I spent the last few weeks mulling over the choice of Miles Teller for the first host of Season 48. Nothing against the guy—Fantastic Four wasn’t his fault, and if you have your big dramatic breakthrough flick swiped out from under you by eventual Oscar winner J.K. Simmons, well, that’s gonna happen. People at the show were clearly of the same mind, with the cold open comically chipping away at the seemingly underwhelming choice of kickoff host, with Teller himself playing along, which is always a good look.
As to the onscreen vibe Teller carries along to this season opener, it finally came to me yesterday that he feels like a particularly confident athlete coming in to host. (Admittedly this is informed by his well publicized choice of offseason vacation buddy in Packers QB and outed anti-vaxxing fibber Aaron Rodgers.) Still, vindication was mine when the cold open saw Teller kitted out as an uncanny Peyton Manning. And if Teller’s gung-ho approach to his first ever hosting gig smacked of the surprisingly capable Manning throughout (that’s former host Peyton, not also-ran former host and NFL QB Eli), Teller also brought along some irrefutable bona fides in the form of a mid-monologue home movie of the young, tank-topped Teller acting out a then-contemporary Cheerleaders sketch with his sister. (Teller played Cheri Oteri, as the actor happily boasted.)
Buoyed by the unqualified success of the cold open (more about that next), and clearly excited to be acting out SNL sketches for real (with mom and dad in the live audience, no less), Teller, after his Manning notes that the show rarely uses the host in the cold open, even anchors the first post-monologue sketch. And if the prospect of SNL dipping into the game show well so early didn’t exactly fill me with confidence on the originality front, Teller was excellent—confident, at ease, and on point. Even as the initial enthusiasm stoked by the first three sketches waned pretty steadily throughout this first episode, Teller was right in there exhibiting all the game day spirit and presence anyone could have asked for.
The cold open is a little masterpiece that manages audience expectations, puts to rest some looming ghosts of crappy Trump cold opens past (looking at Baldwin, not the ever-lively James Austin Johnson), and skillfully introduces the premiere crowd to the drastically retooled cast. It’s become a hit-or-miss proposition when Saturday Night Live gets self-referential, but this is that way to do it. (I swear, the phrase, “up its own butt” never entered my mind once.) With Teller’s Peyton and promoted featured player Andrew Dismukes’ Eli Manning turning their traditional Sunday NFL simulcast into a live SNL commentary, the dual-purpose sports/SNL reviewer clichés (hey…) are deployed expertly, helped along by Teller’s, again, truly spot-on impression of the legendary former Colt, Bronco, and alleged sexual harasser. (Dismukes, bless him, doesn’t have much of an Eli, but, as the sketch underscores, how much Eli is there to parody anyway?)
As mentioned, James Austin Johnson’s Trump is infinitely better than Baldwin’s, and the show, last year, managed to squeeze him in with a bit more energy and originality in these cold opens. Still, Teller’s Manning nails the comedy zeitgeist, moaning, “Oh good, a Trump sketch—way to mix it up,” when the picture-in-picture shows the sketch proper setting up at Trump criminal HQ and golf resort Mar-a-Lago. New featured guy Michael Longfellow (the winner of the new cast member sweepstakes tonight by far) gets a great introduction, with Teller calling the play that he’ll probably be eased in with a simple “Right this way, ma’am,” role, and Eli noting, “That’s probably the only time we’ll see him tonight.” (Longfellow does a fine petrified take when he’s shown blowing his exit.) Peyton’s pre-delivery pump-up of Heidi Gardner as South Dakota governor and under-investigation Trumpist Kristi Noem (“Heidi never lets me down”) is followed with a deflated, “Aaand she let me down,” once her Noem finishes her lame “political impression no one asked for.” (Dismukes’ Eli runs down all the all-star political impressions we won’t be seeing, thanks to Kate McKinnon’s exit.)
