For the second summer in a row, the SNL offseason was a busy and tumultuous one. Last year's decision to overpopulate the cast fell just short of disaster; of the six new hires that we met in Tina Fey's monologue, only Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney survived a caustic but necessary bloodletting. They join midseason hire Sasheer Zamata and co-head writer Colin Jost as the only Year 39 newbies to see their sophomore year. After five years of mostly thankless supporting roles, followed by a belated breakout of sorts in 2013-14, Nasim Pedrad left the cast for sitcom stardom. Joining the ranks in 2014-15 is Year 39 writer Michael Che (the first African-American Weekend Update anchor ever) and stand-up comedian Pete Davidson (the first cast member born in the 1990s, and only the third Latino in show history). The most obvious change of all was also the most tragic; announcer Don Pardo, who announced the opening credits for all but one season until last May, died of natural causes in August at age 96. His successor is former cast member Darrell Hammond, who I'm sure will resurrect his Bill Clinton impression as the Decision '16 picture clears up.
As SNL enters its 40th season (oy gevalt) expect past and present to converge and cross paths many times in the coming months. The next two scheduled hosts are cast alumni, one of the best and most beloved cast members of the past decade (Bill Hader) and one who had a single, nondescript season as a featured player and writer (the great Sarah Silverman). Tonight's show, however follows the pattern of booking the star of the biggest movie of the summer as well as the performer of the current #1 hit in the country. "Parks & Recreation" co-star/big screen heartthrob Chris Pratt and economy-size chanteuse Ariana Grande fits that bill.
For the purposes of this review, I'm mashing up the sketch-by-sketch analysis with assorted notes:
+ I know it's the season premiere, but it still annoys me when the cold opening starts with canned, thunderous applause. It just doesn't feel natural, you know?
+ As for the cold open itself, you can tell the various NFL scandals were on the minds of everyone in the writers room these past two weeks. It's a hot button topic, don't get me wrong, but I was more curious to see a topical sketch about, say, ISIS or Ferguson, MO. The sketch itself was okay; CNN's "State of the Union" set the template for Roger Goodell's (Chris) cluelessness, Ray Rice's (KT) dodginess, and Jay Pharaoh doing a cartoony take on mealymouthed Shannon Sharpe.
+ He already pointed this out on Instagram, but every character Taran Killam played tonight required a ridiculous amount of makeup.
+ Tonight's Weekend Update ran a bit long, yet at the same time offered a glimmer of hope to the undisputed weak spot of Season 39's second half. Michael Che has found his groove almost immediately, delivering clever jokes about Hillary Clinton's trip to Iowa and "Orange is the New Black." Colin Jost is still a work in progress; he seems a little more animated, but not by much. The return of The Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With at a Party was a passing of the baton of sorts; most SNL fans will argue that Colin was more problematic than Cecily, but she's clearly happier to be away from the WU desk. Whether you liked it or not, "youngster" Pete Davidson made a strong first impression with a stand-up bit about he would perform oral sex for obscene quantities of money.
+ I think I grasped what tonight's filmed piece was spoofing? The intentionally stilted dialogue and wooden acting suggested a parody of some lousy early '90s family sitcom --something akin to "Blossom" or ABC's TGIF juggernaut-- or maybe it exists to simply exist.
+ I don't know if Michael Che will be a regular presence in sketches, and I assume Pete Davidson will be at some point, but I was a little bewildered to see Cojo outside of the Update construct. Even as a football player accused of mail fraud "because he's the punter," it didn't really seem like Jost was playing a character.
+ Speaking of "NFL on CBS," Leslie Jones (a writer) was in more sketches than Sasheer Zamata (an actual cast member). Anomaly or buyer's remorse?
+ For a sitcom actress, Ariana Grande did not seem wholly uncomfortable in these surroundings. She clearly flubbed her only line in the "Birthday Wish" sketch, and apparently forgot her chereography in both of her musical performances. It wasn't a Lana Del Rey train wreck or a Ashlee Simpson meltdown by any means, but it was still underwhelming.
VERDICT: This was not a perfect show, but after the logjam of Year 39, this was a step in the right direction. This (slightly) smaller cast is a lot tighter, though the two newbies and the surviving members of the Class of '13 mostly took a backseat to more established members of the cast. Chris Pratt was a fun host, balancing his Starlord bravado with Andy Dwyer goofiness to great effect. The writing was as hit and miss as you'd expect, though the performances from Pratt and the repertory cast more than made up for it.
Overall grade: 6/10