Give them credit. They were at least up front about it.
Saturday Night Live’s new era launched this weekend. Saturday night marked the first episode in a season that will see a mostly untested cast struggling to step in the shoes vacated by the stellar talents of longtime favorites Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, and Jason Sudeikis—who left at the end of last year—and Andy Samberg and Kristen Wiig, who departed at the end of the previous season.
Six new cast members made their debuts Saturday night—Beck Bennett, John Milhiser, Kyle Mooney, Mike O’Brien, Noel Wells, and Brooks Wheelan—while now-veterans—Taran Killam, Kate McKinnon, Cecily Strong—worked to establish themselves as the show’s new breakout stars.
“It’s a rebuilding year,” host Tina Fey said during her opening monologue, both as a statement of fact and, as it became abundantly clear, as a warning.
Fey’s entire monologue was devoted to introducing the new cast members. At the start, it was quite adorable. After announcing/threatening that this was a “rebuilding year,” she invited the six newbies on stage with her, telling them that their first duties would be to perform as background dancers behind the host—a ridiculous role that it’s easy to forget the SNL greats were all forced to take on.
“Being humiliated for the first time anywhere, the featured players of Saturday Night Live,” she announced. Then, tellingly, “Congratulations, you’re done for the night,” joking about the fact that featured players are hardly ever seen after these group sketches that launch the show.
That’s perfectly fine, especially with so many veteran cast members are deserving of bigger showcases this season. But it’s confusing considering the Big Fat Deal the show decided to make about the fact that there is so much new talent the season. Beyond the opening monologue, one of the first sketches, a game-show spoof called “New Cast Member of Arcade Fire?” was also entirely about the green crop of featured players.
Yet for all the intentional hype over the new cast members that dominated the opening third of the premiere, beyond those two bits that basically just obsessed over their existence, they were hardly used at all.
Noel Wells had the chance to show off her vocally impressive Lena Dunham impression in a confusingly-timed Girls spoof (the show is neither currently airing nor receiving any particular buzz). Kyle Mooney was a Weekend Update guest, and…fine. Mike O’Brien co-headlined a sketch so unmemorable that I honestly couldn’t tell you what it was about. Brooks Wheelan shot a scene with blurred nudity. So congrats on that, dude.
To be clear, this isn’t a rag on these new performers. They’re probably all extremely talented (we’ll just have to assume this, as we saw so little of them Saturday night). It was a disappointment, definitely, that Beck Bennett, the new cast member previously best known for his dry wit in those hilarious AT&T ads, saw his SNL debut reduced to grinding in gold hot pants and a throwaway role in an airport sketch.
Underutilizing actors has, in years past, become the de facto course of action for the show. Whether it’s milking every single one of Kristen Wiig’s characters dry or casting Bill Hader as “male” in any sketch of the night, the show has a penchant for exploiting some cast members at the expense of others.
Kate McKinnon is the perfect example of this.
Her Weekend Update appearances last season as Ann Romney and infamous art restorer Cecilia Gimenez were easily the funniest two moments of the year in the show. Even on Saturday night’s premiere, she played two of the most memorable characters: a doctor whining about patients getting things stuck in their butts and an office drone meth addict. The thing is, these were two bit parts in ensemble sketches. McKinnon just, in the Wiig way, shone so brightly in those tiny roles that it was impossible to forget her. It remains excessively frustrating that McKinnon still has yet to be given a recurring sketch or lead part that showcases her clearly superior talent.
It was, however, invigorating to see Cecily Strong sitting behind the Weekend Update desk. In an amusing bit about previous female Weekend Update hosts, she visibly teared up a bit while talking about the influence of predecessors like Jane Curtin, Amy Poehler, and Fey. She was right to do so, as she has already, in her first night on the job, perfected the tongue-in-cheek delivery of those Update punch lines that, honestly, Seth Meyers, in years at the desk, has never really landed.
And SNL will continue to have a problem as long as it is unable to find humor in Barack Obama’s presidency. At first, people thought the issue was former Obama portrayer Fred Armisen’s take on the role (not to mention the fact that he wasn’t African American). But expert mimicker Jay Pharoah has since taken over, and sketches, like Saturday’s cold open about ObamaCare, remain humorless and dry.
Pharoah’s impression of Obama may be flawless, but it’s just that—an impression. There’s no joke being told here, it’s just an actor doing a great job mimicking the vocal ticks of someone who is, as a comedy nightmare, relatively even keeled. The genius of Darrell Hammond’s Bill Clinton and Will Ferrell’s George Bush was that there was a perspective to their performances that was being played for laughs: Clinton as a charming cad, Ferrell as a charming buffoon. Pharoah’s Obama is just…Obama. There needs to be an angle to his performance if it’s ever going to be truly funny.
There was one bright spot Saturday night. Three actually, each occasion without fail receiving raucous hoots and holler from the audience. Aaron Paul showed up, three times, in character as Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman, but the way the show used him is the perfect example of the lack of cleverness that permeated the premiere. Flat references to the fact that he was on Breaking Bad were confused for real jokes, as if the writers just shrugged, “Well, if he says the words, ‘Breaking Bad,’ at least people will scream, right?”
There was one pretty great punch line from Bobby Moynihan’s Drunk Uncle character during a Weekend Update bit with Paul-as-Pinkman. “I’m the one who knock knocks,” he said, referring to the now-iconic Breaking Bad line.
Perhaps the greatest failure of this first episode in this apparent “rebuilding year” of Saturday Night Live is that, for all the fuss being made of these six new cast members, we still have no idea “who’s there.”