For all of the talk about cast changes, stunt casting and the word that Saturday Night Live would have fewer ad time this year, the 42nd season premiere felt a bit underwhelming, didn’t it?
That’s not to take anything away from the three new cast members. Mikey Day (promoted from writer to featured player) and Alex Moffat both found plenty of screen time in their debuts thanks to several sketches that called for basic white guys, while Melissa Villaseñor shined in her one sketch with a devilish Sarah Silverman impersonation.
Or from Kate McKinnon’s wonderful opening homage to the late great Gene Wilder, portraying Hillary Clinton’s walk-on for the cold open debate parody a la Wilder’s Willy Wonka, coughing with a cane that holds in place on the floor, then rolling into a somersault finish. Or from Michael Che’s turn as Lester Holt moderating the debate (certainly the absence of Jay Pharoah not only gives Che more chances at screen time, but also an opportunity to diminish it’d-be-funny-if-it-weren’t-so-sad mistaken identity confusing the two former colleagues for one another).
But the stunt casting of Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump served as just one more reminder that Lorne Michaels seems more concerned with grabbing headlines and ratings than with developing, fostering and respecting the new talent.
Larry David didn’t even bother modifying anything about his own voice or cadence in “impersonating” Bernie Sanders during the Celebrity Family Feud sketch, which as a whole was problematic for the very simple reason of being all set-up with precious little pay-off.
Host Margot Robbie has shown plenty of comic spark in her movie roles over the past three years since breaking into our consciousness, and was game for anything. Including a couple of nonsense sketches (one live, one pre-taped) playing off of her beauty. Her monologue used “fact-checking” to present the punchlines which mostly didn’t land, even if it allowed for many individual cast members to say hello (no big-name surprise cameos, though, which is an unusual absence for a season premiere monologue).
The premise of the “Live Report” sketch was tired — can you believe this beauty married this non-beauty?! — but the execution managed to make up for it.
The “Librarian” premise was even more yawn-inducing, and even the plot twist didn’t enliven the proceedings sufficiently.
The “Actress Round Table” takes a conceit that has become popular in the past couple of years for trade magazines entering the world of video, but applies it even more harshly to how Hollywood treats women. With a standout performance by McKinnon making Robbie break into giggles.
The Weekend Update segment was noticeably more remarkable for its language than for its guest characters. Cecily Strong played yet another Weekend Update person who’s sadly misinformed on current events, while Kenan Thompson played up his David Ortiz impersonation once more to celebrate Big Papi’s impending retirement.
No Vanessa Bayer to be found tonight. Barely any Sasheer Zamata outside of the Actress Round Table sketch. Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney, once thought to be the future Lonely Island as Good Neighbor guys, stayed mostly on the sidelines. Speaking of the Hunch Bunch, that could have should have been cut after dress rehearsal, thank you very little.
Strong’s Lin-Manuel Miranda left much to be desired, but thanks to Lin-Man hosting next week, we’ll probably see it again in some form or fashion. Her Melania Trump bizarro version of Deep Thoughts, however, called “Melania Moments,” is a quick hit and a beaut! If only they had played those every week instead of allowing Trump himself to guest host last season, we wouldn’t be in this mess.
And finally, in the five-minutes-to-one slot, Leslie Jones showed up as herself in a Mr. Robot parody, asking Elliot (Davidson) to find out who hacked her phone for nude photos. The results only make sense if you watch Mr. Robot, but even, that doesn’t make it funny.
Oh, what could have been.
But we’ve been saying that for a few seasons now.
That’s the thing about SNL. In a world that sees a digital comedy boom in which everyone thinks himself and herself a satirist, SNL needs to refocus on what it does better than anyone else. They know well enough to lean in on Kate McKinnon’s Emmy-winning performances. They know, too, that they can craft superior pre-taped parodies. But do they know that all of those alt-NYC comedians they’ve hired on as writers this year, do they know that they need to let them loose and trust that the rest of America will catch on?
Let’s hope the genius of Miranda will be enough this coming week to get some more of that on the TV screens and your YouTube next weekend.