NEW YORK – “Saturday Night Live” earned the expected ratings benefit of an episode hosted by Donald Trump but, given the protests and vicious panning the show received, NBC has to wonder if it was all worthwhile.
From a pure business viewpoint, the Nielsen company said Saturday’s show had its highest rating since January 2012 in the nation’s top 56 markets, all the way back to an episode featuring Charles Barkley and Kelly Clarkson. A viewership estimate taking the nation as a whole into account won’t be available until Thursday.
Latino organizations protested the booking for the same reason that NBC cut ties to its former “Celebrity Apprentice” host last summer: the presidential candidate’s comments about Mexicans crossing the border into the United States illegally. That led one of the show’s highlights: Larry David shouting “you’re a racist” to Trump, in reference to an advocacy group’s offer of $5,000 to someone who heckled the host.
Trump’s appearance as host despite the corporate decision to back away from him spoke to both the autonomy of “Saturday Night Live” executive producer Lorne Michaels and Trump’s proven ability to draw an audience.
Sure, Trump earned ratings, but viewers who tuned in were punished with “a joyless, unfunny show, which ended in a curtain call with Mr. Trump and the cast that played like a hostage video,” wrote critic James Poniewozik of The New York Times.
That conclusion typified a brutal critical response. Both Poniewozik and Time magazine’s Daniel D’Addario pulled out the phrase “anodyne” — fancy word for bland.
“Forget Iowa voters,” D’Addario wrote. “It’s hard to imagine the 90 minutes NBC aired getting much of a reaction out of anyone.”
The “anemic and halfhearted dud” heavily taxed the show’s integrity, wrote Hank Stuever of The Washington Post.
Although it’s not the first time “Saturday Night Live” has had a political host, several critics expressed alarm at the comedy show’s co-opting a figure it would seem more comfortable satirizing from afar. Some jokes poked fun at Trump and his image, but Trump has said he took advantage of a host’s prerogative to veto material he deemed offensive.
“‘SNL’ is more comfortable being frat brothers with politicians than satirists of them,” wrote Chris White of Paste magazine.
When Vanessa Bayer’s character cracked about not wanting to be in a sketch where the comic conceit was Trump “tweeting” mean comments about the actors, Stuever said it didn’t feel like a joke.
“The show’s writers also dropped the ball — or simply never felt like playing to begin with,” he wrote. “Who can blame them? They never should have been put in this position.”
For “Saturday Night Live,” it was also a missed opportunity. The show frequently regenerates itself and now has a relatively young cast; this represented a chance to reel in more casual viewers.
Then again, what’s one misfire in the context of a 40-year-old show? Critics may not be happy, but NBC accountants certainly are, said television analyst Marc Berman.
“It’s not going to hurt the show,” Berman said. “It’s got everybody talking about it again.”