After the mass exit of Kristen Wiig, Andy Samberg and Abby Elliott over the summer, there was a little worry as to whether this might be one of those seasons where SNL dips in quality. But to be frank, Wiig’s impressions were getting a bit tiresome, Samberg’s Digital Shorts had been fumbling towards mediocre and Elliott…well I guess they don’t need a Zooey Deschanel impression anymore. “Seth MacFarlane/Frank Ocean” got the 38th season off to an exciting start, even without those three.
Ever since the announcement a week ago from Lorne Michaels that Jay Pharaoh would be taking over for Fred Armisen as Obama (a choice that should have been made two years ago probably), it was almost a certainty he would show up in the cold open. Pharaoh does a fine job, but hasn’t quite made it his own yet. Jason Sudeikis’ Romney is getting better and weirder, and Taran Killam nails another impression as Paul Ryan.
Even though Seth MacFarlane makes himself the focus of his shows, it’s rare to see him perform as just himself. MacFarlane’s opening monologue felt a bit safe, as he stuck to impressions, singing and Jewish jokes, yet MacFarlane was actually a surprisingly good first-time host, even if he wasn’t given too much heavy lifting.
Following the opening monologue was a political ad attacking Romney. The bit escalated the Romney attack when Kenan Thompson’s character claimed every time he gets a job, Romney and Bain purchase the company just to fire him. The “Sex After 50” talk show skit where Armisen plays a producer, Roger Brush, taking over for the usual host was decent, but didn’t overstay its welcome. The “Eastwood and Chair” one-man show joke was okay, but considering how weird the actual incident they were making fun of was, it didn’t land like it should have.
Then came the two best/surrealist skits of the night. The weaker of the two had to be the “Gangnam Style” bit at a Lids store. Watching Bobby Moynihan imitate the YouTube sensation Psy was great enough, but then when the real Psy came out and led the cast in the dance, just the oddity of what was happening made it laugh-worthy. But the night’s best was “Introduction to Puppetry,” where MacFarlane led a new batch of students, including Anthony, a war vet who has created a puppet doppelganger to tell his Grenada stories to. Many times with SNL, the darker a joke is, the better it is and Hader as Anthony definitely proved that.
Both of Frank Ocean’s performances were quite stunning, surrounded by arcade machines and backed by John Mayer on guitar. The first song, “Thinkin Bout You” was much stronger and focused on Ocean, but the star of “Pyramids” was Mayer, as Ocean went to go play one of the arcade machines as Mayer finished off the song.
“Weekend Update” featured two hits and a miss. Vanessa Bayer and Moynihan as Honey Boo Boo and her mother, respectively, will most likely become recurring characters for as long as their 15 minutes last. MacFarlane’s shining moment of the night was as Ryan Lochte, who came out to do fall TV reviews, calling Go On “Goon” and replying that he liked Elementary for the shapes. The miss was newcomer Cecily Strong as Mimi Morales, who was trying to get out the Latino vote. It seemed like something the show had done many times before and didn’t really need to be handled again.
The rest of the night was filled with some decent skits, none of which were too long to get irritating. An Army training camp skit with a stuttering drill sergeant was just short enough to be enjoyable, while Thompson playing Steve Harvey in a take off of his new talk show is a fun idea that could definitely use some refining. One of the poorest and most grating skits of the night was a blind date in which Nasim Pedrad and MacFarlane keep doing impressions. It just kept going, giving the same exaggerations on the same idea. However a little Hader thrown in did make it gain a few laughs.
A short and sweet final skit of the night, starring another new cast member, Tim Robinson, and MacFarlane as Amish wooden spoon salesmen was only about a minute, and featured MacFarlane trying to read the URL of their website, with letters like “S” being called “The River What Took My Son” and “W”’s becoming “Double Valleys.” This final bit is just the perfect little bit of odd for an end of the night finale.
Overall, MacFarlane worked pretty greatly with the SNL crew, and it was a smart move to not have him focus on impressions. Not a bad way to start off what could have been a shaky season premiere.
Best Lines of the Night:
-Armisen passed the Obama torch to Pharaoh in a pretty perfect way: “And now it is my distinct honor to introduce the President of the United States…who would want his job, right?”
-“Really, still? That’s good to know.” -MacFarlane rightfully surprised by the audience’s clapping after mentioning the waning Family Guy.
-Thompson and MacFarlane’s back-and-forth during the “Gangnam Style” bit while watching Psy was almost as great as the dance:
“Did he just scream at her butt?”
“You’re damn right he did brah! We’re going to live forever!”
-If there’s anything Anthony’s puppet dislikes more than war, it’s girls who talk in text speak: “Nobody was ‘laughing out loud’ that day in Grenada. Many people were saying OMG. Me, I was saying TTYL to my innocence.”