Saturday Night Live began its 39th season with a bit more media attention than usual: six new featured players were added to pad out a cast that lost three of its key players over the summer, and last year's rookie breakout Cecily Strong was added to Weekend Update to prepare for anchor Seth Meyers' departure for his own Late Night show mid-season. In short, another "transition year" for a show that seems to be in the throes of a particularly long and gradual "transition year".
I've written about this before, but the season premiere is not really the best place to judge how the season as a whole will go. The first few shows in September and October have the cast and writers slowly settling back into their routines, and they largely play it safe until the group dynamic is re-established. Selecting TIna Fey as a host was a smart choice, though I suspect, like with Amy Poehler three years ago, the producers were having a little trouble finalizing that slot as the announcement came less than three weeks before air. Fey also didn't really have anything to promote aside from being a successful alumna.
Her fourth gig as host (and first since appearing while 6 months pregnant in May 2011) was welcome, though: with Fey, it feels like there's an extra member in the cast rather than someone being shoehorned into sketches.
It did feel like the show was struggling to come up with content. The influx of new players served as the basis for two whole segments: the monologue, and a game show where Tina Fey had to guess whether someone was a new featured player or a member of Arcade Fire. Both of these segments were actually pretty funny, but SNL usually handles their new cast influxes a bit more succinctly than this (Side note: my all-time favorite way of introducing new players was 1986's premiere, which didn't show a member of its mostly-new cast on-camera before the first commercial break).
On the downside, there were a few thin premises (the airport sketch, the PBS movie show), and the recurring characters (Drunk Uncle and the Ex-Porn Stars) didn't have their best outings. I suspect that this was less of a problem than it would have been without Fey, who knows how to play the weaker bits. While the Aaron Paul cameos were welcome and appropriate considering the event-level finale of Breaking Bad the next night, by the time of his third appearance they began to feel like a crutch.
Cecily Strong made her debut as a Weekend Update co-anchor. Last season, she made a quick impression with characters like "The Girl You Wish You Haven't Started A Conversation With At A Party", and felt like a veteran after only a few shows. Her first time at the desk showed promise, but was underwhelming: she seems to be trying to force herself into the Seth Meyers sarcastic delivery mold, and seemed to have an absence of the gravitas that Jane Curtin or Fey herself had at the desk. I hope she eventually grows into her new role and finds a way to make the desk her own, rather than continue to dish out more of the same style of humor that Seth Meyers has been serving on WU since 2006.
The large number of people in the cast (and tendency toward longer openings, monologues and Weekend Update) means that there are a lot of people competing for airtime, and because the show only has so much space, some will inevitably get shut out some weeks. Of the new hires, Kyle Mooney and Noel Wells seemed to make the strongest impressions tonight. Mooney got an Update feature for his inaugural show with his hack stand-up character Bruce Chandling, and Wells led a fake promo for HBO's Girls with her Lena Dunham impression. Writer-turned-player Mike O'Brien also had a feature playing an old-timey used car salesman character, but Fey was the one who carried the sketch. Beck Bennett ended up relagated to support roles, while John Milheiser and Brooks Wheelan only had bit parts. It remains to be seen how the male players will distinguish themselves from each other.
The size of the cast will only serve to make it tougher for some veterans to get airtime: Nasim Pedrad, now in her fifth season, seems to appear on the show significantly less each passing year, and while Jay Pharoah's Obama ensures his spot in the cast, he was nowhere to be seen after the opening montage. Other than these two, the remaining cast seems to be gelling as a group, with Bobby Moynihan, Taran Killam, Vanessa Bayer, Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon settling into clear roles in the cast. Curiously, it feels like they're grooming Kenan Thompson to take some of the Bill Hader and Jason Sudiekis roles, as his game show emcee and PBS host characters would have been portrayed by either of the two departed players.
I was disappointed that Tim Robinson was swapped out of the cast and into the writer's room for this year, essentially switching places with Mike O'Brien. Robinson may not have had as stellar a year as Cecily Strong, but he was responsible for some of last year's more memorable sketches ("Z-Shirts" and "Roundball Rock"). O'Brien seems to fill a similar niche in the roles he plays, but he's not as strong a performer as Robinson, nor does he quite have his strong comedic sensibility.
I'm still on the fence about the Arcade Fire performances: I do give them credit for always trying to present themselves with an interesting visual, but I wasn't feeling either of their songs tonight. I suspect they'll grow on me in the context of the album, though. For me, their best appearance was backing up Mick Jagger on "The Last Time" if only for the sheer joy exuding from their faces (Sarah Neufeld had a huge grin on hers all throughout).
Next week: Miley Cyrus is the host and musical guest. Hope she keeps her tongue in.