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It’s finally here! Season 39 of Saturday Night Live! I’m super excited about the new season as, even though SNL has had a hit or miss track record the last few year, it’s a cultural icon and a bedrock of television comedy. From its very best to its very worst, SNL is a deeply engrained part of our popular culture. And this season shows a lot of opportunities for change with such big cast members as Hader and Armison bidding farewell to studio 8H, the immerging presence of leaders like Strong, Moynihan and McKinnon, and a few new ensemble members.
As this is my first SNL recap, I’ll give you a quick heads up on the following. I’ll be writing the recaps “live,” meaning I’ll watch the sketch and immediately write a short blurb reviewing and recapping it. For each segment, I’ll rate it on a scale of 1-5 stars. At the end of the piece, I’ll share some quick overall thoughts and the best/worst sketch of the night.
And away we go!
Obamacare Speech: ** 1/2
I’m rarely a fan of the cold open as political humor generally isn’t my thing and, in the past couple of years, when SNL's does go the political route, it’s been pretty toothless and dull. The Affordable Care Act was a pretty good example of a middle-of-the-road political cold open as it had a few jokes and funny moments that landed (I particularly liked Cecily Strong’s iPhone dialogue), but it ultimately didn’t have quite enough to say (or was too genteel to say it).
What the Obamacare sketch did do, was reintroduce us to a few key players. The underappreciated Jay Pharaoh is once again playing the POTUS with spot-on ease. Aidy Bryant thankfully gets some screen time early in the episode and was at her over-enthusiastic best while Kate McKinnon is also on hand at her weird and intense best. I enjoyed them and the bit with Moynihan and new cast member Beck Bennett, but the entire sketch (like the Ted Cruz/Dr. Seuss segment) didn’t have enough comedic oomph behind it. And then, here comes Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul! As the only person on the planet who hasn’t watched Bad yet, the cameo didn’t really do anything for me.
Tina’s Monologue: ***
One of SNL's absolute favorite daughters Tina Fey is back in the house! She’s a great host and a fantastic writer, so let’s hope that rubs off on both the new and returning cast. Besides, she’s excited to be hosting because “unless [she’s] on TV every three weeks a little part of [her] dies.” After promising a Kristen-Wiig-Episode-Esque night full of returning characters like Queef Latifa and Salvador Dali Parton (the over-the-shoulders were just priceless), who by the way never existed, Fey brings out the new talent. And boy are there a lot of newcomers (and not to hammer a point made by many SNL reviewers, but they are a very, very white bunch. Isn’t it strange that, since Obama took office, we haven’t had an in-house performer who can play his wife?) After a quick intro, Fey leads them in a staple of SNL hazing: embarrassing dancing. While the whole monologue dragged a bit, I love having Fey back and the new cast members seem promising (especially that tall, gangly one in the back who forgot most of the choreography and just through himself in it anyway).
Girls Promo: **** ½
This is a good sign! As a 20-something recent graduate, struggling writer and part-time narcissist, I quite enjoy watching Girls. SNL's first post-monologue sketch, a pre-taped “promo” for the hit HBO series, lovingly parodied the show with an added, surrealist twist. Here we have new cast member Noel Wells as Hannah, Strong as Marnie, McKinnon as Jessa, and (a perfectly cast and spot-on) Bayer as Shoshana. Everything was pretty flawless from Shoshie’s weird hairdos to the whiny dialogue to a brief cameo from Taran Killam‘s Adam. But things got even funnier when Fey showed up as Hannah’s new roommate, an Eastern European wet blanket named Blerta. It’s surreal, sure, but somehow comments on the show’s “first world problems” nature, without hitting you over the head with social commentary. Maybe I loved this cause of the execution and the writing (the “Old Cow Disease” line just slayed me) or the fact that, after watching two seasons of Girls I’ve always wanted to swat Shoshana myself, but, for SNL, it was pretty pitch-perfect.
Express Air: **
I wanted to like this sketch satirizing airport culture and the ridiculous boarding rules (“First class! X Men first class! X Men Business Class!”) but after we get the joke in the first 20 seconds, it deflates quickly. Besides Thompson’s giant bag, I didn’t really laugh at all. And a fart joke? This early on? SNL should and can do better.
