SNL Season 35: What's Wrong?

The current SNL season is almost finished, and it's largely a disappointment.  It's not quite at the point it was in the infamously bad seasons (1980-81, 1994-95), but after coming off a particularly strong 2008-09 season (buoyed in part by Tina Fey's cameo appearances as Sarah Palin), the drop in quality is still noticeable; if things don't get fixed soon, it's only going to get worse.

The biggest changes in the makeup of the show over the last summer were the departure of longtime castmember Darrell Hammond (who made several cameos this season anyway) and the replacement of two of last year's featured players, Michaela Watkins and Casey Wilson.  Hammond, the last remaining member of the 1995-96 "comeback" cast was long expected to leave for years, but kept sticking around to do his customary one impression per episode.  It always seemed surprising that he would continue to be back every fall, shattering previous castmember longevity records with each season he stayed with the show; it was even more jarring when the show's opening montage no longer featured him.  Of the featured players, Casey Wilson seemed most likely to be replaced either way; I did think she had solid comedy chops and was a refreshingly different presence on the show, but she never really got many significant roles in her 30 show tenure.  Michaela Watkins, though, was a surprise: with two recurring bits (Bitch Pleeze and Today Show) in not even a full season, she seemed all but certain to be back for next year.  Despite the outcry on several SNL message boards and rumors that their dismissal may not have been entirely based on performance, both are now part of a growing list of castmembers who didn't necessarily reach their full potential on the show.

Watkins and Wilson were replaced by Jenny Slate and Nasim Pedrad.  The petite Pedrad had a relatively strong first season, doing several spotlight sketches and Weekend Update commentaries.  Slate had a rougher year, owing partially to the incident on the season opener where she accidentally uttered "fuckin'" instead of "freakin'", and hasn't been getting a lot of airtime, let alone many chances for a breakout.  It didn't help that Slate was obviously awkward and uncomfortable whenever she was on camera in the earlier part of the season (again, probably due to the premiere incident).  Last year's sole returning female featured player, Abby Elliott, has been getting a few impressions on the show, including a particularly ill-timed take on Brittany Murphy, but has yet to carry a sketch on her own.

The three featured females have been overshadowed by Kristen Wiig, the alpha female and breakout star of SNL's last few years.  Wiig has been getting a good deal of coverage as the new face of SNL; like a lot of other times before, SNL's reaction to a bit of positive notice is to milk it for all its worth.  Wiig has been front and centre on SNL, especially now that Amy Poehler is off the show.  By default, all the significant female parts in sketches go to Wiig, to the point of overexposure.  As well, many of her more recent recurring characters, such as psychopathic schoolgirl Gilly and dimbulb Trina, are not especially strong, and could be seen as merely Wiig-for-Wiig's-sake.  It reminds me of when Jimmy Fallon's star power rose after he hosted the 2002 MTV Video Music Awards, and suddenly there were a lot more bad, directionless sketches with him and Horatio Sanz such as the aquarium repairmen or the interminable 8-minute Saddam and Osama.

As much as Wiig's dominance is a problem, it's the writing that's been the weakest part of the show for years.  Before the season began, the already overstuffed writing roster added a number of new names, but instead of fresh ideas, the writing seems even more stale and uninspired than ever.  This season in particular has been the year of the pointlessly recurring character: chances are, if a particular sketch in an episode isn't recurring, you're going to see it again later this year.  The most egregious examples are the Kenan Thompson rave-up What Up With That and the ESPN Classic Ladysports featuring Jason Sudeikis and Will Forte; the latter sketch appeared 5 times over the past 19 episodes.  While recurring characters have been an integral part of the show since its inception, it seems that they no longer have the ability to keep recurring sketches fresh for even the second appearance.  The writers seem willing to dig out any sketch that has been done on the show one time before, revise it slightly to change some of the variables, and have the cast act it out again (the Hip Hop Kids from last weekend's show with Ryan Phillippe last showed up as a one-off from the 2006 Justin Timberlake episode).

It really is a shame the writing is so bad, because I find a lot to like in the current cast.  Bill Hader, Fred Armisen and Will Forte are solid castmembers and have the ability to commit to whatever character they play, no matter how outlandish or ridiculous the situation (I'm giving Armisen a pass for his Obama; he doesn't really have too much of a "hook" as President).  I also get a big kick out of Jason Sudeikis, the show's utility guy, who is usually at his best whenever his character has a big ridiculous grin on his face.   Featured player Bobby Moynihan continues to impress me and deserves to be bumped up to the main cast.  Seth Meyers' Weekend Update has a little hint of Norm MacDonald's much missed crankiness.  Kenan Thompson, arguably the main cast's weakest link, is a decent straight man and usually the show's "quick laugh" guy whenever he's not doing impressions he has no business doing (particularly O.J. Simpson, Tiger Woods, and Flavor Flav).  Though the producers started shoving Wiig down the audiences' throats, she still does have her strong moments, though less wheat than chaff these days.

As for the individual episodes, it's been hit-and-miss, but with fewer true highlights than past seasons, a number of decent to strong shows, more than their share of middling outings and at least one outright stinker on a level not seen in years.  Jon Hamm of Mad Men delivered a knockout episode for the second season in a row, and first-timer Joseph Gordon-Levitt brought much-needed energy to the show in November, but this year also brought disappointing outings from Tina Fey and Zach Galifianakis (the latter's show possibly the biggest letdown in years), and a depressing trainwreck hosted by January Jones, a host on the level of Nancy Kerrigan and Harry Dean Stanton in terms of sketch comedy ability (at one point she audibly asks "Which camera?").  The booking strategy seems to be a lot blander than in years past: besides Betty White (the first host booked due to a Facebook petition), we got barely relevant former hosts like Charles Barkley and Jennifer Lopez and utterly predictable choices in Megan Fox and Taylor Lautner.  Unfortunately, this has extended to the musical guest bookings: I have been enjoying some of the guests they've had over the last few seasons (including Fleet Foxes and Arcade Fire), but the show's been getting back to the short-lived one-hit-wonder novelty act booking strategy it was guilty of using from the late 90s through the earlier part of the decade, particularly in the last two weeks with Justin Bieber and Ke$ha.

For the most part this year has actually had at least one funny sketch per show.  But the cracks are visible and unless something changes over the summer, next year could have the makings of another bad year on the level of 1994-95, when the show could no longer successfully navigate the line that divides the uninspired from the terrible.