There are many changes in the air as the show starts its thirty-ninth season, with six new cast members, a host of departing ones, and the latest round of “the show isn’t as good as it used to be” swirling around it like vultures who haven’t found a new or interesting thing to say about the show in decades. No one knows if the show will be better or worse this season. But it will absolutely, positively be different. And “different” is often good when it comes to “SNL”. Change is built into the show’s DNA, and there’s no reason to think that the departures of Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis, Fred Armisen, and (later this season) Seth Meyers will finally kill the show. If “The Californians” couldn’t kill this show, nothing can.
Obama On The Affordable Care Act: Will we get our first tepid political cold open as our very first sketch of the season? One can only never hope. Rather than get a lot of Jay Pharaoh’s Obama impression, we get a series of “normal” citizens excited for the start of Obamacare. That gets new cast members such as Beck Bennett into the action right away. Kate McKinnon steals the sketch with an overworked ER doctor who has advice on how to shave costs. “Obamacare or no Obamacare, people need to stop putting stuff up their butts!” Aaron Paul joins the proceedings in character as Jesse Pinkman, because come on, you knew “Breaking Bad” would factor into this premiere somehow. All in all…this was so, so, so long. Way too long to make any impact. Some nice little moments, but too much unfunny fluff. [Grade: B-]
Monologue: Tina Fey is greeted like a rock star by the audience. As well she should! She’s dying to do all her recurring characters, like “Johnny Jean Jacket” and “Queef Latina”. But it’s not about her: it’s about the half-dozen new cast members! They all come out…and I see white people! Fey wants them to do a time-honored tradition: dancing awkwardly behind the host. So much gold lamé! It’s funny when people in tight pants dance provocatively, I guess? Still, it’s all about Fey, who has some great zingers as they writhe. (“I hope you have a lot of impressions!”) Not much in the way of introducing the personalities, but some pretty good energy all the same. [Grade: B]
Girls: New cast member Noel Wells gets the Hannah Horvath role, which is cool. But Fey is Blertha, the new Albanian member of the show in this spot-on parody of the HBO buzzworthy show. Still, I’d watch forty-five minutes of Vanessa Bayer doing Shoshanna. That is my new spirit animal. Given that the focus of the offseason moves were centered around the men in the cast, it’s great to get an early reminder of how potent the female half is. I wouldn’t mind this as a runner tonight. [Grade: A-]
Express Air: Having just flown to and from Austin, I recognize every single type of passenger identified in this sketch. But since this segment announces its comedic intent from the very first joke, there’s little in the way of real surprise here. The two exceptions? The comically overlarge bag wielded by Kenan Thompson and Bobby Monyihan’s creepy farter. Everything else was pretty much DOA. This is the post-monologue sketch? God help us. [Grade: C-]
New Cast Member Or Arcade Fire?: Kenan Thompson gets the game hosting slot in the post-Hader era. (Worth noting, in terms of overall pecking order!) The premise isn’t all that funny, but Thompson/Fey are great: Fey gets to do her wry observations (“a hipster Paul Bunyan”), and Thompson gets to bring his authoritative yell to the proceedings. (On the plus side? The lead singer for Arcade Fire does a darn good Robert de Niro!) The joke here is that not even Lorne Michaels can tell which character is new, ultimately selecting Thompson over his two Caucasian options. I’m probably overthinking this, but is it weird to overtly call out the fact that the show’s hired a bunch of interchangeable people? Maybe. Maybe not. I ask, you yell at me in the comments. [Grade: B]
EMeth: We have electronic cigarettes: why not electronic meth pipes? If you didn’t think Aaron Paul would return for this, well, I don’t know what to say. I would feel bad about the show trotting him out to say his “bitch” catchphrase from “Breaking Bad”, but he uses it in literally every tweet he posts. So I’m pretty sure he’s fine with it, just as I am find with Kate McKinnon wearing a sailor hat and going to town in a grocery store while high on meth. Not much to this premise, but it was short and sweet and left before the premise got stale. [Grade: B]
It’s time for the new cast members…I mean, Arcade Fire, to take the stage to perform their new single “Reflektor”. It’s a slinky, hypnotic jam that has a running time on record at nearly eight minutes. Know what? I could listen to another eight minutes of it. This band is historically hit or miss for me, but I love this song. That probably means that this is the one song that longtime fans of the band hate. But I’m OK with that, because 1) this is my recap, and 2) none of you know where I live. Bonus points for the onstage mirror that makes the performance look like an early 1980's music video. [Grade: A]
