(to anyone who was ever kind enough to read this blog, sorry for the long gap between posts)
2016, which was, amazingly, only four years ago, was likely planned as the final chapter of SNL’s deal-of-the-damned with Trump. Many fans were alienated from the show, probably for good, but many viewers were intrigued by the controversy and the followup. There were more controversies in store leading up to the season 42 premiere, but for the most part, the mood was one of a gawking relief – how will SNL make fun of Trump and Hillary? What will Trump tweet back? Alec Baldwin – he’s such a big liberal, he hates Trump, he’s a blowhard too, and we know he’s hilarious! Only 4 weeks and then everyone can move on.
That didn’t happen.
While the fascination of what-will-Trump-tweet-next and other entertainments continued for most of the season, what viewers were left with was an ever-decreasing circle. Trump mostly stopped responding. The show itself was incredibly apathetic in presentation, even if they kept plugging along to try to get press and appeal to some type of floating viewer who really wanted to see 10-minute mad lib reenactments of the dirge of the week. Alec Baldwin made his feelings clear.
Even as reaction to the show’s political content glided into a collective shrug, the show has, with the exception of the season 43 premiere, never quite managed to get into a new season on solid footing. Season 44 was an exploitive trainwreck, confusing viewers and rattling the cast and crew, sending the year off on a shaky path. Season 45’s premiere was also overshadowed for other disaster area reasons, with the most positive thing to be said is at least none of it occurred on national television.
We now head into a season filled with uncertainty piled on top of uncertainty:
- We’re in a pandemic, which may hit its (second…third…are we still in the first??) wave at any time. A live television show, with a (limited) audience, is being made during said pandemic.
- We’re in the midst of a contentious Presidential election where we don’t know whether we can trust the results, or how long the results will even take to arrive.
- We have the largest cast ever, at a time when key roles are still being played by non-cast members. This, naturally, leads to no end of speculation, and angst, about just how much of a chance cast members will have to establish themselves. On top of that, a number of cast members are busy elsewhere, from sitcoms to docudramas, and their involvement may be limited. There is also no way of knowing how many of those cast members will even finish out the season.
What can we expect? With SNL, generally I think people expect the best, then feel disappointed about what they actually get, then later on may look back and think “It wasn’t so bad.” SNL is a show that is simultaneously everything and nothing, a show that has the highest and lowest expectations. So I am going to try to go into the premiere just looking at the production changes they’ve had to make and seeing how they will juggle the cast.
There are choices I would love them to make, like returning to some of the slice-of-life material of the first 20-25 seasons, since I think they have a number of cast members right now who could do that writing justice and since there are so many topics today which are home to such an approach, from families and relationships torn apart by political polarization, to people struggling to adapt to post-COVID life, to those who have lost loved ones or suffered hardships through COVID. I know none of that is likely to happen, because that SNL has been gone for many, many years, and there are few hints it’s going to return (and if it did, you’d probably see a fair amount of backlash). I could complain, and I probably will, but in order to keep watching the show, you have to learn to let go…ironically, at a time when SNL itself seems more frightened than ever of letting go.
There is huge news out at the moment, but I don’t imagine SNL will have much to say about that either. The days of a delightfully ghoulish Michael O’Donoghue take have long passed, aside from a few sharp elbows Michael Che (possibly the closest modern SNL will get to an MOD type of spirit) throw on Update. A 15-minute debate sketch with Alec Baldwin pursing bad one-liners through his lips and squinting while Jim Carrey does an offshoot of his In Living Color days would seem 10 years old at this point, rather than not even a week (yes, incredibly, the debate wasn’t even a week ago), but, again – expect the worst, hope for the best. I assume this episode is going to stick to the pre-set formula, since Lorne tends to like formula as much as possible, even if, compared to today’s headlines, it ends up seeming like something space aliens whipped together and dropped from the sky.
I do think Jim Carrey has it in him to give a much more nuanced performance if the writing is there. Nuance is not something that has been on display with Baldwin’s Trump, and likely never will be, but there’s still hope for some kind of shift for Maya Rudolph’s Kamala Harris, as it’s easier to write her in meme queen mode when she’s briefly shown among a dozen candidates than it is when she’s the VP nominee, carrying part or all of lengthy sketches. I know Maya can do more if she is given the opportunity, so let’s hope they will give her that opportunity.
