Saturday Night Live hasn't been a good sketch comedy show for several years. Let's get that out of the way. Too many cast members, whether underrated like Chris Parnell or detriments to humour itself as Horatio Sanz eventually became, have been tenured too long. Weekend Update, at times, has focused too heavily on celebrity jokes and bad Tina Fey/Jimmy Fallon/Amy Poehler banter over the parody of hard news that is the segment's claim to fame. Whatever recent mainstream attention SNL has attracted tends to be limited to the SNL Digital Shorts, "Debbie Downer," and Ashlee Simpson doing a jig on live television in lieu of actual singing. While SNL hasn't been unwatchable since 1994-95's morass of overlong and overly surreal sketches — it's been eleven years since Bob Saget was in a Boyz II Men parody and I'm still trying to forget it — characters like Carol and Caitlin are about as funny and subtle as a flaming branding iron.
Indeed, the first episode of the new SNL season sees the show in a holding pattern. The lifting of deadweights like Fey, Sanz, Finesse Mitchell, and Rachel Dratch is an encouraging sign, the return of Maya Rudolph and Darrell Hammond less so. Dane Cook's monologue certainly didn't entertain me. The Killers made for entertaining, if inconsequential, musical guests. Frankly, the show as a whole was as uneven as it's been for many years. For the first time since the early 2000s, though, SNL has given me hope that this year it won't make me want to punch a television in anger.
None of this episode's sketches were great, but there were a few that were decent. The TSA sketch was a standout, with good use of the repertory cast and relatively sophisticated writing (note: a turkey sandwich does not constitute a liquid or a gel, even if you put it in a blender or slather mustard on it). A sketch revolving around Hugo Chavez and political dictators like Kim Jong-il was broad and dumb, but it's nice to see Fred Armisen being used more frequently. A sketch revolving around two Poland Spring delivery guys, though for the most part featuring the unfunny Family Guy-style gag of a closet literally overflowing with empty watercooler bottles, at least had the good sense to end with self-referential references to SNL, 30 Rock, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. For the first time in a while, Saturday Night Live isn't dead between the eyes and I hope the trend continues in future episodes.
I wasn't impressed with Weekend Update. Aside from Seth Meyers taking Tina Fey's place as co-anchor and doing well in the role, this week's WU went on in its usual fashion, ending with a dire commentary about Dustin Diamond selling a sex tape (which would have been funnier if Dustin Diamond actually made a cameo). Maybe I've been spoiled with happy memories of Kevin Nealon, Norm MacDonald, and Jane Curtin, but I've never been too fond of the informal delivery of stories and banter WU has used since 2000 and it doesn't look like that will end any time soon. At least the current WU isn't as bad as it was last season, though it's too early in the new season to make a definite conclusion about it. To its credit, Weekend Update this week didn't remind me of Brad Hall's tenure at Saturday Night News, which is always a good thing. Bonus points go to the Brian Williams cameo, which was perfectly executed.
It's too early in the season to make sweeping generalizations about where SNL stands in 2006-07, but the current incarnation of SNL shows promise. Though I wish Lorne Michaels would make a more radical break from what the show has been since 1995-96, SNL contains a more tightly-knit and capable repertory cast than usual. Even Maya Rudolph, who can become unbearably hammy if left unchecked (her Whitney Houston impression will never touch Debra Wilson's), seems to have been reined in. With continued improvement in the quality of sketches, a welcome holdover from the second half of 2005-06, this version of SNL could become very good. SNL still isn't that good right now, but at least it's on an upswing at this point in time.
Viewer's note: the Canadian network that aired SNL, Global, couldn't tell when to cue in and out of a commercial this week, resulting in Weekend Update being partially cut off and cues for 30 Rock and other NBC programming being left in. Then again, this week saw the debut of new SNL director Don Roy King, so it might be just a case of King being unfamiliar with SNL protocol and Global having to put up with the feed. How does one justify cutting to commercial during Weekend Update, anyway?