Saturday Night Live has died and been reborn more than a handful of times over the ages, and there’s no doubt that this season is a “rebuilding year,” as the premiere’s spirit guide and host, Tina Fey, suggested. Over the past two seasons, the show has bid good-bye to Andy Samberg, Kristin Wiig, Abby Elliott, Jason Sudeikis, Bill Hader, and Fred Armisen (plus last year’s newbie Tim Robinson, who has been bumped from featured player to staff writer, and Seth Meyers, who exits in February). The amount of concern this causes you is probably largely based on how familiar you are with the results of past recasting adventures and how dedicated you are to staying up to speed on fake commercials. We have witnessed disastrous eras over the course of SNL’s long history: This vintage New York magazine feature paints a very severe and depressing portrait of the 1994-95 period, another transitional year, which player Janeane Garofalo called “the most miserable experience of [her] life.”
The announcement of this season’s six new cast members was met with some frustration — again, SNL had shied away from plugging any diversity into its universe, adding five white men and one lone white woman to its roster. Maybe this was an honest assessment of the talent base (somehow I doubt it), maybe it has to do with Lorne Michaels’s mysterious star radar, or maybe it’s just plain lame. To be fair, the rookies performed well (when they were allowed to), with a negligible amount of visible jangled nerves. When an episode decides to highlight Michelle Obama or Kim Jong-un in a skit, though, I’m going to shred it. J-Pop America Funtime is over.
Speaking of fun times, what’s a better way to kick off late-night comedy than with a send-up of Obamacare? Actually, I can think of a few. Jay Pharoah reprised his Obama, which gave viewers a chance to reevaluate, for the zillionth time, his worth on the show. Now that he’s one of the few remaining familiar faces, it’s easier to acknowledge that he’s had a difficult time establishing his place in the cast. I’ve been rooting for Pharoah — he’s a great performer with a nice cache of impressions — but something about his humor doesn’t always match that of the sketch he’s in. As Obama, he acts as the grout between joke tiles, gluing them together with gray grimaces, while rarely getting the chance to be goofy himself. This C-SPAN kickoff was no different, though in a way it was different, because Aaron Paul was there (and boy, he stuck around!) to tell the sad tale of his buddy whose health care costs drove him to desperation — though he didn’t get to finish, because at that point, Sunday night hadn’t happened yet. Aidy Bryant (celebrating free medicine, she intended to “lick hella subway poles”) and Kate McKinnon (as a haggard doctor who implored Americans to stop shoving objects up their own asses) were highlights, but the opener was more lackluster than silly-buster. Now that I’m thinking about it, I don’t remember ever having enjoyed an Obama sketch. Thanks, Barry O! This “rebuilding” year is all your fault!
Luckily, there was no way to go from there but up. Tina Fey’s monologue was warm and inviting, as if she was telling us to not be afraid of these white alien people who were about to perform comedy for us for the first time. She adjusted her dress because she knows we peeped her nipple at the Emmys, but she’s our friend, so it’s OK to laugh about that now. She lightly hazed the freshmen by making them do the ritual embarrassing backup dancer routine, in gold lamé no less, but treated us to footage of herself paying the same penance. Fey also previewed her roster of (fictional) recurring characters, many with mustaches, created during her nine years on the show. The list included Queef Latina (in her Paramount spin-off feature, she ruins Christmas), Salvador Dalí Parton, and Johnny Jean Jacket, my personal favorite.
Better than Fey’s monologue, however, was the Girls spoof that came next, in which she played Blerta, the Albanian roommate of Hannah Horvath & Co. If you needed more proof that current-day SNL’s strength is its women, this was it: New featured player Noël Wells killed it with a Lena Dunham impression that was a vocal and facial bull’s-eye, but there were no slouches in the bunch. Vanessa Bayer and her jaunty doughnut of hair out-Shoshed Zosia Mamet’s Shoshanna, Cecily Strong briefly but convincingly starred as Marnie, and Kate McKinnon’s Jessa was just as pinot noir–soaked (and orgy-fatigued) as Jemima Kirke’s. I’m not even going to begin with Taran Killam as Adam, because if I began, I fear I would not be able to end. Fey’s Blerta was the perfect way to address all the socioeconomic complaints launched at Girls (I admit guilt for sending some of my own) without disrespecting it (I still watch it, now don’t I?); instead of therapy to treat her obsessive compulsive disorder, Blerta only has a rubber hand to show for her battle with another kind of OCD (old cow disease — it poisons the skin). After hearing about Jessa scrumping with a cabbie, Blerta advises her that she is “unpaid prostitute … lower than dog.” She sticks around for the Robyn dance parties because she pities these poor naive 15-year-olds. Oh, wait, they’re 24? I guess it’s hard to move when you’ve got a cheap prosthesis and rents are high.