To wrap this up, I wanted to give my thoughts on each of the cast, from oldest to newest.
Kenan: Kenan is Kenan is Kenan. There isn’t much left to say about him, in a sea of game show hosts, Kenan Reacts, and, along with Cecily, one of the few successful interpreters of the oft-indecipherable content of James Anderson. There’s always speculation about when he will leave, and as his sitcom becomes closer to reality, those days seem closer to reality as well, but for now, I think he will continue to be a comforting, reliable presence, slowly phasing himself out. I don’t think you can say enough how effortlessly Kenan manages to seem like a natural part of the canvas even after nearly 20 years. It’s remarkable. A part of me wants him to go before that isn’t true anymore, and a part of me wants to see him there to the end.
Kate/Aidy/Cecily: One of my lasting memories of season 45 is when these three introduced one of Harry Styles’ musical performances. A wave of sentimentality washed over as I remembered some of the moments where soon-to-depart cast members (Molly Shannon, Seth Meyers) introduced musical acts. We won’t know for a while, if ever, what their plans were, but I do think one or all would have left. As they all clearly have fond memories of the show, they were less likely to want to leave so abruptly, yet they also have various commitments (Tiger King, Shrill, Cecily’s new Apple TV show) which mean they may miss or barely appear in a number of episodes – if they make it for a full final season.
It’s become conventional wisdom among some fans to say Kate stayed a few years too long. I can’t disagree, but I can say that if she becomes less involved in muggy political sketches and stops doing the same Anna Drezen sketch with Aidy over and over again, I can still appreciate her talents (she was at her best form in years in the At Home episodes).
Aidy is a conundrum for me, as there are times I think she’s hilarious and other times, especially with characters like Carrie Krum (or, again, her double act with Kate), that I am not involved. I tend to enjoy Aidy most when she’s being overly broad or incredibly weird – New Paint, Overnight Salad and Eleanor’s House were among my favorite sketches last season.
Cecily is one of my favorite cast members of this era, and probably of all time. She’s one of the rare gems who can play just about anything and who could have fit into any cast, any producer, any decade. With that said, even more than Kate or Aidy, there is a certain sense of time passing by when I watch Cecily – she seemed to be moving away from the show last season, partly for very personal, heartbreaking reasons, but also because of a natural process which comes for many longtime SNL players, good or bad or in-between. At this point she seems to be filming elsewhere, and her commitments will be limited for a while. If she just returns long enough to say goodbye, then I hope she gets one hell of a sendoff.
The Good Neighbor duo who were initially written off due to unfair (if understandable) comparisons to Lonely Island have managed to make their mark through their 8th, and presumably final, seasons. As the lone full-season survivors of the 13-14 featured player purge, they had a lot to prove, and I’d say they did.
Beck is a solid impressionist and a reliable supporting player who, when given the rare chance, manages to add a goofiness and physicality (even if this can easily be parlayed into being the “idiot”) without seeming too desperate. I think he can too easily fall into a smugbot persona in sketches and I think he is much more at home in pre-tapes than in live sketches, partly because those give him the chance to act that modern-day SNL rarely, if ever does live. I hope in his final season we get more of those chances at dramatic material (see the “Boop-It” pre-tape from last season as one example of what might be), and more of Beck just getting to cut loose.
Kyle is frequently thrown around as one of the worst of the current cast, which I just don’t agree with. He has his limitations in live sketches, especially impression-wise, but he is a consistent support figure who can also dive right into a certain type of crazy, energetic piece (like Del Taco, another of my favorites last season). His pre-tapes can play to the same few beats (daddy issues, being a loser, what have you), but those beats, when executed well, can be just about flawless. I hope he’ll get some really out there pre-tapes this season, even further than where he was going in his strong At Home canon.
More than anything I’d like to see Beck and Kyle get more of a chance to do their films, which have fallen by the wayside the last few seasons (if not those, then at least their anti-comedy sitcom homages, which I just absolutely love).