It’s just crisp, smart, and canny all around, exorcizing some of the bad ju-ju left over from the Baldwin years while addressing how the dispiritingly on-the-nose grind of Trump era awfulness turned years of cold opens into something of a slog. (Teller’s Peyton also derides a late-sketch cameo from snowboarder Shaun White, referencing the show’s over-reliance on such stunt casting over the past few years.) I could write about this sketch all review (especially considering how little there is to say about some of what’s coming), but the surprise reveal of Teller’s Top Gun: Maverick co-star and sorely missed SNL host John Hamm adds another layer to the fun, with the Confess, Fletch star bursting out in dismay that, after he’s been scouting promising newcomer Devon Walker in the offseason, the featured player is only deployed as an already-passé Corn Kid meme.
Bringing up the incessant chatter about this stars-depleted season (although, at 17, this cast is still absurdly overstuffed), the jocks speculate that this might just be a “rebuilding year,” in the hope of landing some better draft picks. Meanwhile, Bowen Yang intentionally blows his first appearance (his document-grasping Xi Jinping really needs to stop trying to make “It is what it is” happen), with Peyton wincing, “A surprising fumble from the veteran Yang—he was supposed to take a step forward this year.” As ever, I reserve judgment—this truly is a majorly reshuffled ensemble, and the show lost some very big weapons. But if this season-opener is any indication of what the cast and writers can pull off when the score is lopsided against them, I’m sticking around. (I know I get paid to watch, but the sports metaphor has to land somewhere.)
An open letter to SNL Executive Producer Lorne Michaels. Hi Lorne, if I may call you Lorne. Look, I get that ad revenues aren’t what they were when network TV was king and SNL commercial spots were going for record-breaking cash. And, hey, if a little product integration buys us four-to-six straight uninterrupted sketches to kick off an episode, well, it’s not great, but I understand. (After all, remember when you okayed during-the-show spots with the original cast advertising the then-revolutionary Polaroid instant cameras?) But, Lorne—okay, Mr. Michaels—this is officially out of hand. Not one but two entire sketches built around your talented cast gamboling about in undisguised corporate mascots costumes (those ass-obsessed TP bears and those fast food mega-corporation creatures)? The first filmed piece of the year being as blatant a piece of in-show advertising for a social media app I had to look up to make sure was real. (Look, neither of us is getting any younger.) An entire other filmed piece mocking (yet prominently advertising) a certain theater chain? Lorne, buddy, that’s—that’s a lot.
It’s not that none of them are without merit as sketches. Chloe Fineman does a solid Nicole Kidman, seen here urging pandemic-wary crowds back into movie theaters with a cult leader’s intensity. (Punkie Johnson has a funny reaction shot as the assembled moviegoers levitate to recite Kidman’s “Heartbreak feels good in a place like this” invocation.) And you know how much I love Kenan, so if you want to put him in a bear suit and threaten his not-as-committed-to-anal-hygiene son (Teller) with a decidedly un-cuddly mauling, or have him spin out an absurdly elaborate tale of bewitchment as Mayor McCheese, then I’m not going to squawk too loudly.
Neither the toilet bear nor the fast food sketches really transcended the effort that went into crafting those costumes (and neither had an ending). The toilet bears (and how tired am I of typing that phrase) was all bathroom puns, and the sight of a deep-voiced, unsettlingly jacked (but still garishly purple) Grimace (Teller) explaining to his fellow corporate shills how his recent shedding of 300 pounds has revealed both his bisexuality and his fondness for adultery is a weird enough twist to make the enterprise not a total loss.
But Lor—Mr. Michaels. This is the first episode of the season. A season where you’ve got one of the cleanest slates in a long while, where the gift (and I maintain it is a gift) of a whole lot of young and hungry performers and writers have the most open field in a decade to make their mark on your show. So, as a critic and—I’m not ashamed to admit—a lifelong fan, let’s just take in the choices you made here and think about how best to serve not only your cast, but an audience still optimistic that there’s a few new tricks in this old dog. Not that I’m calling you a dog. Or old. You get me.