I’m kind of biased when it comes to airport-based sketches because the familiar aspects of plane travel that served as the next bit’s funny bones make me feel like throwing up into my purse before I stow it safely for takeoff. But objectively, “Airport” worked. Fey and Killam, who thank the good Lorne above and all the angels in heaven is still in the gig, played airport personnel announcing the complicated hierarchy of boarding groups (there’s an important distinction between X-Men first class and X-Men business). Kenan Thompson made me laugh as the passenger with the horse-size carry-on and the optimism to think that it would fit in the overhead compartment, but not as much as Bobby Moynihan as the farter — sorry, elite farter — with a sly smile that broadcast internal gas like he’d taken a Meisner class on tooting. Beck Bennett, your buddy who chats with wee children in AT&T ads, was mostly shoved in a corner in his first real chunk of airtime, and then his boarding pass got yoinked.
And then it was game-show time, during which the host role that was often given to Bill Hader was taken over by Thompson. Of course, this was sort of sad, but there’s no time for that now: We’ve been tasked, via Fey, with identifying the new cast members against their Arcade Fire doppelgängers. I could have used more of this sketch, honestly, because I don’t think the premiere served as a handy enough map of the rookies’ names. Noël Wells, you’re good — you got the hot real estate this time, girl. The first round was pretty obvious, mostly due to an “ironic Boston Legal shirt” worn by Kyle Mooney; the second was less so, because Wells and Régine Chassagne share a Gilda Radner vibe and are “a couple of major league pixies.” When the newbies start gushing to Fey after they’ve been outed, Kenan shuts them up promptly, but Lorne Michaels delivers a karmic slap to Thompson by asking if he’s the new cast member (“Is it the black one?”) when summoned by Fey as a lifeline. The lasting effect of this sketch was that I am going to be thinking about Win Butler’s De Niro impression for the rest of my life.
With all the mentions of Breaking Bad, it’s surprising that the show didn’t build its cold open around Sunday’s finale. The most direct address the show delivered was an ad for e-meth, the e-cigarette for serious narcotics enthusiasts. Killam anchored the ad as a henley-wearing fiend who just wants to “ride the ice pony anywhere” he wants, but McKinnon, a fan of “that chunky white crunch,” was even more spectacular. That meth vapor really is conducive to naps in abandoned tires, and it’s Jesse Pinkman–approved: “You know it’s good ’cause it’s blue, bitch.” You had me at the phrase “gakked up on whoop chicken.”
Arcade Fire took the stage for their first song, “Reflektor,” and if you were gakked up on whoop chicken Saturday night, you probably enjoyed it even more than I did. Butler was rocking some interesting cropped pants, Owen Pallett and Colin Stetson were there, Chassagne hopped into a mirrored box, and the late-echo refrain reminds me (fondly!) of “My Pal Foot Foot.” Also, there were horns.
The season premiere of “Weekend Update” welcomed Cecily Strong to the desk as co-anchor alongside Meyers, a station that doesn’t come with any pressure or anything. Just kidding! It does! Strong kept her anxiety in check, but a fist-bump from Meyers at the end of the segment reinforced the fact that this is no easy role to take on. When Strong was giving the obligatory due to her female predecessors — including a woman I’m very partial to because she’s smart, funny, beautiful, and my mom (my responsibility for full disclosure means our secret’s out, Amy Poehler!) — Fey rolled in prematurely on her desk chair, then reappeared when appropriate to dole out advice (“believe in your nightmares”) to Strong. The new “Update” resident handled herself well, claiming an O.J. zinger (“Stay strong, Juice!”) and crossing into sexy John Stamos territory (fertile!).
Unfortunately for Kyle Mooney, his debut character Bruce Chandling, an L.A.-hating stand-up comic, wasn’t received very warmly. It’s a thin premise, one that I think would have been better as a digital short à la Tommy Palmese. I won’t be too hard on Mooney, though, because I thought that his delivery and smoothness indicated that this was just a bad choice of material for his first real sketch; he has swagger and the character just needed some retooling. Not everyone can be Drunk Uncle, our life raft in a Stefonless tsunami. Moynihan’s Uncle offered his sloshed and bitter take on the state of school nowadays, when youngsters just want Swiss chard on their Roku and more pumpkin spice on their Amazon Primes, busy as they are “twerking nine to five.” If you ever wondered about Drunk Uncle’s family, you are now given a clue: Meth Nephew, played by Aaron Paul, showed up one last time to try to steal Uncle’s knock-knock jokes.
