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.

SNL Season 40: A post-mortem

SNL Season 40: A post-mortem

After Brooks Wheelan, Noel Wells and John Milhiser were fired from Saturday Night Live last July, I wrote a particularly visceral piece blasting Lorne Michaels and company for only making cosmetic changes to the show's makeup instead of trying to fix SNL's deep-seated problems in the writing department. The 2013-2014 season was not very good; and was the first year where I was deliberately skipping episodes. Of course, my curiosity got the better of me after checking out the fan reaction on the SNL message boards (which, admittedly, are not the kindest to the cast and writers either), but there were very few shows that felt worth the time investment of watching live. Despite talk from producers that this year would reflect some lessons learned, the big issues with last year weren't resolved at all: the show's problems only seemed to entrench themselves further. 

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SNL Post-mortem: 10/26/13: Edward Norton / Janelle Monae

After an underwhelming episode with Bruce Willis, pretty much anything would seem like an improvement for SNL's next show.  Fortunately, Edward Norton's episode was markedly better than the last few, thanks to a game host and strong musical guest, even if the writing continues to be sub-par.

The Wes Anderson parody was easily the strongest and most fully realized segment, drawing primarily from Royal Tenenbaums, with some smaller nods to Rushmore, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Moonrise Kingdom.   I have to admit that "failure to grasp a simple concept" is pretty reliable as far as a sketch premise goes, so "School Visit" and "Steve Harvey" both made me laugh.  "School Visit" was the stronger sketch, with Nasim Pedrad getting a rare featured segment on the show as an elementary school student who doesn't quite understand "Stranger Danger".  The sketch works because Pedrad plays her character with such undue confidence, while Norton is able to hold his own against Pedrad in his role as the police officer; the remaining cast also does some good support work.  "Steve Harvey" was weaker and didn't have an ending, but Harvey's (Kenan Thompson) completely wrong guesses about punny Halloween costumes were some good quick laughs.

The show's weaknesses were still apparent last night.  Norton's final sketch, where he explained individual pieces of Halloween candy he gave out, had some good lines, but seemed like a quick rewrite of the Christmas ornaments sketch from the 2011 Steve Buscemi show.  Miley Cyrus' cameo in the monologue didn't bother me as much as it did other people, but the gratuitous twerking reference that ended "12 Years Not A Slave" only served to instantly date the sketch.   A sketch revolving around a "Rain Man"-type character 25 years after the movie got some grousing from the message boards for its untimeliness, but the bigger problem was a lack of an ending.   Weekend Update was mercifully shorter than usual, but Cecily Strong still seems a little tentative, and Bobby Moynihan's Anthony Crispino character seems to be more to provide Seth Meyers something to react to than anything else.

I'm still baffled by the decision to hire six new featured players to replace three (four if you count Tim Robinson's move to the writer's room).  I understand that Fred Armisen, Bill Hader and Jason Sudeikis were the cast's foundation in the last few seasons, but the huge number hired seems to indicate a lack of faith in the established cast; this is even more aggravating when you take into consideration their limited opportunities to develop their own dynamic, especially during the reign of Kristen Wiig as alpha-castmember.  Kenan Thompson is being pushed as this year's bedrock, but he doesn't have the versatility of the departed players; why the show didn't look for a stronger black performer to replace him is a mystery.  To their credit, Bobby Moynihan and Taran Killam are still very dependable in whatever they do, but there are so many players competing for airtime that the cast can't establish a true group dynamic.

SNL Post-Mortem: 10/12/03: Bruce Willis / Katy Perry

One of SNL's current booking strategies seems to be to grab random celebrities who've only hosted the show once many years before.  Tonight's host, Bruce Willis, last appeared on the show's season premiere in 1989.  Willis' musical guest this time around was Katy Perry, whose performance of "Roar" with an animal-suited band was one of the oddest things on this week's show.