On an even less likely note, I wish they could work Nick Rutherford, the member of the quartet SNL most wasted (even though he wrote a truly enthralling dark sketch), in as well.
Still, not a bad legacy, whatever happens.
(Not bad for Dave McCary either)
Colin/Michael: Between several controversies, a certain romantic relationship, and a central role in an era of thinkpiece hell, Colin may be the most high-profile Update anchor since Chevy Chase. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is up to you (or possibly, Seth Simons). I think he’s managed to offset his criticisms as an anchor about as well as can be expected, adapting and being very willing to make himself the butt of the joke. He and Michael Che are the rare Update duo who manage to balance each other properly, and who don’t drown in stridency or cutesiness. Michael, meanwhile, who has had his own controversies (calling them controversies is too glib of me, I realize), so much so that at times I wasn’t sure he would even make it through the last few seasons. Along with those troubles, he has brought a certain ragged honesty and humanity and edge to modern SNL that it had not had in quite some time, and may not again. Few things were more relateable than when he spent an Update just drinking and not caring anymore – it’s rare to call modern SNL relateable. But it’s not just resignation with Che, it’s also heart, as best shown in his comments after his grandmother passed away. Che, in a number of ways, reminds me of the cast members of the early seasons, in that we get enough complexity and glimpses from him that we feel we know him, even though we actually don’t.
I think Jost and Che have been likely about the strongest Update anchors the show could have had for the Trump era, and some of their season 45 Updates were, to me, among the finest SNL has ever had. I do feel that it is their time to go (and based on some of their comments, so do they). If it were up to me, they would leave at the Christmas show so we’d get a new team (or solo act) for a new era, but that doesn’t seem likely.
(my opinions of Jost and Che as headwriters are not as positive, especially the toothless political material [not that this is just down to them – it’s a longstanding problem] and the incoherent, poorly put together sketches, questionable sketch order, etc., but I am aware that their replacements may not be much better on that front)
Pete: What can you say about Pete that hasn’t already been said? Season 44 saw an SNL that was much, much too involved in using his personal life for ratings gain – with frightening consequences. Season 45 saw Pete’s frequent absences (at one point I could swear Rachel Dratch had appeared in more episodes) mocked-in show, leading to uncomfortable headlines and what may be the only case of an entire promo devoted to damage control for said headlines. Quarantine seemed to repair Pete’s relationship with the show, and helped convince him to stay, presumably on the same reduced schedule considering his various film roles. Pete continues to bring views and publicity for SNL, but nothing lasts forever, and I hope Lorne will let Pete move on so we don’t get a repeat of the last few years. I do like Pete well enough when he isn’t just talking about himself on Update over and over and when we aren’t just getting Pete Davidson Raps! – he’s an underrated sketch performer with some great beats, but I am not sure what is left for him in this final (?) season. I hope he might get more sketch leads, more experimentation, less fill-in-the-blank raps, and that he lets Chad rest.
Alex/Melissa/Mikey: Of the three, Mikey by far hit the ground running, with very easily accessible and identifiable sketches (so much so that they have become something of a sticking point for fans – “Mikey Day Explains”). He’s also a tireless and committed performer, more than happy enough to offer himself up for humiliation (even from his own son in some funny At Home appearances). I felt like Mikey finally began to step back last season, as he and co-writer Streeter Seidell found success elsewhere, so I wonder how much that will continue. I would like to see Mikey try new roles and let us see more of his serious side – and let’s see more of him with Heidi, whom he shares great chemistry with.
Melissa is that offbeat player which no cast is quite worth watching without. You never know for sure what she’s going to do, or even if she will appear. When she does, it’s rarely boring. She provided a rare spark of individuality on Update last season, even if some of this led to stupid clickbait outrage (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re lucky). She also had some terrific At Home pieces in-between her various absences and bit parts. You want to like Melissa, you want to see her do well. She creates an empathy that SNL always needs more of. What I want to see her do is move further away from impressions (she is a great impressionist but her impressions often feel clinical to me and don’t go very far) and try to do more character work with various writers like Steven Castillo.
