Season 46 of Saturday Night Live premiered at a tense moment. Days after the first presidential debate between incumbent Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, the president was hospitalized with a case of COVID-19, the severity of his illness unknown. Meanwhile, the rest of the country remained in their own pandemic holding pattern, SNL being no exception: To actually put on an episode of the show in studio, producer Lorne Michaels, the cast, and the crew had to abide by rigid New York state protocols. The plan, Michaels has said, is to now produce five Saturday shows in a row — unheard of for the sketch series — in order to capitalize on the conditions.
This is all to say, a new episode of SNL in the year 2020 was going to be ... weird. The premiere’s cold open, a recreation of the Trump-Biden debate, exceeded the expectation.
With Beck Bennett, the only actual cast member to appear in the sketch, as Fox News anchor and moderator Chris Wallace, the debate spoof didn’t have to do much to make a circus out of reality. Alec Baldwin returned as a grey-haired Trump, while Jim Carrey — who failed to land a spot in the SNL cast back in the 1980s, but parlayed his stint on In Living Color into a movie career and a status as one of comedy’s true icons — transformed into a version of Joe Biden who could barely control his fury against the president’s petulance (or, just Joe Biden). Maya Rudolph appeared halfway through the sketch to preview her take on Kamala Harris.
Perhaps due to the effect of lampooning two septuagenarians, or the SNL crew getting up to speed with new procedure, the sketch’s tendency for prolonged pauses and more-canned-than-usual laughs gave it an odd tempo. The biggest laugh of the 13-minute sketch, when Carrey snaps at Baldwin for interrupting him one too many times, is really just a recreation of Real Joe Biden’s own debate jab.
Still, Carrey is a get, and playing Biden as a subdued variant of Fire Marshall Bill is a spin that actually works. After last Tuesday’s debate, most of TV’s loudest pundits and jokemakers were left speechless. SNL, thankfully, still knows what it’s doing, even in a moment of pure chaos.