A lot has already been written about this season of Saturday Night Live, and a fan is more likely to read extensively about this season before actually watching a single episode. The first time I actually saw these shows was in late 1998, when they ran on the Comedy Network; I was surprised that they weren't anywhere as terrible as their reputation made them out to be. The shows were still weak, but I had already seen worse first-run shows by that point. When watching the show again for these reviews, I have to admit it was a little more draining this time around, but that could have been because I was in a more analytical frame of mind, and trying to identify specific strengths and weaknesses in sketches.
What I saw was a decent group of actors without a strong group dynamic. It usually helps a new SNL cast when some of the members have worked together in the past, the most notable examples being the original 1975 ensemble and the 1986 "second golden age" group. Ferris Butler confirmed that the entire creative staff had not worked together before. Several of the writers were also very young or inexperienced. Twelve episodes would not have been enough time for such a cobbled-together team of cast and writers to find their collective voice (for comparison's sake, the original cast's 12th show was Dick Cavett / Jimmy Cliff). There definitely was no lack of talent in either group, but they would have benefited from a little more time, a little less pressure and better leadership at the top.
A lot of the blame for the season's woes rightly falls on Jean Doumanian's head. Most accounts I've read indicate that she was not suited to a creative role, yet wouldn't cede authority on that particular front. One of the most widely-circulated stories about Doumanian's creative input was her written advice on one 1980-81 sketch: "Make it funnier". For all the criticism Doumanian deserves, though, NBC should get its share for selecting her for the role of producer. Once the network's buyer's remorse about Doumanian set in, their increased meddling with the show probably didn't help matters much either.
That said, I'm not entirely convinced that the show would have been received better under anyone besides Jean Doumanian. One such scenario would be if Al Franken hadn't done the "Limo for a Lamo" bit in May 1980 and succeeded Lorne Michaels as producer as intended. Franken may have been able to retain some key creative staff, and that likely would quell the cries of "pretender" from the viewers and critics, yet that may not have been enough. Franken (and the late Tom Davis) did actually produce the first season after Lorne Michaels returned to SNL in '85, which had similar negative response to the Doumanian year. (Michaels has served as executive producer for every season since except 1986-87 and 1995-96: he had a more hands-on role during these "retooling years" that followed very poorly received seasons). Continuity in creative personnel from season 5 may not have helped the show either, since the season before often had a tired and burnt-out aura.
I sometimes think Doumanian's failures ensured SNL's survival in the long-term, by necessitating the hiring of a network suit (Dick Ebersol) who served as a buffer between the show and NBC. His show wasn't quite as edgy as the Michaels or even Doumanian versions, but Ebersol kept the show going long enough so that by the time he stepped down in 1985, Lorne Michaels was ready to return to the show.
I'm always interested in hearing the different takes on life at the show; I want to thank 1980-81 writer Ferris Butler for his valuable information regarding that season and his identification of show staff in bit parts as well. Special thanks also goes to Raj for his information on the extras. If anyone has more information regarding sketch writing credits, people doing background work, or are just interested in telling their side of their story, please feel free to leave a comment or contact me directly.