This past summer felt like a tumultuous one for Saturday Night Live, despite (or possibly because of) its usual between-season silence about major changes to the show—broken, as per tradition, shortly before the start of a new season. Season 46 ended with what felt like possible sendoffs for several long-tenured members of a record-sized cast—and then word flew around over the summer that SNL impresario Lorne Michaels was trying to convince some veteran players to stick around for not just the next season, but several more after that, dangling a more flexible work schedule in front of familiar faces like Kate McKinnon, Aidy Bryant, and Cecily Strong.
The Michaels Plan seems to have been put into motion with Season 47: McKinnon, Bryant, and Strong are all back, at least according to the opening credits. (McKinnon did not appear to be in the studio; she’s presumed to be shooting a TV series.) Yet there have still been unpredictable cast changes: Beck Bennett announced at the last minute that he won’t be returning; last season’s newcomer Lauren Holt is also gone; and three new featured players were hired, giving the cast a net gain of one. This sets another new cast-size record, with a frankly ridiculous 21 members of the ensemble.
So how did all of this affect the actual season premiere of Season 47? Some of the Owen Wilson-hosted episode was very much business as usual: a wan political cold opening, multiple sketches about mishaps happening during television production, Pete Davidson addressing gossip about himself on a Weekend Update segment. Yet there were times when the show seemed to be capitalizing of the more freewheeling, less politically burdened energy that emerged last season after the 2020 election.
Saturday Night Live has been airing direct spoofs of The View for 20 seasons and change at this point, so just taking a slightly different approach to riffing on the recent on-air reveal of a positive COVID test at The View almost counts as an innovation
Last night’s leadoff sketch, set during a View-like program called The Talking, adds a welcome dose of nonsense to The View formula, with Cecily Strong, Aidy Bryant, Heidi Gardner, and Ego Nwodim playing a quartet of TV presenters spouting off on various non-issues (“The stock market.” “I like it!”) and bickering, until a doctor (Wilson) starts barging in and announcing COVID test results on the air. I admit I felt some trepidation about both Strong and Bryant returning to the show; they’re all-time great cast members, but they’re closing in on a decade at SNL and it feels like they should probably move on and make some room for other cast members. That said, it’s hard to protest much in the face of this fast-paced, well-performed, very silly sketch.
For most of the episode, only one new cast member out of three was especially visible: James Austin Johnson, who seems to have been hired for his impressions, was right out front for a cold open, playing Joe Biden. (See, uh, below for more on that sketch.) This makes sense; with 21 cast members, most of them veterans of the show, even established performers can seem practically invisible in certain episodes. But in the final sketch slot of the episode, we got a taste of new cast member Sarah Sherman (known on the internet as cringe/gross-out comedian Sarah Squirm) alongside featured player Andrew Dismukes, as a pair of doctors attempting to advertise their mail-in stool-testing service. Filming people who keep screwing up is a dusty SNL stand-by, but Sherman and Dismukes breathe new life into a tired format—as does Sherman’s fellow newcomer James Austin Johnson when paired with Owen Wilson for a sketch about NFL announcers gamely proceeding through the promotional fog to describe a new Fox TV show.
Look, James Austin Johnson is probably doing the best Joe Biden impression the show has ever seen, at least in terms of technical accuracy. He captures Biden’s whispery plain-folks cadences better than Jim Carrey, Jason Sudeikis, or Alex Moffat, which makes him seem particularly well-suited to deliver a quasi-presidential Biden, rather than a VP or a campaigner. But the sketch’s take on the president is as limp as ever, somewhere between Bumbling Joe and Desperate Centrist Biden, all jokes about him falling down or trying to make policy out of nothing. Speaking of trying to make something out of nothing: This sketch starts out as a ‘90s-style President Addressing the Nation solo set-up, then beats a hasty retreat to another parade-the-public-figures sketch. Is Aidy Bryant’s Joe Manchin appreciably different from her Ted Cruz? Just barely. The highlight is Cecily Strong’s obstructive, self-satisfied Kyrsten Sinema; Sinema has essentially remade herself into the perfect subject of a dumb SNL-sketch caricature, a nauseatingly impressive feat that Strong is at least able to have some fun with. The rest of the group bit gets the season off to an uninspired start.
Another low moment from the episode takes on a number of 21st century SNL go-tos: a funeral framework and a ridiculously monikered and costumed Kenan Thompson (here “LeVar B. Burton,” for legal purposes) singing with misplaced zeal. And yet the “why now?” factor lingers in this sketch about a deceased grandmother (played in photos by Heidi Gardner) who apparently spent a lot of time in Atlantic City, palling around with a variety of problematic celebrities.
Monologue: Owen Wilson’s riff about relaxing and possibly falling asleep in front of a show that may or may not be great had the feel of something written by the star himself, or at least with his heavy input, which is an underrated monologue move in place of “the host sings,” “the host takes questions,” or “the host goes backstage.”
Weekend Update: The ease with which Pete Davidson (doing one of his trademark bits on his own foibles as a hapless famous person) and Ego Nwodim (with a sharp piece as “Black Woman Who’s Been Missing for 10 Years” and has been trouble attracting the same degree of media attention as a white counterpart) expressed their points of view as Update commentators only drives home how tired Michael Che and Colin Jost feel behind the desk. They each get in a few zingers, but this season they’ll both surpass Seth Meyers for the title of longest-tenured Update anchor. Is this necessary?
Music: Kacey Musgraves played a couple of low-key numbers from her new album, enlivening them with some clever staging: First imitating Robin Wright’s Jenny from Forrest Gump on “Justified,” then singing to images on a screen for “Star-Crossed.” She matched Wilson’s energy as host: laid-back rather than amped-up, but bringing her distinct sensibility to the performance.
Cut for Time: This filmed piece is, as is often the case with cut-for-time sketches, funnier than several pieces that made it to air.
The 47th season opener was by no means an exceptional, firing-in-all-cylinders installment, but considering how often that long summer break leads straight into disappointment, this was a solid showing for SNL.