Facing middle age, SNL sees its reflection in the mirror, and has an existential crisis.
There’s no need to panic, Saturday Night Live. You’ve been not-so-great before, and you’ll be not-so-great again. Seasons of woe have given way to flashes of brilliance, and eventually to sustained periods of TV comedy greatness. Producer Lorne Michaels has righted this ship before, and there is no reason to think that he won’t do so again.
Staring at itself in the bathroom mirror at age 40, SNL definitely looks its age. And though there is nothing wrong with an existential crisis every decade or so, there are warning flags that what got us to this point, may not get us to 50.
This week’s cold open properly finds us staring down the ongoing excesses of the NFL, giving us a send up of the embattled football league’s current “State of the Union” with guest host Chris Pratt playing the role of shiftless league commissioner Roger Goodell doing the politician’s tap-dance of self defense, while CNN commentator Candy Crowley (Aidy Bryant) interviews retired players Ray Lewis (Keenan Thompson) and Shannon Sharpe (Jay Pharoah).
The premise is amusing enough: the idea that NFL’s checkered past is nothing new, and the league’s current woes are being swept under the rug as glibly as the latest Washington scandal. But lackluster performances make the sketch fall flat. But the biggest problem with SNL’s 40th season cold open is the absence of the show’s best, more established stars: Kate McKinnon, Taran Killam, Bobby Moynihan, Cecily Strong, Kyle Mooney.
Chris Pratt is a solid choice for guest host. The amiable star of Guardians of the Galaxy and Parks and Recreation was in fine form during his opening monologue, playing and singing one of his hapless ballads. And though it is Pratt’s first time hosting the show, a quick cameo by his wife and two-time SNL host Anna Faris, reminds us not to worry.
The heart of Pratt’s appeal is his honest and true, Coolest-Summer-Camp-Counselor-Ever persona. SNL uses that well. One hopes and expects to see him return in future seasons. (Though not before fellow Parks and Recreation co-stars Aziz Ansari and Nick Offerman…please make this happen Mr. Michaels?)
Now, it’s not that “He-Man and Lion-O” is a bad idea for a sketch, it just doesn’t know how to end. Kyle Mooney plays a neglected little boy whose birthday candle wish turns his favorite action figures into big, dumb, masturbating heroes. It’s funny for a second or two, but runs out of comic premise too quickly. Pratt and Killam are funny as Masters of the Universe, there’s just nothing for them to do.
The return of the veterinarian assistants who always seem to kill your pets, rather than heal them (“Vet Office”) is a fine surprise, if only because it provides the season’s first glimpse at Kate McKinnon, Vanessa Bayer, and Bobby Moynihan…albeit in utility roles. Cecily Strong is the standout in this piece, channeling the ghost of Jan Hooks, as a dim, but sweet, Southern matriarch and bearer of bad news. The “your pet is dead” premise is funny, but is perhaps too reliant on Strong… and too one-note (the same joke repeated three times) to get much lift.
“Marvel Trailer” is one of the night’s best offerings, and actually feels edgy, given the participation of the show’s guest host. The mock trailer is built on the premise that Disney-Marvel is cynically making every movie at the multiplex a randomly assembled, Guardians of the Galaxy-styled mashup (“Marvel can’t fail!”). SNL at 40 feels more relevant when it uses its position of television institution and cultural ubiquity for good: biting cultural satire.
SNL at 40 giving us Ariana Grande (performing “Break Free” and “Love Me Harder,” the latter a duet with The Weeknd) felt like when you your mom plays a popular song on the radio and says it’s her “new jam?” Remember how that used to feel? The best thing a parent can do for their kids is to pass along cool music they love, that the kid might not find otherwise, right? SNL musical guests are better when they feel like discoveries, rather than “Oh yeah, them.” Grande’s performances were serviceable, but mostly forgettable, with the exception of her duet with The Weeknd…memorable because so few of us knew of him.
Weekend Update featuring head writer Colin Jost and new co-host Michael Che was probably the night’s biggest disappointment, if not for the return of Cecily Strong’s “Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started A Conversation With At A Party” (Funniest line of the entire show: “This is an authentic Mexican Jumping Bean. I got it at Urban Outfitters.”) and the night’s best performances—powerful star-turn monologues by “relationship expert” (and non-cast, guest performer) Leslie Jones, and new featured player Pete Davidson.
One wonders why Jost was not traded for Jones as Weekend Update co-anchor. (Can you imagine how great a Strong-Jones co-hosted “fake news” show could be?)
Jones and the “Matthew Broderick-meets-Adam Sandler” Davidson (“Would I go down on a guy for a million dollars? Of course I would!”) give us a glimpse of the future of SNL. Though one longs to see if Jones’ standup comedy-honed talent has any range in future appearances, both she and Davidson brought performance energy and on-screen charisma to the show. If, indeed, Saturday Night Live is having a midlife crisis, we should thank our lucky stars it’s found these two younger comedians to date. Last year, Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett brought that kind of fresh energy. This year they have back up.
Saturday Night Live’s “B-side” (i.e. everything after Weekend Update) has become a reliable trash or treasure comedy free-for-all. Which is as it should be.
This week’s treasures include Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett’s hilarious Television of the Absurd, “Bad Boys” and “Booty Rap,” a large-cast “nasty flirting” sketch featuring Aidy Bryant and Chris Pratt as awkward twenty-something professionals flirting by way of raunchy hip hop lyrics. The trash? That bone-dumb “Video Game” (an excuse for Bayer and Pratt to make out?), and the predictable “NFL Intros” (so much funnier when Key and Peele did it).
What hobbled this week’s Saturday Night Live is that its most reliable stars were not allowed to carry it… and that the tried-and-true three-beat comedy sketch format is starting to feel uninspired, stale. In other words, SNL begins its fourth decade like most of us do—facing a bit of an existential crisis. Many things we’ve relied upon to get us to this point in our lives are starting to lose their luster, and we’re not sure where we want to go next.
If your forties are a time of arrival, of accomplishment and celebration, they must also a time of reflection. Here’s hoping Mr. Michaels can do what he’s done so many times before, and right this venerable ship. And, if he can’t, that NBC has the guts to do what we all know needs to happen to get SNL to 50, 60, and beyond: replace him with Tina Fey.
Chris White writes and directs independent feature films. His latest, a showbiz comedy about looking for Bill Murray, is called
. You can follow Chris on Twitter.