SNL season 41: End of the slump?

When SNL started their 41st season last October, I wasn't particularly excited by the lineup for the season premiere; Miley Cyrus doing double-duty as host and musical guest wasn't exactly the worst way to start the year, but her previous show was only two years before, and not a particularly strong one, at least writing-wise. What was more ominous was that there were no cast changes aside from the addition of another white male stand-up as a featured player, and the writing staff turnover fit the same pattern as in previous years (the long-tenured writers stay, the newbies are the first on the chopping block).

I'm not going to pretend this season of SNL was one of the series' greatest years, but what the last twenty-one shows have demonstrated is that the current group of writers and performers is capable of getting the balance right. Letting Donald Trump host the show in November was a mistake (and I suspect there are many at the show who feel the same), but the shows hosted by Tracy Morgan and Larry David were SNL's strongest efforts in years, and even weaker outings by Russell Crowe and Drake felt more like the writing was affected by the host's weaknesses (the former) or that the material just didn't connect (the latter), as opposed to the pandering I criticized the show for doing in seasons 39 and 40.

I won't go too far into detail about the elements that worked and didn't work this season, but I will definitely single out Kate McKinnon, Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider for their continued excellent take on Hillary Clinton (McKinnon's is now the definitive impression). Vanessa Bayer made an incredible comeback this year ("Santa Baby" unleashed one of her most unsettling performances), and Cecily Strong returned to her full power as a member of the ensemble. There were still a few questionable sketches throughout the year ("Good Morning Song" marred the otherwise excellent Tracy Morgan show with a questionable gay predator punchline), but there seems to be more meat in the writing this year.

Colin Jost and Michael Che continued their turnaround of Weekend Update; it is now the most consistently funny and surprising part of the show, thanks in no small part to increased collaboration between the anchors and writers, and the efforts of segment producer Dennis McNicholas. Jost also stepped down as head writer prior to the start of the season, which allows him to put his focus on Update; while it is unclear as to what extent Jost's influence affected the quality of the show over the previous seasons, but this year's writing seems less beholden to recurring characters or attempts at new ones.

I used to think the show needed a huge shake-up to get it out of the holding pattern of mediocrity it was in for the past few seasons. I'm beginning to think that all it needs is a slight bit of work over the summer to trim some of the bloat.