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TV Review: Saturday Night Live – 32nd Season Premiere

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.

About Cameron Archer

  • http://fallonized.orgchrisparnell.net Vanessa

    I went to the show after spending 2 nights outside of NBC for a ticket. I didn’t think it was that good either. They had an entire summer and that was the best??!! Come on! Conan is on a daily basis and his jokes are always grand. But I still respect them all. I was just mainly angry about Chris and Finesse being taken off the show. My poor achy breaky heart. But I’ve loved Update through the years. Well, I loved Jimmy and Tina, and I’ll get used to Seth and Amy but I don’t understand what you’re complaining about. “Give Me A Reason Burt” was my favorite bit of the night.

  • http://www.sweetposer.tk/ Cameron A.

    The WU anchors don’t bother me. I just think the current format is getting stale as they’ve been using variations of it since Colin Quinn left. It’s not that Fey/Fallon, Fey/Poehler or Poehler/Meyers are bad (Poehler/Sanz, on the other hand…) SNL just needs to find a new direction with the Weekend Update segment, like when Dennis Miller was replaced by Kevin Nealon or when Norm MacDonald came into his own.

  • http://bonamassablog.us Joan Hunt

    Congrats! This article has been placed on Advance.net

  • Dawn

    It wasn’t the greatest thing ever, but it did seem to have a air of freshness. It’s not so much that Tina Fey wasn’t a great writer, it’s just that after while, the jokes become stale and new ideas need to be infused.

    As for the Killers – wow that was just painful to watch and listen to. What the HELL happened to those guys? It’s not that I don’t think the idea that Bruce Springsteen fused with new-wave synth isn’t a great idea, but Jeebus, at least execute it better. I also think I might possibly be a better singer – and let me say that is NOT a compliment.

    Nice review Cameron!!!

  • http://journals.aol.com/vicl04/THESAVAGEQUIETSEPTEMBERSUN/ Victor Lana

    Nice and very fair assessment of SNL overall; however, I must note a few things. Bill Hader is about the best thing on the show right now. I believe he should have been put in the anchor chair on “Weekend Update” and, to really shake things up, Amy should have been removed. I like her, but “Update” hasn’t been right with 2 anchors since Ackroyd & Curtain, and you can’t live up to that.

    Hader is talented and could swing the thing in the right direction. Quite frankly, I fast-forward “Update” and have been doing so for years.

    Also, you’re right about the monlogues and they have also been a disappointment for too long. Those of us who remember the Steve Martin kind of monologue know that these things are tedious. I particularly hate the Q&A ones because nothing indicates a host with nothing much to say more than that.

    In general I think SNL needs major shaking up. I wonder if there is a way to save it, but I’m thinking there might be if it can get back to its roots and get political again in the good old way (think Akroyd’s Nixon making Belushi’s Kissinger get down on his knees and pray). Maybe then SNL will have a prayer.

    Until then, I’m holding my remote with my finger on the fast-forward button.

  • http://www.sweetposer.tk/ Cameron A.

    Thanks for the praise, Dawn, Lana and Hunt. I do appreciate it.

    As for saving SNL, the easy thing to say would be “get rid of Lorne Michaels,” except that NBC has only historically kept the show on the air under Michaels or a contemporary of his (Jean Doumanian, Dick Ebersol). I don’t think some of the things Michaels does with SNL – like literally have his underlings assemble the show in a week or two, then have them play political games in order to secure a place on the show – really help it. SNL also needs to stop focusing on the popular thing of the moment so much. With the original show, no one gave a fug that Broderick Crawford or Buck Henry hosted or that Sun Ra or The Preservation Hall Jazz Band were the musical guests, just so long as they were entertaining. Even the mid-1990s SNL had places for Madeline Kahn, Steve Buscemi, Rollins Band and Luciano Pavarotti.

    The show’s been worse at times than it is now, in my opinion. For instance, I despise the Ebersol-era episodes since people remember Eddie Murphy’s routines and conveniently forget the often corny writing and lack of cast depth – Mary Gross was fine, but Tim Kazurinsky, Tony Rosato and Gary Kroeger? Yikes. Having said that, there really needs to be an impetus for improvement this year – either that, or else just hand over the reins to someone like Robert Smigel, who’s at least proven that he can produce a good sketch comedy show and really hasn’t left SNL anyway.

  • http://www.rebeccawright.com Rebecca

    It’s sad to say, but if SNL doesn’t improve soon, it might be time to put a stake in it. I knew it wasn’t very funny when I laughed the hardest (barely), when NBC’s Brian Williams showed up.

  • http://maskedmoviesnobs.blogspot.com/ El Bicho

    What exactly is everyone upset about? It’s like hearing people bemoan the state of Rolling Stone magazine? Stop looking to money-making institutions for your cutting edge material. You’ve become your parents. Accept it.

  • Baronius

    Cameron, excellent observations. I don’t remember actually giving up on the show, but I haven’t watched it in a few years. I think Tina Fey is funny, but the show really was awful under her tenure. The news show especially.

    You’re right about WU. Even though Dennis Miller played a far-too-hip anchor, the writing was crisp. In the last ten years, it became Blue State smugness (if that makes sense). It’s The Daily Show, pre-Stewart.

    I agree that Sanz can suck the humor out of anything, but somehow Rudolph was even worse. Meyers is naturally funny. Poehler can be a riot – she may be remembered with Sarah Silverman, Jay Mohr, etc. as someone who never clicked in the SNL format, but blossomed afterwards.