Your pal Dennis
I really did like game show Send Something Normal, with Teller stepping ably into the host role (mainly so Kenan can play Neil deGrasse Tyson), promising an impressive hundred million dollar prize should any of the four male celebrity contestants (Kenan’s Tyson, Mikey Day’s Adam Levine, James Austin Johnson’s Armie Hammer, and Bowen Yang as himself) be able to answer a random female fan’s DM with anything resembling un-sleazy normality. The premise isn’t especially clever, mainly an excuse to make the expected jokes about recently outed cheater Levine and infamously outed as (at least) cannibal fantasist Hammer. (At least Johnson’s Hammer impression is typically skillful.) The joke that Tyson doesn’t have any similar accusations in his closet is just plain wrong, but Kenan makes the grinningly verbose know-it-all physicist a funny, sly creation nonetheless. That Yang has netted over a billion dollars on the show simply by being an out gay man is great stuff from Yang, even if he’s thwarted this time when the revelation that the fan texting him is an adoring Dua Lipa sees him reverting to Levine-esque drooling in response. Since it’s our first show of the season, I’ll just futilely reiterate my wish that the writers room could institute a “no game shows, no talk shows” policy. (Just try it out for a year. See what crops up.) Still, this was not bad at all.
Teller and Mikey Day teamed up for a variation on the “womanizers clam up around actual women” sketch, with their day-trading would-be slicksters amusingly turning into gibbering ninnies as soon as potential conquests Ego Nwodim and Chloe Fineman step into view. Mikey Day’s another cast member whose time has come, if it’s truly ever going to. He’s fine here, his unfortunately funny-named Nick Chodecork reverting to a high-pitched stream of inanities and blurted inappropriateness, in contrast to all the “brah”s and “dude”s he and Teller’s similarly douchey pick-up artists had going. Cringe comedy was more Kyle’s thing, though, and if Day’s going to break out of his wonted role as “guy who points out people acting weird,” it’s time for him to develop a taste for weirdness himself.
With all the major departures in the offseason, I’m surprised to see at least Michael Che still behind the Update desk (and, with Colin Jost, the head writer’s position). Unlike partner Jost, it felt like the persistent rumblings of creative dissatisfaction from the Che side (plus the renewal of That Damned Michael Che at HBO Max) might see the breakup of the now-venerable Che-Jost team. I’m not complaining, not really. Again, since it’s a new year, I’ll only reiterate that these guys are both funny, and have settled into the Weekend Update fake news groove with a well-earned rapport (with the audience and each other) that makes the segment at least reliably amusing. My complaint has always been that neither seems particularly interested in expanding Update’s political satire beyond a self-satisfied cleverness into something more ambitious.
I’m being spoiled and probably unrealistic here—Update was never as cutting as its reputation suggests. But with comedians from John Oliver to Amber Ruffin, to former Update anchor Seth Meyers turning their fake news shows into genuinely insightful and essential satirical enterprises (admittedly, using Weekend Update’s long history as a template), I am, perhaps greedily, hoping for a bit more. Especially in times where politics is increasingly media-driven, and the American electorate—for better or most definitely worse—pays a whole lot more attention to headline-grabbing put downs than ever before. (We just kicked out President Edgelord Shitposter, after all.)
But Che and Jost are good as ever at what they choose to be on SNL. Sure, I did feel slightly ill when Jost, responding to accusations of Republicanism by a desk-debuting (and very funny) Michael Longfellow described himself—in jest or not—as “a Bill Maher liberal.” (Just, no.) But, for all Jost’s country club smirkiness and Che’s above-it-all swagger, it’s not like anybody with a working brain could call this version of Update right-wing.