Weekend Update: Given that Cecily Strong broke into the limelight on “SNL” with a variety of characters and impressions, it’s great to see her using her own voice and personality in an extended manner. She takes time to thank the females who have held down spots on the “Update” desk, including Fey, who shows up to give her official blessing to this new era. (That didn’t HAVE to me done, but the optics are smart, and this will be the clip everyone embeds tomorrow.) The first guest? Bruce Chandling, played by newcomer Kyle Mooney. Bruce Chandling apparently inherits the Armisen slot on the show, since this Chandling is a low-grade Nicholas Fehn ripoff (albeit with more depression). The plan for Strong seems to be incorporating part of her “Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With At A Party” character into interludes between her and Meyers. Not a bad way to bring in one of her signature characters. Ending things off: Drunk Uncle, making the first of what will probably be fifteen appearances this season. TIME FOR OVERANALYSIS: Meyers gets both interview segments here, leaving Strong out of the loop. Granted, Meyers got better year after year handling these, so why stop now? But it will be interesting to see if Strong gets more of these in the weeks to come. Finally, Aaron Paul appears as Meth Nephew…because when you rent Aaron Paul, you rent him for the whole show. More on this “Update” segment at the bottom. [Grade: B]
Cinema Classics: Well, this was over before it began. Thompson’s host introduces “Unwanted Woman,” a film that features a series of increasingly silly stuffed animals. Why? Because of an elaborate backstory involving a mentally challenged taxidermist. My God. At some point, someone thought this was a good idea, even the part where Toonces The Cat is replaced by a raccoon. Well, we have our first completely terrible sketch of the season. Happy to get that out of the way. Off to take a shower for three days to wash that off. [Grade: D-]
Rick’s Model T’s: Mike O’Brien gets his first big solo spot as a man trying to invent the used car market. Fey is his distraught wife who keeps bringing down the proceedings. O’Brien’s character gets the unfortunately narrow pitches (“We have every brand of cars there is: Model T’s!”) while Fey just bursts into angry sentences (“I once punched a mirror because I looked in it and saw someone who was crazy!”) At this point I think it’s fair to wonder how no one at “SNL” seems to know how to use Tina Fey unless she’s playing Tina Fey, right? Dear Lord, some of the material thrown her way is dire. [Grade: C-]
Arcade Fire returns, this time performing “Afterlife”. It’s in the same vicinity of “Reflektor,” but also keeps more in line with its past albums. There’s more of a rhythmic urgency here, with at least four percussionists going wild onstage. It very much feels like The Talking Heads’ “Stop Making Sense” tour. Maybe it’s just because I’ve never heard the track until now that it seems denser and slightly more impenetrable than “Reflektor,” but I’m willing to bet there’s plenty more I’d like once I heard it a few more times. [Grade: B]
Manolo Blahnik: Yay! Just when I checked out, the former porn stars are back! (“I’m Brookie!” “And you can too!”) Look, this formula is exactly the same as it was, but the writers have not remotely found the edges of this comedic formula. (You can wear these shoes during…your First Amber Alert!) As much as I like the fact that female hosts can get in on the action with this sketch, I’m just not sure this fits Fey’s comedic timing and strengths, even if the “House Hunters” joke is solid gold. Still, it's a small quibble since Bayer/Strong are so darn good. We’re probably about two iterations away from me saying that enough is enough with this premise. But for now? I’m glad I have a live sketch I assign a good grade. [Grade: A-]
Best Sketch: “Girls”. I love the ex-porn stars, but I have to give props to this spot-on parody.
Worst Sketch: “Cinema Classics”. Let us never speak of this again.
More Thoughts On Weekend Update: It’s only the first installment of the Meyers/Strong Era. So no need to draw any conclusions. But this was clearly the show trying to make her feel comfortable in the chair, trying out that interlude to see how it worked, and calling it a day. Strong was a good choice for the seat, and “SNL” clearly believes in her as a future anchor not only of “Update” but the show as a whole. Having Fey anointing this era was smart PR. But we won’t get a sense of what a Strong-led “Update” will resemble for quite some time.
Final Thoughts: A weak premiere overall. Hardly anything topical, and hardly anything that demonstrated why Fey will go down as one of the most influential writers/performers in the show’s history. We can’t just blame this on a lack of Sarah Palin impressions: It’s not as if Fey was a minor part of “SNL” history before that. As for the new cast members: no one looked bad, but no one had a break out performance on the level of Bill Hader dropping his Al Pacino impression during a post-Katrina cleanup, either.
Next Week: Miley Cyrus. So…yeah.
What did everyone else think? Did the show leave Fey high and dry? How did Cecily Strong do? Did any new cast members stand out in particular? Sound off below!