Last week, I presented the possibility that the SNL cast and writers have likely used all their energy on the Betty White show. This week's show seems to have confirmed that theory, with an episode not only underwhelming by Alec Baldwin's usually high standards but for a season finale in general.
Other than a half-hearted nod to the Alec Baldwin-Steve Martin hosting record rivalry in the monologue, it was a pretty forgettable show, and they might as well have booked another person as host. The cold opening (thankfully not another Obama address) was mercifully brief, as was the swim coach sketch. Nasim Pedrad's Bedelia character from the Tina Fey show returned with largely the same formula as the first sketch (substitute father for mother and birthday party for school dance), while Kristen Wiig debuted her latest in a series of escalatingly irritating assortments of tics no later than the first live sketch following the monologue. Abby Elliott and Jenny Slate each made final stabs at making an impact this season: Elliott did a decent impression of Sally Field in a fake osteoporosis commercial, while Slate costarred with Baldwin in a TCM "tart with a heart" movie spoof that ended with a handjob punchline. Andy Samberg's Digital Shorts and Kenan Thompson's bedroom moves guy made perfunctory appearances, while Will Forte barely appeared all night.
The one sketch I thought stood out was the Timecrowave infomercial, tucked in after Weekend Update. The whole idea of time travel affecting the future is an old one, but it was executed quite well with the camera switches revealing each increasingly silly change. Unfortunately, it really did seem like most of the show was an afterthought, and it was easily Baldwin's weakest episode. Considering that last year's finale with Will Ferrell ended that season on a strong note, this half-assed show only confirmed that unless they make a concerted effort (like with a big-ticket host like White), even a host with a proven track record such as Alec Baldwin can't rise above the material they put out. I don't know if they were expecting Baldwin's presence alone to elevate mediocre material (to be fair, he did help somewhat), or if it was just exhaustion on everyone's part, but either way the finale was another letdown in a season full of them.
Which brings me to this season overall. As I said in my prior rant, the writing is the show's biggest liability. The writing staff is so overstuffed right now, with a count of 28 different people in the credits (including writers who weren't on staff the whole season, as well as Lorne Michaels, whose credit is more of a figurehead thing). I can't lay blame on individual writers without knowing who specifically wrote what, but the competition to get the material on the show must be pretty intense, and I can see where an over-reliance on a specific cast member or recurring material may be the crutch a writer uses to get past the read-through and rehearsals. Kristen Wiig actually said herself in an interview that a character she didn't think was that good (Trina, the apparently slow woman who keeps calling out "Thomas!" in a high-pitched sing-song voice) made it on a second time because the writers simply wrote another one. I've also said I give Fred Armisen's not particularly strong Obama impression a pass before: the main thing is that they're using it for deathly dull cold openings that are light on actual humor. When discussing the show with a friend, he surmised that the writers have forgotten about the middle ground between ridiculously stupid, lightweight material (like Trina) and sketches too smart for their own good (like the Obama openings), as if silliness or intelligence carried sketches on their own without being paired with funny material.
I also wonder about the level of control the network has over the show. The last time the show was this heavy on recurring material was in the mid-90s, when the network suits were really hands-on (firing Norm Macdonald, reducing the music element to one performance after Weekend Update). As much as I would like to find another reason to dislike Jeff Zucker (especially after the whole Tonight Show mess), I really can't say for sure if the show's decline in quality is related to network interference, or if it's just something that's strictly internal to the show itself.
Either way, I don't have particularly high hopes for the next season. Yet I still have that faint hope that the show will prove me wrong.
I am still working on a post that ranks the individual castmembers and shows specifically, and will post that sometime in the near future.