This past weekend’s episode of Saturday Night Live opened with Kate McKinnon impersonating Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who last week recused himself from any investigation into the Donald Trump administration’s alleged backroom dealings with Russia due to his own implication in the matter. McKinnon, as you can see below, portrayed Sessions as Forrest Gump, sitting at the bus stop, box of chocolates in hand, talking to strangers:
The bit got big laughs, and was aggregated dutifully by bastions of the resistance press like the Washington Post and NPR. At nearly 4.5 million YouTube views in its first 36 hours of being online, it’s well on its way to being one of the show’s most popular viral sketches of the year. None of this is surprising given the involvement of McKinnon, who is SNL‘s most beloved and dynamic performer, especially when it comes to political humor, where she does celebrated heavy lifting as Hillary Clinton, Kellyanne Conway, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Elizabeth Warren.
But her go as Sessions exposed a fatal flaw with her well-worn shtick. McKinnon played Sessions the way she does pretty much every character: as a goofy scamp with an undercurrent of deviousness who is nonetheless ultimately lovable and endearing. The usefulness of characterizing any politician in a way that glamorizes them is debatable, but it should leave an undeniable sour taste in the viewer’s mouth when that politician is Jeff Sessions, who now oversees our criminal justice system despite having spent decades dodging accusations of racism.
To put a fine point on it, Sessions is the last person in the world who should get the Kate McKinnon treatment. To liken him to Forrest Gump, a character who America was so taken by that Tom Hanks won an Oscar for Best Actor, is galling. The parody misconstrues Sessions so deeply that you have to wonder if the SNL writing staff has even a basic understanding of the subjects it is now being tasked with battling from the front lines. To portray Sessions as a simple-minded, genteel Southerner when he is actually at the center of a longterm plot to reshape America in the vision of white nationalism is borderline irresponsible instead of, I guess, subversive?
McKinnon leaning on her comedic tendencies when playing political figures is most obvious in her renditions of Conway. McKinnon plays the top Trump advisor as ruthlessly ambitious—almost to the point of murder—but imbues her with the lovable gumption of an underdog. A recent sketch in which McKinnon-as-Conway imagines herself as the star of a Broadway musical about her own life hints at a lampooning of Conway as being starry-eyed and consumed by her own celebrity, but that reduction only works if, in reality, there is a gap between how Conway sees herself and how important she actually is within the Trump administration. By all accounts, though, Conway really is that important. She has Secret Service protection and reportedly has “walk in” privileges at the Oval Office. Just this morning, she was drafted to go on Fox & Friends, one of Trump’s favorite shows, to defend his claims of being wiretapped by Barack Obama. The way SNL portrays her comes off less as a mockery of her ambition and more as a celebration of it, which isn’t helped by the way in which McKinnon seems to relish the role.
(On this week’s Weekend Update, Michael Che launched into an extended bit likening Conway to a harried customer service rep who unfairly receives the brunt of your grievances against a larger corporation, which not only ignores that Conway has been lavishly paid over her career to be that person, but also suggests some bizarre institutional fascination with rehabilitating in real time the reputation of someone who does not deserve it.)
It’s helpful to contrast the way in which McKinnon’s manic lovability shines through even her theoretically evil characters with another recently viral SNL characterization of a Trump goon that the world would be better off seeing sent off to the gallows. Melissa McCarthy’s turn as Sean Spicer was an instant classic because it honed in on his character flaws and pushed them past the point of absurdity. Spicer appears to be a short-tempered brown-noser who is ill-equipped to the be public face of the Trump administration, and so McCarthy portraying him as a bad spinster who goes so over-the-top to service his boss’ need to see the media humiliated that he in turn humiliates himself by, for instance, squirting reporters with water guns illuminates the man’s motivations in a way that is perfectly brutal.
McCarthy’s Spicer is pathetic and sad, which might lead the viewer down a path of empathy but is altogether different from McKinnon’s Conway, who is a crazy gal you would enjoy running into at a party, or her Sessions, whose racism is grounded in the stereotype of the patriarch whose family members go “oh, grandpa!” whenever he makes a crack about black people. McKinnon can’t help but play kooky, and the live audience can’t help but eat it up, but it all feels antithetical to good and effective political satire of a presidential administration that is a legitimate threat to our everyday livelihoods back in the real world.
McKinnon’s shtick has served her well. In this episode she was (quite skillfully) impersonated by fellow cast member Melissa Villaseñor, an indication that McKinnon has entered a certain pantheon of cherished SNL cast members. I like that shtick as much as the next person, truly, I just wish to no longer see it applied to people who are doing Donald Trump’s bidding.