Saturday Night Live opened its 48th season with its biggest cast changes in decades. With eight cast members departing at various stages of their SNL tenure, and a ninth missing in action but supposedly returning later (Cecily Strong is doing a play in Los Angeles, and — unlike past temporary absences — wasn’t shown in the opening credits), the show is close to peak overhaul level (11 cast members left between seasons 20 and 21).
The changeover was notable enough to warrant a cold-open sketch all about it, with Peyton Manning (host Miles Teller) and his brother Eli (Andrew Dismukes) offering live commentary on the season’s supposed kickoff: a self-consciously hacky sketch about Donald Trump (James Justin Johnson) and, well, whatever zany characters the writers decide to throw at him in an attempt to sum up the week’s current events.
Self-referential humor is no real novelty at SNL, but it’s still bracing to watch the show so fully take apart its worst tendencies, calling out this fake sketch as a parade of middling impressions, stunt-casting, and cornball trend-chasing, with the help of stunt-cast guest star Jon Hamm, offering a fan theory about the sketch’s mediocrity: “Maybe this is strategic, like when a sports team tanks to get a better draft pick next year.”
Of course, the rest of the premiere was not nearly so self-reflexive — and often looked pretty familiar. As different as the show is without Aidy Bryant, Kate McKinnon, Pete Davidson, or Chris Redd, among others, it’s neither especially pared down (16 cast members in the opening credits) — nor especially heavy on new faces (none of the 10 in non-“featured” main cast have been there fewer than two seasons, and most more than that). How much of a splash can four new cast members make when two of last year’s new additions are still jostling around in the Featured Players category with them?
For that matter, how quickly does SNL ever change? The show is certainly different now than when it was making similarly big cast shifts back in 1995 (!), but not because it’s undergone any radical format overhauls. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the Season 48 premiere: the good, the bad, and the stuff that kinda feels the same as always.
Editor’s Note: Kendrick Lamar served as the episode’s musical guest; watch the replay here.
Live Analysis Cold Open
As mentioned, this was an unusually perceptive and even self-lacerating sketch, and while sometimes it can feel uncomfortable when a show seems to be taking notes from fans, critics, and/or the internet at large, it’s an uncanny (and OK, maybe kind of gratifying) experience to watch the show work through a checklist of what often sucks about its politically-themed cold opens. Besides calling itself out, there are funny touches like Sarah Sherman lurking in the background and Bowen Yang attempting to jumpstart a catchphrase.
Be Real Ad
There’s nothing groundbreaking about the show returning from summer break to lightly spoof something that became trendy during their off months, but like a lot of SNL’s filmed pieces, this one just has the room for some solid comic acting from a big chunk of the cast, freed of the limitations of the live stage. Teller was a game, gregarious host throughout the night, but he and veteran cast member Mikey Day (who appeared in almost every sketch of this episode) may not have been better all night than they were playing two bank robbers sucked into an explanation of a hot new social-media app.
Michael Longfellow on Update
The four new folks in the SNL cast — welcome to Molly Kearney, Marcello Hernandez, Michael Longfellow, and Devon Walker! — got characteristically little to do on their first episode. The cast may be smaller, but it’s still on the high side, and typically the best place to get noticed in recent years on the show has been on Weekend Update. This is especially true of performers with a stand-up background, like Leslie Jones or Pete Davidson, and all four of the newbies are coming from that world.
Michael Longfellow receives a primo spot his first time out, doing some very stand-up-style riffing about dealing with conservative family members. The loose premise — that he was commenting on the heat Sydney Sweeney faced when it became clear that her parents are likely Trump supporters — recalled Pete Davidson, as did Longfellow’s offhand willingness to let the audience come to his punchlines, rather than slamming them home as hard as possible. It would be great if SNL could integrate these voices into actual sketches, but it’s also fun to get a sample of stand-up-style comedy mid-show.
For so much of this episode, the veteran male cast members dominated. This might have been the only live sketch that didn’t feature Mikey Day, Bowen Yang, and/or Kenan Thompson, which seems like a misallocation of resources when your cast also includes women as strong with character work as Heidi Gardner, Ego Nwodim, and Chloe Fineman. Gardner and Nowdim teamed up for this brief but fully imagined piece as middle-aged women hosting some kind of impromptu talk show from an off-season Caribbean getaway that has been extended for weeks on end. Again, not a revelatory piece, but something that really plays to this cast’s strengths.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a pair of bozos who may attempt to summon a certain level of bravado when trying to pick up women, but immediately fail. This structure is basically an imitation of Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd as the “wild and crazy” Festrunk Brothers, and has been repeated in the forms of Tom Hanks and Jon Lovitz as the Girl Watchers, Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan as the Roxbury Guys, and, in the previous nadir of this bit, Jimmy Fallon and Chris Parnell as the Bloater Brothers.
And now here are Miles Teller and Mikey Day as… pretty much just the Bloather Brothers again, doing weird voices, saying whatever pops into their heads, and alienating women they never had a chance with, only they’re finance bros instead of regular dorks. Why this? Why now?
The Rest of Weekend Update
Colin Jost and Michael Che are now the two longest-tenured Weekend Update anchors ever. They’re
smoothly professional, they have a nicely prickly chemistry with each other, and they specialize in different joke styles. Sometimes, their Update stuff has some bite; plenty of this episode’s jokes landed fine. But just as often, it feels a bit wan. But how could it not, after doing this for something like a decade?
Granted, back in 1995, keeping Norm Macdonald on Weekend Update was one of the few constants as the show shifted its focus, and it was a great call. But Macdonald was then in his second season as Update anchor (and would be fired midway through his fourth). The Jost/Che team is entering its ninth season. Only Kenan Thompson has been on the show longer than these guys. Maybe refreshing Weekend Update should have been a higher priority than designing a new logo?
Send Something Normal
The game-show parody is probably never leaving SNL, even as traditional game shows are fewer and further between on actual television. The format is too clean and conceptual, too easy to plug in at least three cast members and a host, too recognizable even for those who aren’t students of TV history, to go away completely. This ribbing of celebrities who can’t stop being creepy in their DMs is a decent-enough example of the form. It’s just aiming for a simple catharsis the show has better nailed in the past.
Charmin Bears/Swole Grimace
It’s great that SNL no longer leans quite so hard on recurring characters to fill up the 90 minutes, so there’s no reason for them to rely on recurring characters from advertisements instead — especially with two (sort of) different sketches about ad mascots on the same episode!
The idea of exploring the world of bears who advertise Charmin toiler paper with maddening dedication is funny, as is the idea of Grimace, the weird purple lump from McDonald’s ads, returning to the set newly buff (and happily bisexual). One of these sketches would have been charmingly eccentric. Two made for a confusing mixed message: Here’s a brand-new SNL that will repeat itself before the episode is even over.