New Cast Member or Arcade Fire?: ***
SNL doesn’t have a very good record with game shows, as they are usually trotted out for one-joke premises and never quite jell. But New Cast Member or Arcade fire had a pretty good joke at its center and allowed the cast to do what they do best. I enjoyed Fey's snarky quips (“Hipster Paul Bunyan” and a “Serbian basketball player” were tied for my favorite) and Thompson's anger management issues gave the sketch an unexpected, and very welcome, hostility. As far as game shows go, I’d give this one a thumbs up.
Right on the heels of ECigarettes is EMeth, the most technologically advanced way for me to “ride the ice pony anytime I want.” The premise here is simple and sweet (and thankfully doesn’t overstay its welcome at only a minute or so long). I’d usually give this sketch a very average two-and-a-half star rating but Kate McKinnon’s manic energy pushed it up a half star rating for me. That shot of her grocery shopping along ups it in my book. And, no surprise here, Aaron Paul comes in for one line near the end. I wonder why they didn’t integrate him more?
Weekend Update: ***
Continuing the three-star streak is Weekend Update, which featured new co-host Cecily Strong. While Strong seemed a bit shaky at first, having Fey pass the baton, so to speak, was a nice touch. The jokes here were only so-so (the party school one was the only joke that actually make me laugh out loud), but I enjoyed their burgeoning energy and banter together. On the good end was the return of Drunk Uncle who, although the enjoyment of his character is starting to wear thin, is still proving why I put him in my Best of SNL list. While I’m not sure Aaron Paul brought a lot to the table, Drunk Uncle still made me laugh with his crazy diatribes like “the only ‘Blurred Lines’ I know is our border with Mexico.”
On the bad side was Ben Moody’s new character Bruce Chandling, a retread of the failed stand-up comic character we’ve seen over and over again on SNL. It wasn’t funny when Armison did it the last couple of years, it wasn’t funny here. Perhaps if they had pushed the awkwardness or pathos of Chandling further it would have worked, but as is the bit never took off.
Cinema Classics: *
When Cinema Classics started, I worried we’d be seeing another Australian Screen Legends-type sketch (a dead on arrival skit featured in my worst sketch list with the mistaken theory that naughty words + funny accent = comedy). Turns out I was right. Cinema Classics replaces that with another terribly unfound one: stuffed animals + overacting = comedy. I give Fey props for her total commitment, but Cinema Classics didn’t have a single funny moment or original idea. It’s a classic SNL bomb.
Cars For Sale: * ½
Mike O’Brien plays the world’s first used cars salesman in the first used car commercial. The set-up isn’t particularly funny, and O’Brien’s timing seems off and sloppy, but Fey’s angry outbursts as O’Brien’s mentally unstable wife are just funny enough to elevate this sketch from being the worst of the night so far.
Manolo Blahnik:*** ½
As much as I love the last two Ex-Porn Star sketches, they rated number five on my Best of last year list, I have to wonder if it was wise to bring them into the new season. While Brookie and her still unnamed friend are inspired comic creations, the latest reincarnation felt tired and slowed. The last three kept building on each other, getting weirder and more inappropriate as they went along, but this one didn’t bring anything new to the table (besides a great shout out to those ultra-creepy rapping gerbil Kia commercials). Funny, yes, but I don’t want to see this great sketch become old hat. It’s already on its way there.
Best Sketch: the Girls promo
Worst Sketch: Cinema Classics, no question.
The Musical Guest: Arcade Fire
Don’t have a lot to say about Arcade Fire, as I’m pretty much a stranger to their music. Their first song was “Reflektor,” a long, hypnotic jam of a tune that was both clubby and intimate in an interesting way. Their second, “Afterlife” is more percussive and straightforward. Not sure it’s my cup of tea, by by no means anything to complain about. By the way, am I sure I didn’t spot new cast member Beck Bennett on drums?!
Tina Fey is a game host but it seemed like SNL didn’t quite know what to do with her when she wasn’t playing herself. Writing wise, it was an unremarkable week but this is only the first show of the season and it wisely devoted much of its airtime to letting the freshman have a moment in the spotlight. Not all of it worked, but they’ve got time to figure it out.
Photo Courtesy of NBC Universal