Jokes about Joe Biden’s frequent gaffes are a staple for the duo, but that’s just SNL reliably seeking out low-hanging fruit when it’s there for the taking. And with so much more fruit hanging so much lower in the ranks of the authoritarian-trending American conservatives, the pair’s jokes about how Russian dictator and hobbyist defenestrator Vladimir Putin’s attacks against Western tolerance for gender fluidity make him suddenly “hateful, deranged… and electable” for Trump-loving Americans is duly noted. Che, as ever, takes more committed swings, with his report on the impending divorce of GOP congressperson and white supremacist nutcase Marjorie Taylor Greene making the audience gasp with Che’s blunt reference to Greene’s anti-Semitic conspiracy idiocy. I also dug Che’s line about Florida governor and would-be Trumpish dictator Ron DeSantis’ claims of Hurricane Ian being a “500 year storm.” (“It’s so historic, DeSantis won’t let them teach about it in Florida schools,” Che says, referencing DeSantis’ literal whitewashing of the state’s education curriculum.)
In other words, it’s the same Jost, the same Che. And that’s fine for what it is and where they’ve set their sights. As time and election politics, growing white supremacist threats to democracy, and the legitimate fear of America’s supposed democratic ideals being irrevocably crippled mount in the run-up to the upcoming slate of elections, I’ll continue to see if this longest-tenured team in Update history remains content with its own status quo.
Lots of correspondents pieces tonight, with the best coming in the form of Longfellow seemingly auditioning to be Pete Davidson’s replacement. The stand-up and new featured player isn’t particularly similar to Davidson in style. (His droll delivery reminded me of the likes of Todd Barry or a lighter-weight Anthony Jeselnik.) But Longfellow holds his own against foil Jost like Pete did, his editorial about living alongside conservative family a low-key potent mix of autobiographical stage material and very funny underplaying. (“Do you consider stepmother family?” “Yes.” “Well… shoot.”) I could see this new guy staking out a place as Update’s resident young guy, much as Davidson once did. Longfellow’s got a well-developed persona as himself on the show already, and that’s no small feat for a first episode.
Kenan appeared alongside James Austin Johnson as hard-to-fathom Georgia senatorial candidate and obvious CTE sufferer Herschel Walker and Kentucky senator/a human plague in the arteries of democracy Mitch McConnell, respectively. The joke here is that Walker—former football star, Trump pal, admitted wife-beater and absentee father, and mangler of even the simplest rhetorical points—is either dumb, or punch-drunk, or both, and Kenan does what he does with the bit. The secondary joke is that McConnell, for all his claptrap about preserving norms and rejecting MAGA excesses, will support literally any candidate that could restore him to a leadership position. As when Trump was in the White House (and I just threw up in my mouth once more), reality is pitching SNL writers deceptively tempting meatballs with Walker. The guy is a disgrace, his speeches are filled with dangerous, ignorant nonsense (go ahead and parse Walker’s stance on Chinese air vs. American air, I’ll wait), and that he’s within the margin of unseating Democratic Senator (and functional adult) Raphael Warnock as we careen toward November’s midterms is testament to white people’s willingness to overlook literally everything in order to own the libs. That the Georgia GOP pushed a grossly incompetent and disqualifyingly abusive Black man to unseat the competent Black churchman Warnock is a cynical political strategy the sketch never addresses. So Kenan gets to be Kenan, rattling off loopy malapropisms while Johnson’s McConnell swallows his tongue and pride to clap along like Ed McMahon. It’s funny, and if it affects the race (it won’t), then, hooray?
Man, either Bowen Yang really likes dressing up in bug costumes or someone at SNL has decided he’s the bug guy now. As the invasive spotted lantern fly, Yang makes the most of things, preening in Jerry Springer-style defiance as the crowd dutifully boos his exhortations to kiss his “seminal secretion pouch.” I love me some Bowen, and this sort of showy, reality show-style character gives him ample chance to strut. (“Crops know what they did!,” he blurts in response to Che’s accusation that Yang’s eating everyone’s garden). The capping reveal that “crops” is here in the studio (in the form of Dismukes in a corn costume) leads to a punch-up in at least a nice piece of absurdist escalation.