Willis' performances were off all night and sloppy compared to his first show; while Perry markedly improved over her 2010 songs, despite a iffy audio mix.  Even iffier was the writing, which was weaker than the previous two shows, with too many of the sketches going nowhere beyond the reveal of the main joke.  

The Lady Gaga Show was the latest dressing on one of SNL's favorite crutches: the talk show sketch.  Besides not being particularly funny, the sketch was a performance misfire for Vanessa Bayer, whose delivery as Gaga seemed too similar to her bar mitzvah boy character Jacob.    

More frustrating was the attempt to recur two one-off sketches from last year; the resurrection of Bobby Moynihan's kittycat-fixated astronaut Kirby was a beat-for-beat remake of a sketch that aired almost exactly a year ago, while Taran Killam's Eddie character predictably hectored a character played by the host over a mispronounced word.  Perhaps the laziest piece of writing was Penelope Cruz (Kate McKinnon) mispronouncing hair product chemicals in Gaga Show, a routine cribbed from a sketch in McKinnon's debut show in April 2012.

There were handful of bright spots: Boy Dance Party got a great reaction from the audience and is likely to be SNL's latest meme-generator, while the Good Neighbor guys' "Sigma" short was well constructed, with several good jokes.  Centauri Vodka had the most interesting and classically funny premise of the night, as well as giving two of the season's least-used castmembers (John Milheiser and Nasim Pedrad) some much-needed airtime.  Brooks Wheelan also managed to show some promise in a Weekend Update desk segment, though Cecily Strong's awkward WU performance felt like a backward step from last week's signs of improvement.

I don't know how the hierarchy at SNL currently works regarding who gets their material on air, or how big a part in the sketch writing process the cast have, but over the last few seasons, I've noticed it's the veteran writers that stick around while the newer hires come and go.  I get the feeling that the writers with the most influence are the ones who are also holding the show back.  It's a shame, really, because the cast has been quite good in the last couple of seasons; Bobby Moynihan is particularly reliable for saving sketches.  However, the show is only as good as its writing, and I have a feeling that even the celebrated original cast or '86-90 ensemble would have trouble salvaging some of tonight's material.

Next week is a dark week for the show, which will return live on October 26 with Edward Norton and Janelle Monae.  I will continue my Classic SNL reviews that week with the next show from 1982-83 (Robert Blake / Kenny Loggins).

SNL Post-Mortem: 10/05/13: Miley Cyrus

Miley Cyrus first hosted SNL back in 2011; at the time I was a little irritated by the show's kowtow to the youth demographic, but in retrospect she ended up being a decent host.   Following the media attention to her infamous twerking performance with Robin Thicke at the 2013 Video Music Awards, her second hosting gig seemed to be an inevitability.  This honestly didn't bother me much, largely because all the finger-pointing and tongue-wagging towards that particular incident seemed to disproportionately blame and criticize Cyrus, as well as call her mental health into question.   Her attempts to sexualize her image have a whiff of trying too hard, but for all the questionable decisions she made in the past few years, Cyrus comes off more as a 20-year-old who makes many the same mistakes as a lot of non-famous people do than a cautionary tale in the waiting.

Some were expecting the show to be a trainwreck; Cyrus did seem to fan those flames by getting into a feud with Sinead O'Connor over the latter's open letter to her, but by air, she seemed collected and in control.  I'm not going to kid myself: Miley Cyrus is no Justin Timberlake, but she did fine on double-duty.  She has a self-awareness that I never really detected in Britney Spears, so while she sometimes does stupid things, she also seems fully aware of her actions.  

I was more impressed by her ability to share the spotlight and join in SNL sketches as part of the ensemble.  In that respect, she was light years ahead of Justin Bieber.  Cyrus also performed her songs decently, even if it only served to illustrate that "Wrecking Ball" and "We Can't Stop
 aren't especially great songs to begin with.

