In his debut as Donald Trump, Alec Baldwin captured the pouty Republican nominee’s performance at the first debate, amplifying his most bizarre and ill-tempered moments and expounding on them. Unlike Darrell Hammond’s more aurally impressive take on Trump from last season (and years prior), Baldwin’s version feels genuinely unhinged. There’s no detached coolness to it, just pomposity, annoyance, and anger. To match the attention-generating cultural impact that Samantha Bee and Seth Meyers have had with their commentary on this most peculiar and vital election, SNL needed to turn their debate parody into an event and they accomplished that by adding Baldwin. It’s another brilliant bit of stunt casting orchestrated by SNL producer Lorne Michaels in the same vein as Tina Fey playing Sarah Palin and Larry David playing Bernie Sanders. (That’s not a knock, by the way. SNL‘s survival is as impressive as it is fascinating, specifically in the political satire arena when there are so many competitors.) Baldwin more than matched the expectations he’d deliver a larger-than-life Trump. He’s understandably been lauded, so much so that he’s threatened to overshadow Kate McKinnon’s subtler and no less brilliant take on Hillary Clinton.
It’s been hard for SNL to seem like the master of the political satire universe since The Daily Show started taking Weekend Update’s lunch in the early 2000s. That’s been especially true since Jim Downey permanently retired in 2013. Downey — who wrote or co-wrote classic skits like “President Reagan, Mastermind” and helped establish SNL‘s position as a leader in comedic political commentary in the late ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s — didn’t always lacerate his subjects (like The Daily Show tends to do). But he had a flair for crafting moments that found their place in the zeitgeist. Without Downey, the show’s efforts have felt somewhat rudderless, with performers mugging for the camera and writers applying a comic filter over the people and events that they deemed mockable. They’ve essentially been doing what Baldwin did so brilliantly on Saturday night — create a broad caricature.
Effective as it’s been, McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton impression used to fit that description as well, focusing almost entirely on Clinton’s single-minded pursuit of the Oval Office. On Saturday night, however, McKinnon found another level by playing off of the ridiculousness that Baldwin’s Trump was spewing, much in the same way that Jay Pharoah’s impression of President Obama seemed like it was at its best when he had someone to play off. But there was more to it than that.