There was once a time when the opening sketch of Saturday Night Live (SNL) comprised the most cutting-edge political and social satire to be found among the mainstream outlets of criticism. In a critical landscape, that was at least as divided and mistrusted as it appears now. Its voice was one of vicious truth-seeking at whatever the cost, backed up by stalwart intellectualism.
It sought to place in its cross-hairs for a precious three minutes weekly what certain liberals were worrying was a growing cult of ignorance in the United States, one that Isaac Asimov remarked was winding its way through our political and cultural life on the heels of the Reagan era’s absolutist fear-mongering, nurtured by the baseless notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
It is hard not to see how such a movement has come to overwhelm our headlines today: dominating the news this week are a meaningless debate over women’s rights to contraception — if you object to using it on religious grounds, women, then you need not worry about your boss paying for it, right? — and some banter about how Adele is too fat to deserve a Grammy. So you can imagine my surprise when this week’s SNL chose not to leap upon this ample pile of 21st century comedic ammunition and opted instead for a remarkably poised, and scathingly beautiful, roast of Mitt Romney.
In the first half of the sketch Romney, who had fared disastrously in last week’s primaries in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado, nervously tries to spin the bad news as deliberate underperformance from his campaign, a soggy counter to the media’s forecast that he too would peak and fizzle far before the nominating convention. Romney, a sweater-vested Jason Sudeikis who soliloquies from a wholesome Midwestern foyer complete with roaring fireplace and a golden retriever, seems to desperately want us to accept the farce.
Both Romneys, of course, are devoting tremendous concentration to selling us — with the fevered determination of the underachieving preschooler to hammer the square peg into the round hole — on his spectacularly impossible osmosis with the “family values” conservatism of the typical American anti-intellectual. And though the preschooler will soon realize the nature of his failure and correct course, the same can’t quite be said for Romney.
This brings us to the second half of the SNL sketch, in which Romney’s attempt to distract from his acceptable losses is derailed and drowned out by the barking of the golden retriever. The dog continues to bark throughout the entire sketch and Romney fails to get a word past it, especially the trademark closing segue.
Whether or not the show intended for this self-sabotage, the effect is the most simple, ingenious, subtle and hysterical portraits of Romney this election year has yet seen.
Of all the material that was up for grabs this week, the show elected to open with a noisy golden retriever — and yet it has also given us a coherent symbol of Romney as a candidate. Here is a man who wants to be President but — BARK! — knows he never will. He has considerable wealth at his disposal but — BARK! — it has so far served only to alienate him from the beleaguered voters of this election while it poorly tars his rivals in the primaries. And he can appear very smooth, and I daresay, presidential at times but — BARK! — is he a real Republican? A real Christian? A real human being that I could ever speak with except through the ornate fence of his country club?
The unending barking reminded me of the closing scene from Oliver Stone’s “W.,” a likewise poignant symbolizing of a politician’s career. In the scene, George W. Bush is an outfielder in prime position to catch the batter’s fly ball. But the ball never comes, and Bush stands bewildered until the credits roll.
The allegory that SNL constructed is perhaps even more perfect. Americans are the golden retriever — simple, lovable, easy to dupe but adept at voicing their displeasure when they know they’ve been fooled — and they’ve responded to Romney’s grease in the same way an aloof retriever might: Bark, bark, bark.
If, instead of an election, we had a contest for whom you would rather spend an hour with, most Americans would opt for the golden retriever over Romney. I must applaud SNL, for without its gem of a sketch I would not have stumbled onto such a wonderful truth as this.