Where the show faltered was the writing.  A lot of the sketch ideas came across as fairly low-hanging fruit for the show, particularly the VMAs, the cable networks' Hilary Clinton movies).  My main issue with the "Mornin' Miami" sketch is that SNL has overused the promo shoot premise in the past few years; while the one-liners ended up justifying the sketch's place in the live show, it still felt like the writers plugging things into formulas instead of building towards a strong payoff.   The poetry teacher sketch had a few moments, but while it was nice to see Vanessa Bayer get a feature role, her character wasn't developed enough for the sketch to work.  The worst segment was the "cheerleader alien abduction", which felt too similar to "Nascarettes" and "Delinquent Teen Girl Gang" in that the crux of the sketch was the same unfunny joke repeated over and over.  I actually found the technical miscues funnier than the actual content of the sketch.

There were bright spots here and there: the "We Can't Stop" parody with John Boehner (Taran Killam) and Michelle Bachmann (Cyrus) twerking was memorable, and new players Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett got some of their own sensibility on the air with a pre-taped 10-to-1 sketch.  Bobby Moynihan can be still depended on to provide a quick laugh if a sketch begins to falter.  "Girlfriends Talk Show" came across as a predictable choice for a lead-off, but Aidy Bryant demonstrated that she carries those sketches.  Cecily Strong is growing into her role as Weekend Update co-anchor, but has yet to fully ditch the "Seth Meyers' trainee" vibe that permeated last week's show, and the segment as a whole has become way too long and bloated in recent years.

Next week's show should prove to be a wild card: Bruce Willis returns as part of SNL's "Hey, let's get someone who hasn't hosted in a long time" series with musical guest Katy Perry.

A BRIEF NOTE ABOUT CANADIAN TV: I missed a good chunk of the "Fifty Shades Of Gray Auditions" because Global, the Canadian broadcaster of SNL, mistook the commercial parody for a real commercial.  This has been happening infrequently for the last 10-11 years or so, possibly longer: I remember back in 2005-06, the network would run commercials during the Robert Smigel "TV Funhouse" segments.  It's annoying because in most markets, the American signal from NBC is unavailable due to simultaneous substitution.  SNL has been clearly marking their ad breaks for years, and to keep doing this suggests incompetence with live TV on Global's part.  NBC needs to consider renegotiating the Canadian rights to the show with another network.

SNL Post-mortem: 09/28/13: Tina Fey / Arcade Fire

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.

SNL Season 38: End of an era

Last year, Saturday Night Live said goodbye to Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg, two of the major performers on the show's past couple of seasons.  Samberg and his cohorts from The Lonely Island brought the show into the viral media age with their Digital Shorts, and for better or worse, Wiig was the show's dominant performer.  The loss of the show's most recognizable stars seemed to portend an uncertain time in SNL's history, but despite the hiring of a few new faces and the dismissal of another player (Abby Elliott), the 2012-13 season didn't seem to have a feeling that there was a void the show was desperately trying to fill.  A lot of the credit for this belongs to the new performers hired as featured players, particularly Cecily Strong; she established her place on the show quickly and firmly, in a way not seen since Amy Poehler.  Kate McKinnon (a late-season addition for 2011-12), was also fairly prominent, owing to having similar strengths as the departed Wiig.  While Aidy Bryant and Tim Robinson are still waiting for their breakouts, both show promise and distinct sensibilities that the show could mine to its benefit.

I do feel the long tenures of some players like Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen and Kenan Thompson tend to hold the show from effectively developing some of the new cast, but in three seasons alone, Taran Killam seems ready to take over as SNL's alpha male next season.  Jason Sudeikis and Bill Hader provided a solid backbone for this season.  Bobby Moynihan had the best year of his tenure, Vanessa Bayer rebounded from a confidence drop that plagued her throughout 2011-12, and Jay Pharoah taking over the Obama impression helped establish his place in the cast.  Only Nasim Pedrad feels particularly misused, mainly stuck with "little kid" and "old lady" roles.

