Hopes were high. The slate was blank. The pitch was fevered; the expectations were limitless. The April 8 “SNL” had a lot to prove — too much, of course, but that’s the way the variably relevant cookie crumbles. But for those of us who saw Louis C.K.’s fourth visit to Studio 8-H as a trying ground, we had to wonder: Would this be a return to form after May 2015 (Rihanna), a midlevel success like March 2014 (Sam Smith), or a low-energy phoned-in outing like November 2012 (Fun.)? Perhaps we could draw a graph, linking the charisma of the…

Oh. Musical guest Chainsmokers — the Fun. of 2017, with somehow less appeal and personality. Got it.

But still — hopes were high.

RELATED: After a long absence, Louis C.K. shows he’s only gained in brilliance with ‘2017’

To those of us who didn’t avail ourselves of the latest tour, or haven’t had a chance to watch the “2017” special yet on Netflix, it’s going on two years of silence since May 2015, when “Louie” went on indefinite hiatus — that’s two years presented to us, either by C.K. or the popular mind, as a recentering break, a hibernation, a going-deeply-within, a cocoon in which the sweaty red man we all know and love might pupate, alone, forcing nobody to watch him touch himself, innovating no new alternatives to Ticketmaster. A chance to rest, and be renewed, reborn, rebirthed, in an even sweatier, redder form.

Perhaps this is what has occurred; perhaps we should’ve been more specific.

The first indication came early in the week:

The precise way this promo sucks is also the way the episode mostly sucks. There is no more elegant way to put it: If this does not register as sucking, then you have no reason to avoid the episode. But if it rubs you entirely the wrong way, welcome to Louis C.K. 2.0 — the brand presented us in the April 9 “SNL.”

Any worries about the gradually increasing smugness and/or reversion to mean on FX’s “Louie” that you may have had after its last (and probably final) season — this episode of “SNL,” a show C.K.’s been known to deconstruct, detourn and revitalize in past appearances, will put paid to them one way or the other.

Cold Open: ‘Trump’s People’

Not unlike the “Gay Robot” sketch from a few episodes back, this one — rare for a cold open — sets aside the satire or useful information and decides to double down on telling the same crass, “Weekend Update”-esque joke a record six times: Poor people, being subhuman, can’t be expected to make their own decisions — it feels both wry and satirical to lampoon their pain in an unending litany, feels “savage,” but its mean-heartedness goes nowhere, serves no further purpose. It is what it seems to be, and that’s a harsh harbinger for what’s to come.

hunger games barlylebone station fans Louis C.K. lightens load in a thin Saturday Night Live; Chainsmokers also there
Whether or not the live studio 8-H audience is composed entirely of rubes and tourists remains a matter of debate.

Without the inclusion of that second level of whatever you want to call it — comedy, humor, common decency — the joke is strictly on all of us. You’ve gotta wake up feeling pretty safe to laugh in the face of other people’s death and call it art. You’ve gotta be even more tone-deaf to follow that up with this even nastier digital short, which presents selfishness and oblivious consumerism as the only truly virtuous stance: Louis C.K. at his Generation X worst, and something he used to bother to undercut.

No thank you, Scott

Again: How removed from reality do you have to be, to spend this much time being irritated by other people’s earnest activity? Apparently so removed that your opening monologue consists entirely of racist “gotchas” and the merest, thinnest smear of self-indictment acting as its only fig leaf. We are taking you literally now, not seriously — and it seems to be entirely too mutual.

This is neither the year nor the country to play with this kind of fire, and it borders on Charlie Hebdo obliviousness to pretend otherwise. Shaming other people for taking any positive step — as though it’s a zero-sum game here, as though caring about one thing means cruel disinterest in any other — isn’t just a sign of a jerk, it’s also a sign of a clueless jerk: You are, by your own admission, wasting your time by complaining about it.

Imagine it’s the 90s: If a lonely man went to a store to look at porn, that would have been the safest part of his day — because anyone else who at that store was also there to buy porn. Nobody is watching him except his fellow lonely men: What an immense relief and humor is to be found in that thought. Cross-applied here, what you have is a person standing in the middle of the porn store, one hand on his own genitalia, loudly cursing at the perverts all around him. That’s not the best look.

If this is as taste of C.K.’s new act — performed, as it would be, mostly for buzzed-to-drunk “comedy” fans — what we are seeing is the first step in a Kurt Cobain spiral, in which C.K. panders to a crowd that then shocks him with its indecency — with its blindness to the various sophisticated levels and nuances that he left by the side of the road at some point, but still thinks will carry him through.

