The 36th season premiere of Saturday Night Live was pretty magical. Not in that hokey poetic way. I mean the show’s overall impact relied on a bit of a slight-of-hand approach — or as host Amy Poehler’s husband Will Arnett might have said on Arrested Development, “It’s an illuuuuuusion!” But let’s come back to that. First, let’s hear from the host herself.
Now, that was a perfectly delightful introduction to the show and the new season. The structure was spot-on. Working in a cutaway to the new cast members was a great touch, creating not only a chuckle for the quick cut back to Poehler, but a perfect segue into the dream and a sweet, heartfelt declaration afterward that hosting is a “dream come true.”
The next sketch was just that for fans of Poehler’s SNL cast days. Maya Rudolph returned to co-host their old bit “Bronx Beat.”
Okay, you’ve watched it. And maybe you agree that the sketch demonstrates a really smart balance between history and current events, bringing the old characters to life as they mocked musical guest Katy Perry’s recent Sesame Street pseudo-scandal. Now, quick! Pop quiz: What were the gals talking about before 3D Elmo Boobs entered the scene? Anyone?
In another reprised role, Poehler joined Seth Meyers for “Really!?!” She also stuck around and finished out the rest of “Weekend Update,” which culminated with fresh life for a stale bit: The real Governor Patterson joined Fred Armisen during his (hopefully soon-to-be-retired) impersonation.
Even Andy Samberg’s Digital Short sorta loaded up on cameos, inserting applauding A-lister footage and casting Peter Sarsgaard at a climactic moment. In another quick bit, Samberg enlisted pal Justin Timberlake for a sketch that literally lasted a minute. And it was just so well set up and so well delivered that it was possibly the best 40 seconds (it included a 20-second intro) of the night.
This is all a long way of demonstrating that well-played misdirection may have kept us from noticing a few important things.
Like that this was kind of a big-deal show. Several cast members have come back as post-departure hosts, and that’s probably exciting/scary enough. Add in that Poehler is the first to return as a host for the season opener since Chevy Chase did it in 1982. So, on the one hand, having former cast-mates return for moral support and for that extra on-air oomph is understandable. It’s just a bit of a shame that Poehler’s true moment to shine was so full of cameos it should almost be billed as Opening Monologue by Ensemble.
In fact, the entire episode depended a lot on Poehler’s role as a former cast member and on the easy cheer for guest reveals, and perhaps not enough on strong writing that incorporates who she is now, really putting her in the spotlight.
Another Poehler original, Amber, was also updated in a way as the lead character in a premium cable original series, The Lean Years. While the jokes are all par for the course (farts, she’s got one leg… “jealous!?”), the sketch is a great send-up of Showtime behind-the-scenes interviews that “explore” the actors’ methods and the characters’ motivations. Poehler did get a good chance to shine here. Plus it included at least a little exposure for new featured player, Paul Brittain.
Of course, we like to see a few characters resurrected when a cast member comes back. But we (or at least I) also want to see something new. Not just new twists on old ideas; really, something new. There simply wasn’t enough of that, and what there was wasn’t great.
In one of her only non-nostalgic sketches she played a socialite in a tiny-hat competition with a friend. “Ladies Who Lunch,” which also gave Vanessa Bayer her first speaking appearance. Though it was somewhat chuckle-worthy, it just didn’t know when to quit. After the microscope close-up, cut back to Kristin Wiig and [insert your punch line here]. (And… scene!) In my mind, she dumps a mimosa on her head to drown Trish.
Something else that deserves, frankly, more attention than Katy Perry’s rack is the stellar debut by another new featured player, Jay Pharoah. He had speaking appearances in three bits, including a Will Smith impersonation walk-on on “Weekend Update.” Hopefully he’ll be able to help take the show in fresh, new directions.
P.S. Jenny Slate and Will Forte aren’t in the cast anymore. The new season continues Oct. 2 with host Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) and musical guest Kanye West.