Now I find myself in the difficult position of defending a skit I’m sure the rest of you hated: “PBS’s Cinema Classics,” with Thompson as your seriously weird host, Reese de’What. This sketch didn’t need Thompson, and in fact I think the frame was a hindrance. Fey and Killam played the stars of 1940’s forgotten classic Unwanted Woman, which we learn through a series of info-heavy explanations was a film that was set in a world full of stuffed creatures because the director’s mistress was blackmailing him and he needed to get her “mentally challenged taxidermist brother” some work. OK? OK. The dead animals involved were a circus bear with a hat, a squirrel ready for basketball practice, a porcine head with a protruding tongue, and too many others to count. Fey, Killam, and Aidy Bryant tossed themselves around a drawing room, bumping into hyenas, and then found themselves in a car driven by a raccoon plugging the brother’s taxidermy practice. Am I so wrong for liking it? This is like “Danielle” all over again. It seemed like a refusal to concede to the masses, like a dare, a show asking you “Can you love me, hideous as I am?” Yes, zombie ferret. I will speak up for you and your kin.
At least, I hope, we can all agree that “Used Car Commercial” exploited Fey’s talent for embodying hard-life-hammered ladies from far-off lands and long-ago times in the best way. Mike O’Brien, a new featured cast member but veteran SNL writer, donned a bow tie and a grandpa stache for an ad for the first used-car dealership, which hawks all the automotive brands in existence (so, only Model T’s) in glorious black and white. He’s crazy for slashing prices, but his wife, Daisy (Fey), is crazy for giving “all [her] babies to the well” and needing “electricity to fix [her] thoughts.” This one was kissing cousins with Dooneese (Wiig) from the “Lawrence Welk Show” spoof days, and maybe for that reason I loved it.
Arcade Fire came back with “After Life,” and this time there were bongos and black-goggle trompe-l’oeil eye makeup. It was better than “Reflektor,” even more new-wavey and dramatic. I’d point out that there seemed to be sound issues, but there are always sound issues on SNL. It’s part of the immediacy of watching a musical act on the show, the nervous preoccupation with whose mic is malfunctioning at any given moment. That’s a good excuse for a 30-minute follow-up special! Here Comes the Night Time, directed by Roman Coppola, aired following the show, debuting tracks from Reflektor (“Here Comes the Night Time,” “We Exist,” and “Normal Person”) and featuring appearances by Michael Cera, James Franco, Rainn Wilson, Ben Stiller, Bono, Bill Hader, Zach Galifianakis, Jason Schwartzman, Aziz Ansari, and Eric Wareheim. The spot had been recorded in Montreal earlier this month and took place in an ’80s-style disco; in a way, it was like a shortened SNL in which the song-to-sketch ratio had been inverted. If Saturday Night Live was trying to assert its benevolence during a shake-up period, this was a good maneuver: It was a reminder of the show’s relationship to its musical guests, the unique brand of publicity it brings to artists.
Sadly, the season premiere ended with a gravestone. Two gravestones, actually, one for each Swarovski crystal girl. In the latest incarnation of Strong and Bayers’s vehicle for their porn-star-turned-infomercial twits, the skit faltered where it hadn’t previously. Now hawking Manolo Blahniks (Manual Blondicks), the pair are still committed to their roles, but in trying to thwart its predictable joke architecture, the punch lines are getting darker (rape by the Kia rodents, being locked in a trunk) but no funnier. Not that there weren’t any laughs (“You’ll feel like you’re drinking lobster straight out of the sink”), or that Fey’s character, a Pennsatuckian spin on the type named Lejean Noween, wasn’t a good one. It’s just time to retire these two. They’ve suffered enough. Give them their freedom along with their free pumps.
It was a good show, I thought, a show that warranted gentle judgment for the fact that it was well-considered and everyone was prepared. Fey was a reassuring host, reliable and lovable and a star pupil of the SNL school; she’s a restorer of faith when things look bleak. The episode played up the familiar more than it showcased its changes, using old signposts along the way and working its cameo power with Paul. Airing the Arcade Fire special as an addendum to the show painted SNL as good-natured and weird, reminding us that it’s still on board with pushing limits and redefining what late-night TV can be. Its credo hasn’t changed, though its cast has. It will be an interesting season, the kind that will alter the course of its history. After a major cast upheaval in the mid-’80s following cancellation threats, the show gained Phil Hartman, Dana Carvey, Kevin Nealon, and Jan Hooks: There could be hope yet.