Saturday Night Live began its 37th season exactly as expected, with a skit about the Republican debates. There might not have been any recurring characters in last night’s episode, but the debate-themed cold open is an even more familiar conceit that stretches back farther than any character created by the current cast. Between the debate sketch, the lack of any cast turnover, and Alec Baldwin’s 16th appearance as host, this episode felt less like the start of a new season than a long-delayed continuation of last year, or basically any season from the last five or six years.
It’s silly to complain about the show’s rigid format and unchanging identity, though. Sure, it can make SNL feel dated and lazy, but it’s also comforting to know that, as other shows and styles of comedy come and go, Saturday Night Live remains very similar to the show we’d try to stay up for when we were kids. That’s not good for groundbreaking TV, but it’s fine for junk food, and Saturday Night Live is basically the Chicken McNuggets of television.
The cold open brought back Kristen Wiig’s Michele Bachmann impersonation, introduced Andy Samberg’s fearful and bewildered version of Rick Santorum and gave us Baldwin with a hairpiece and bad Texas accent as Rick Perry, but the skit’s highlight was Bill Hader’s latest turn as Shepard Smith. Hader has consistently been the best part of this show almost since his first episode, and his creepy take on Fox News’ least objectionable personality is both funnier and more memorable than any of the candidate impersonations.
Baldwin’s monologue turned into a forced bit of gross-out comedy that riffed on performance-enhancing drug scandals with an unsurprising Steve Martin cameo (who’s now sporting major grandpa jowls) and a pointless three-line drop-in from Seth Rogen. It’s the first of no doubt dozens of bits this season that will see lackluster material made somewhat tolerable by talented and charismatic performers.
Subsequently the show featured regurgitated soap opera jokes, an inspired bit about satellite delay times on a local newscast that went on too long but ended with a great sight gag, and two turgid slops of wannabe Krautrock mush from the increasingly annoying Radiohead, who do to experimental music what Clapton did to the blues. Even Weekend Update, usually the most consistent part of the show, felt listless, outside of Baldwin’s hilarious impersonation of Tony Bennett as a confused film critic.
There was even another one of those “lost screen tests” where cast-members do rapid-fire impersonations of various actors plugged into a famous film they weren’t actually in. This time the movie was Top Gun. Other than Baldwin (again) doing a terrific Pacino in full-on hoo-hah! mode, there weren’t enough laughs to justify running this basic premise yet again. And how do they do an entire skit built on impressions of 80s actors without using Jay Pharaoh? If he isn’t used here, why is he even on the show?
The two best skits came in the show’s second half. Neither were recurring concepts, but they both still felt very similar. “Who’s On Top” was another skit about the sort of classic daytime game show that doesn’t really exist anymore, from the perfectly coiffed and unflappable lilywhite host to the chintzy set design. Of course this game show never would have existed at any point in history, as the point is to guess who would be the top in a hypothetical gay relationship between two famous men. The concept is silly and potentially offensive, but Baldwin was once again excellent as a man unusually interested in the psychology and personality dynamics behind the fictional homosexual coupling of Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel.
The other worthwhile sketch featured Nasim Pedrad as yet another child. Pedrad tends to play weird kids, from the middle-schooler who thinks her parents are the coolest to the Indian boy who hosts a TV show from his house. Here she played the emotionally devastated daughter of a famous child psychologist (Baldwin, natch) who believes acknowledging his daughter’s shrieks and tantrums will “give her the power”. Pedrad increasingly terrorized Baldwin’s frightened date before a not-so-surprising twist ending. It wasn’t a classic comedic moment by any measure, but it was a solid concept with nicely escalating absurdity, respectable performances from Pedrad and Baldwin, and (most importantly) wasn’t another identical rehash of an overexposed character or skit.
SNL season openers are often shaky, but with the return of the exact same cast eliminating any first show jitters or surprises (a la Jenny Slate’s infamous F-word from two years ago), this debut was a bland extension of last year. Hopefully the excitement of first-time host Melissa McCarthy will make next week’s episode stand out more.