Alex is the biggest mystery on the show. He’s charismatic, handsome, a solid impressionist, a good lead and a good support figure, athletic…yet he languishes more and more with each passing year. Last season was something of a perfect storm for male hosts, who dominated many of their episodes and left him stranded. Similar to Heidi, his main success on the show (outside of Eric Trump, which is an absolute blast, but is likely at or near a natural end) rests in an Update character I find to be draining and a waste of talent. I don’t know what they should do with Alex, but I hope they figure it out while they have a chance. Make him an Update anchor, give him more lead roles, try him in more serious parts to peel back some of the smugbot default he sometimes has, pair him more with Ego or Melissa – I don’t know. There is a great cast member in there waiting to be found.
Chris/Heidi: Heidi and Chris are very different, but surprisingly similar as well – they both started out with a bang, then languished before stabilizing in their third seasons. They both seem to feel ill-at-ease live compared to pre-tapes, and both feel like they probably won’t reach their true potential while they’re still on the show.
I think Chris would thrive if we got to see him take more of a lead in pre-tapes – That’s the Game was a real underrated moment last season, while City on Lockdown is one of the best cut for time pieces I’ve seen. It’s time for Chris to get to fully move away from just rapping in the background of various Kyle or Pete pre-tapes.
Heidi is far more compelling to me in dramatic moments and sad moments than when she tries to play campy and sassy in those strange, half-written sketches she tends to make with Andrew Dismukes (now that he has been bumped up I wonder if they will be a duo). I also feel her Update characters, especially Bailey Gismert, have reached a natural end. I want more somber slice-of-life pieces like RV Life, and more fleshed-out versions of the harried wife roles she kept popping up in in pre-tapes this past season. If we do get more wacky comic Heidi material, I’d prefer the more jagged version we got in this terrific piece she made with Ego. There are so many depths to Heidi which today’s SNL doesn’t really know how to tap, but if there was ever a time for that to change, this is it.
Ego: Ego is a pretty interesting case, in that she has a very distinct energy and delivery which is a very different flow to the sometimes punishing limitations of SNL (SNL being a particularly difficult show for black female cast members). It’s been a pleasant surprise to see her given a chance and to see various pieces she has written or co-written get on the air. They don’t all work, but one (Mid-Morning News) was a very well-regarded part of last season. I’d like to see more of her style, and also more opportunities to see how her clipped type of line readings could work outside of more familiar settings. She might make a great Update anchor. I’d also like to see more of her with Chris – they have a very warm, natural chemistry when paired together.
Bowen/Chloe: Bowen was put in an extremely difficult situation last season with the Gillis fiasco, being thrust into a national profile, and a cauldron of vipers, for something that had nothing to do with him. He handled the situation with grace, which meant that, along with his very likeable and easily understood onscreen persona, he was a fast hit. The downside of such quick support is just as quick backlash, and at times he seemed to be as polarizing as Pete and Leslie Jones were. I think much of the criticism of him for being one-note is overblown – how many cast members on SNL have been beloved for that one loud, clear note? – but I do think Bowen has more depth than some of his roles have suggested. I want to see stuff like Open Mic, more improved versions of Soul Cycle, and more abstract, Lily Tomlin-esque characters like Bottle Boi.
Chloe had the opposite journey in that she had a slow start, but by the time of her Update debut, alongside her At Home successes, she got a great deal of notice and well-deserved praise. Knowing that a variety of female cast members are on their way out, the press has turned more focus on her, helped by her knack at knowing how to go viral. I like Chloe – I think her impressions feel very lived-in, rather than just seeming to be machines, and she has a certain unsettling, alien tone to her original characters (like the first incarnation of Ooli). The sky is the limit with Chloe so I am interested in seeing where they go (something tells me James Anderson and Kent Sublette are going to be big fans).
Newcomers: It’s too soon to say. Will Lauren be another Cecily or Aidy? Punkie another Pete? Andrew another Kyle? Could we go even further back? Or will they be allowed to be themselves? Ideally, they will all have a chance in tonight’s packed premiere, but I am guessing only one (possibly Punkie) might slip through. We’ll see.
To anyone who managed to get through all this, thanks. I wish you the best, and the show the best. Stay safe.