The writing staff was mostly stable this year.  There were a few departures: Christine Nangle and Weekend Update writer Jessica Conrad did not come back this season, and John Mulaney joined Paula Pell as a part-time contributor.  One writer returned to the show after a seven-year absence (Joe Kelly, most recently a writer/producer for How I Met Your Mother).  Neil Casey and Josh Patten joined the staff, and, beginning in February, a slew of guest writers were brought aboard for brief stints, including Chelsea Peretti, Cora Frazier, Michael Che, Edi Patterson, Monica Padrick and Kids In The Hall alum Kevin McDonald (Che was later added to the regular roster for the May shows).

The season was fairly uneven, though, with more pronounced highs and lows than SNL's experienced in a few years.  There were a greater number of outright duds this year (the Mountain Pass sketch from Louis CK comes to mind), yet the stumbles felt more like the show was losing its fear of failure that made the last couple of seasons a little too safe and antiseptic.  In a way, this actually came off as promising.  There were also enough flashes of inspiration, including the Mike O'Brien-penned short film "Sad Mouse" and two-part sketches like Tim Robinson's "Z Shirts" and Seth Meyers' "Darrell's House" that imbued this season with a freshness not seen in a while.

The show has always had castmembers come and go to varying levels of fanfare, but it seems that the big emotional farewell for a departing player has become de rigeur in recent years.  Phil Hartman's 1994 send-off featured the show's recurring characters performing a variant of "So Long, Farewell" from The Sound Of Music.  Will Ferrell's 2002 departure was marked by the cast (except for Tracy Morgan) speaking out-of-character about how he'll be missed.  What turned out to be Darrell Hammond's final show didn't have an explicit tribute, but the cameo-filled full-cast "Goodnight Saigon" performance felt uncharacteristically emotional to be just a random Will Ferrell sketch.  The Kristen Wiig "graduation ceremony" at the end of Mick Jagger's show last season seemed to outdo all these earlier goodbyes; despite Wiig being such a divisive castmember for a lot of fans, the emotional displays of from her colleagues made her swan song all the more moving.

I touched on the news of Bill Hader, Fred Armisen and Seth Meyers' departures from SNL in my last post.  Hader and Armisen both got their goodbyes last night; unlike Wiig, both performers chose to say their goodbyes in character.  Hader's farewell was one last Stefon appearance on Weekend Update, culminating in a pre-taped segment of Seth Meyers racing through New York to stop the club promoter's wedding to Anderson Cooper a la The Graduate.  Armisen used the show's 10-to-1 to perform an understated farewell tune as his Thatcherite punk character Ian Rubbish, with Hader, Killam and Sudeikis as the Bizarros, and cameos by Aimee Mann, Michael Penn, J. Mascis, Kim Gordon, Sex Pistol Steve Jones, and Armisen's Portlandia collaborator Carrie Brownstein.   SNL is not a show that often features genuine emotion very often: when it does, such as last night, the results are amazing and devastating.

With the departures of Hader and Armisen, Meyers' impending move to the Late Night desk, and the rumored exit of Jason Sudiekis, last night's show truly felt like the end of an era for Saturday Night Live.  Even if Meyers sticks around to ease the transition to the next Weekend Update anchor and head writer, he will seem more like a vestige of a prior version of SNL than a full-fledged member of the new guard.

SNL Season 36: Still ill.

I wrote last year about how SNL was showing signs of severe creative fatigue, with an over-reliance on recurring material, and a higher number of disappointing shows than in seasons past.I mentioned that unless the show took steps to fix some of these very noticeable signs of wear, the show is only going to get worse. SNL is still sick.I would argue it's a bit worse than last season, ever so subtly.There weren't any violently obvious symptoms like with last season, but the times when it appears to be firing on all cylinders are fewer and further between.

The staleness has been lingering for years now and the stench is starting to get pungent.At least when the show was at its worst they took quick emergency measures to fix the show.I do hope for next year that the creative powers-that-be realize they need to operate, or we're going to watch the show suffer and decay even further.

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