New season! New sketches! Okay, one game show and a whole lot of product placement, but here’s to this season allowing the overhauled cast to stretch.
The cold open had merely the veneer of political comedy, the intentionally tired and lame Trump sketch merely a pretext for some very funny meta-commentary. For tonight, I’m good with that—more than good with that. See my Update rant above for my reservations about the show eschewing politics entirely, but, for tonight, we’re cool, SNL.
21 minus eight (nine if you count Cecily Strong, whose absence from tonight’s opening credits has been described as temporary) plus four is 17 performers to serve. And with last season’s biggest stars (and airtime-gobblers) no longer in the building, it’s going to be a sink-or-swim year for everyone, top-to-bottom. Tonight, of the established players, Sarah Sherman was nearly invisible, while Kenan got his. Ego, Heidi, Punkie, and Chloe all had moments (Punkie least), but nobody seized the spotlight just yet. The new kids all turned up in the expected bit parts except for Michael Longfellow, but those are the breaks, new kids. As for Longfellow, it’s a good start, even if doing a chunk of existing stand-up on Update is the sort of quick-off-the-blocks first show that has to be built upon, and fast.
It’s the excitement I still get from a new season that keeps me coming back, though. (Okay, and, sure, I do get paid.) This remains the strangest job in television, and the most unpredictable when it comes to succeeding. The list of undeniably talented performers who never found their groove on SNL vies with the list of initially nondescript featured hires who became superstars to show that predicting the fates of everyone here is a sucker’s game. Still, I’ve been a sucker for SNL for so long that I’m used to it by now. Good luck, everyone.
There was some telling band-vamping leading up to the goodnights tonight, suggesting that something suffered a late cut. So we got Ego Nwodim and Heidi Gardner’s “Caribbean Queens” sketch in the ten-to-one spot, the sort of broad and easily repeatable premise that serves as a trial balloon as to whether audiences are on board or not. I’m not. Heidi and Ego have a lot on their shoulders this season, the departures of Kate, and Aidy (and Cecily, for now) leaving the field wide open for them to make the leap and seize some major airtime. And they’re both good as the hard-partying middle-aged extended vacationers (at “Grabbers Resort and Spa”), who’ve overstayed their week-long retreat in a boozy haze for some five months. Kenan and Teller (steady and smooth as he was all night) fill out the sketch as the on-the-make duo’s one-night hookups, who, as Ego states, are going to get the once-over in the light of day. It’s the sort of potential recurring bit that can be repeated forever, even if I was sort of tired of it at the two minute mark. (The ladies’ pixelated slideshow of all the times their shorts fell off notwithstanding.)
According to the scuttlebutt, Cecily is doing a play, but plans to return at some point this season. That said, excluding her from the credits entirely while she’s gone is unprecedented, right?
Kendrick Lamar is great, so I have nothing else to add. Oh, except that SNL continues to fail its musical guests with a lousy sound mix. And that a potentially evocative walls-closing-in effect during “Father Time” was undermined by wobbly walls and the director framing the shot so we could see a stagehand’s hands moving them.
The most endearing part of tonight was seeing Ego during the goodnights, enthusiastically drawing attention to the four new cast members, and the obvious enthusiasm and affection this re-jiggered cast seems to have for each other.
Next week: Brendan Gleeson hosts?! Now, that’s the sort of unexpected casting I can get excited about. Musical guest, Willow (Smith).
Dennis Perkins is an entertainment writer who lives in Maine with his wife, the writer Emily L. Stephens, and their cat, (Special Agent Dale) Cooper. His work has appeared in places like The A.V. Club, Ultimate Classic Rock, and the Portland (Maine) Press Herald. You can find him on Twitter, where he will anger you with opinions, and Instagram, where you will be won back over by pictures of Special Agent Dale Cooper.