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Saturday Night Live, the unfellable late-night staple, currently stands at a strange crossroads. After riding the high of a 40th anniversary special, the show has settled back into the in-between state it’s inhabited for several years. Devoid of the surefire stars who graced SNL40’s stage — the Ferrells and Murrays of the world — SNL in recent years has failed to enter into the mainstream, falling behind the television and comedy presented by other networks and stars. There are good parts, there are bad parts, and there is much uncertainty as the show moves forward.
Despite a lack of mainstream star power, the show still has significant talent sprinkled throughout the cast. Kate McKinnon has come into her own, bringing life to every character she imitates, from Robert Durst to Iggy Azalea. Her versatility may be her best feature, though she has also established go-to characters — including the lovable Russian realist, Olya Povlatsky. Along with McKinnon, Aidy Bryant leaves her mark within the show’s strong female contingent. She does well with more typical female roles but also stands out when she’s willing to be crude, as in last week’s sendup of Starbucks’ failed #racetogether campaign. Then there’s Bobby Moynihan, who may only be a star in my mind. He’s always had my heart, but even in his best moments he probably comes up a bit short of carrying the show.
Besides myriad reliable players, recent episodes have showcased several willing and able hosts. This past week, The Rock hosted for the fourth time, and as usual he brought a whole lot of energy and muscles to the stage. His comedic timing seems to be pretty sharp, and he singlehandedly made the Wrestlemania promo sketch work. Chris Hemsworth and Dakota Johnson both gave commendable performances in their first hosting gigs, though their episodes still felt a bit lackadaisical. Michael Keaton is a promising leader this week, and overall the hosts have at least not been a weak point for the majority of the season.
To summarize, there is good in the world of SNL, from the lovable weirdness of veteran Kenan Thompson to the reliable work of McKinnon and others. So where is it going wrong, if it really is?
Side note: the Bambi trailer is awesome.
First and foremost, “Weekend Update” has long been one of the most important aspects of the show, a helpful barometer in determining public attitude towards the whole program. Michael Che and Colin Jost showcase their sharp wits here and there, yet they still struggle to maintain a rhythm from week to week. After superstar anchors like Seth Meyers, Amy Poehler, and of course Tina Fey, there was bound to be an awkward transition. There may not be a better option to be found elsewhere in the current cast, but without improvement on “Update” it will be difficult to foster good feelings about the show in general.
In another case of talented comedians scuffling to find their place, Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett have had some strong moments, but overall their commitment to absurdism seems ineffective. Mooney’s “Circus” bit hits the mark for uncomfortable humor, but the pair lack the scope of the SNL digital short juggernaut that was Andy Samberg and the Lonely Island crew.
More generally, most episodes remain lacking in the originality department. Most of the show’s best sketches come in the form of direct commentary on actual events. There is nothing wrong with this — social satire has been the name of the game at 30 Rock for decades. But nevertheless, many of the “regular sketches” — the writing staff’s brain children not tied to current events — go on too long without clear punchlines. These are the lost minutes that make SNL a perfect candidate for DVR and Youtube. Who needs to watch a whole episode when only a handful of memorable moments come about?
Writing may be the underlying issue; regardless, there is an influx of middling stars, all competent and clever but no one who constantly wows. Jay Pharoah and Leslie Jones both hint at greatness in short bursts, and we are only left to wonder what could have been had the latter been given more chances in years past. Taran Killam does steady work each week, but he fits more into the Darrell Hammond “glue guy” role than one of a superstar.
I hope for the best for SNL, but the current television landscape makes me question just how it can sustain itself. With the rise of the Jimmy Fallons, Jimmy Kimmels, and John Olivers of the world, viewers young and old can have their fill of internettable clips and soundbites. SNL made an enormous impact with Lonely Island’s digital revolution, but since then we have seen rapid growth in the viralizing of late-night television. Fallon brings the fun, celebrity-filled games, Kimmel the pranks and memorable moments, and Oliver the irreverent political skewering that makes us young folks feel involved and aware.
Maybe some new young star can revitalize SNL. Maybe it’s the promising Pete Davidson; maybe it’s someone we have not yet heard of. Maybe the 2016 election cycle can inject some energy, with what promises to be a full slate of mockable candidates and scandals. But I’m afraid we’ll look elsewhere, to Colbert and Oliver and the rest of the faces we’ve come to know, rather than to the blurry semi-stars still finding their respective places.