’m a TV president.” (Chicago, forever the punching bag, came in for more ribbing in this sketch as well.)

• “Leslie Wants to Play Trump,” a digital short wherein Leslie Jones sincerely (or not) takes up the challenge, had no ideas undergirding the quest. “Is this like a sendup of his fragile masculinity?” she’s asked. Nope. “Is it like a 'Hamilton' thing, where you’re commenting on race and politics?” Nope again. “It’s about giving America what it wants.” I did like that it continued the running gag of her (fictional) romance with fellow cast member Kyle Mooney, a joke introduced earlier this season.

‌• More Washington faces: Kate McKinnon stepped up briefly in the cold open as newly confirmed Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and there wasn’t much to see. The impersonation boiled down to costuming and a Foghorn Leghorn delivery. Simply slotting in actors — be they “SNL” cast members or guests of the show — isn’t enough. McKinnon’s a legitimate talent, but there was nothing for her to play. If “SNL” is going to swim around in the political waters, it better have a point of view, otherwise it’s a whole lot of pointless splashing. That means not only the premise of a sketch but how performers are interpreting real-world political figures.

• “Weekend Update” was just sort of … there. Almost every setup and punchline felt like a first-draft idea.

Colin Jost: “The Senate voted Wednesday to confirm Jeff Beauregard Sessions as our new Confederate general — sorry, attorney general. Sessions was rejected for a position as a federal judge in 1986 over concerns of racism, but don’t worry, if there’s one thing that usually makes racists better, it’s age.”

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McKinnon showed up as yet another political player, this time Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., visiting the "Update" desk for basically no reason other than Warren was in the news this week more than usual. McKinnon’s delivery was first-rate, but what’s the point of bringing any real-life political character into the world of the show unless the writers have something to say?

Also with a desk segment, Leslie Jones and Mikey Day as a couple inspired by “Fifty Shades of Grey,” except that Day’s character — with a cut lip and broken arm — was clearly a victim of abuse. So, let’s talk about this. Was the scene trying to get at something complicated? About coercion and power and assumptions about gender and which partner in straight relationships might be doing the abusing? I honestly couldn’t tell, it landed so badly. It takes more skill than was on display here to find the dark, observant humor in such a premise.

• Some “SNL” sketches are just a failure of imagination and backbone, and this week’s digital short about Kellyanne Conway shed all of McKinnon’s previous characterizations about the president’s adviser and turned her into a deranged stalker, a la Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction,” with CNN’s Jake Tapper as her mark. You could argue they were doing exactly what I’ve been pushing for — advancing an idea instead of just repeating it. But like the “Fifty Shades of Grey” bit, the tone was off, and it didn’t feel funny even in theory. It was just kind of grim. And it was more about Conway and her apparent insatiable desire to be on TV than about how she’s doing her job. This is a key distinction — “SNL” isn’t really about analysis. Jabbing at quirks of persona? The show can (and will) do that all night long.

• Right, there was nonpolitical material too. Even if that wasn’t what most were watching for this weekend. None of it was especially memorable.

One sketch that might get some tepid watercooler buzz featured the underused Sasheer Zamata as a very pregnant Beyonce (in light green veil, nice touch) at the obstetrician’s office with Baldwin as her doctor: “To be honest, this is a big break for me! I haven’t had a hit baby since Suri Cruise.” He does an ultrasound, and the twins in utero are played by Kenan Thompson and “SNL” alum Tracy Morgan.

Baby Thompson: “You know, I just don’t want to make my mama mad, she’s having a hard enough time carrying us as it is.”

Baby Morgan: “I heard she carried two full-grown ladies for 10 years named Michelle and Kelly” — aka, the other two from Destiny’s Child.

Mostly, it’s a halfway good idea for a sketch that’s never fully realized.

 

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