It’s the same overstepping we saw begin in “Louie” with Season 4’s “So Did the Fat Lady” — in which Louie the writer creates a female character to scream about feminism at Louie the character, an elaborate and Sorkinesque shell game that obscures the mansplaining of feminism that is actually happening — the no-fault PSA that is a man lecturing us about feminism through a female mouthpiece — and on a much grimmer scale with the remainder of that season, an extended meditation on sexual consent whose reach far outpaced its grasp. (The absolutely jaw-dropping PSA that is a man lecturing us about consent via sexual assault committed by a proxy of the writer, who bears his name and face, then comforted and absolved by the victim — a female character created, of course, by the self-same writer.)

You can make a satirical joke only so many times before the pen starts bleeding through the paper, and what was once a sharp whiplash reminder about men’s responsibility as human beings becomes indistinguishable from an actual rape joke. (Or a white man’s hood-pass condemnation of other white men turns into just straight up racism, for that matter — this week’s “Tenement Tour” was somehow even more dull-eyed hateful than “Gay Robot.”)

It’s the same problem that’s inspired a million Sarah Silverman thinkpieces over the years — as she alternately presents, critiques, embodies, sidesteps or brilliantly outmaneuvers the limitations and crudeness of her adopted persona, depending on who you ask, or what year it is — but there is one huge difference between Silverman and C.K. that entirely changes the context of their all-too-similar danger zones and blindnesses. I don’t think I need to tell you what that is.

But enough about all that. Mentioning the feet of clay with any of our culture’s beloved white men won’t get you anywhere, because they are a consumer product that engenders such identification and adoration in other white men that we will never collectively get enough distance to make space for a conversation: Also known as the Beastie Boys Rule, the “Fight Club” Rule, and most recently the Bernie Bro conundrum.

It’s an effect that has major consequences for our culture and political landscape; it’s also something that will never go away, because C.K. is performing for this specific audience now, and merely inviting the rest of us along to watch. A distinction that is either meaningless or paramount, depending on which side you fall. Louis is great, nobody is denying that — but Louis is also imperfect, and seems to have forgotten that while he was away. We are in an unexpected, brutal moment, but that’s hardly an indication of future behavior.

And it’s not like he’s the worthless Chainsmokers, who somehow managed to trip over their own, incredibly low bar this week, with that factory-fresh, scorching lack of charisma lending a whole new nuance to their hateful lyrics and smug, ugly onstage performances. No matter how disappointed we may get with Louis from time to time, even a world that unfortunately contains the Chainsmokers is a better place with him in it. The man’s a genius:

And, with a signature disinterest in a strong finish that is characteristic of both this program and his own:

Congratulations, You Played Yourself

But after the wholesale “Weekend Update”-ification of the episode’s first hour, and “Thank You Scott,” the self-righteousness and sexism — not to mention a thin-as-hell joke with a single punchline, and clearly conceived and filmed on a deadline — of this Pepsi “takedown” isn’t just obnoxious, it’s bonkers. (Not to mention endemic to the episode as a whole, riddled with an unprecedented ratio of flubbed lines as it is.)

Snark is a dragon chasing its own tail, and better institutions than 8-H have been brought down by exactly this kind of hipper-than-thou arms race. Here’s hoping this is the last gasp before a course-correct, but with a limited number of episodes left in the season, and “Update” gaining momentum behind the scenes, we could be watching the complete Daria Morgendorffication of the “SNL” ensemble, which will set it back at least five years. More, if Pete Davidson doesn’t stick around.

Not wanting to end on that silly note, we’ll present to you the first true sketch of the night, a bizarre mind-of-Louie situation that actually does use the 8-H setup in creative and funny ways — despite the discomfort of its arrival coming so close to the monologue realization that C.K.’s upgraded his “mincing gay voice” tic from “once a set” to “once a joke.”

Without that creepy asterisk on it, this would have been the episode’s finest sketch — beating even “Sectionals” — but between tonight’s monologue and Chapelle’s recent snafus, it’s all still just a little too raw.

“Saturday Night Live” airs at 11:29 p.m. ET/PT on NBC. Harry Styles is scheduled to appear April 15, as musical guest to some horse’s ass or another, and then May provides a string of hosts ranging from good to great: Chris Pine (6 May), Melissa McCarthy (13 May) and Dwayne Johnson (20 May).

Posted by:Jacob Clifton

Austin writer & critic, formerly editorial at Tribune Media & Gawker; Television Without Pity, BuzzFeed, Austin Chronicle, Tor.com and more.