Saturday Night Live returned this weekend with the premiere episode of the 39th season—and despite being given every reason not to be hopeful, I'm oddly excited for it. Last season had to have been one of the weakest ones in recent memory, a mix of dead-on-arrival sketches, Justin Bieber blather, and a few surreal highlights. The show lost almost all their heavyweights: Bill Hader, Fred Armisen and Jason Sudekis are gone, and Seth Meyers will leave for Late Night in the winter. All of this means we're in for a transitionary year, with lots of new (white) faces vying for attention as returning members try out new roles (like Cecily Strong on Weekend Update). SNL didn't shy away from it, using this week's Tina Fey-hosted episode to point out again and again that big changes are afoot. The result was a mostly solid episode!
Fey was reliably charming as herself (or the version of herself we know from 30 Rock and Bossypants); her monologue was split between pointing out her lack of notable SNL characters (I do wish Salvador Dali Parton were real) and giving the spotlight to the new members (via a hazing dance ritual). Fey was the ideal host for this episode, where the subtext about the new cast members lacked any subtlety whatsoever—bring in one of the most beloved members of the old guard to bless this mess!
Interestingly, it was Fey—and not current head writer and Weekend Update host Meyers—who handed the Weekend Update baton over to Strong. Strong broke out last year with her "Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started A Conversation With At A Party" character; she was clearly nervous during her first time in the big chair, but there's a lot of potential for her in the role. It also seems as if we'll be getting bits of her standout character mixed in with her desk duties.
As for the six new cast members...well, it was only their first show. I think the writers made a savvy move being self-conscious about all the (interchangeably handsome) new faces—I don't recall any other period where new members had attention thrusted on them so quickly. At the same time, it forces the audience to think long and hard about the fact that there's only one new female member...and everyone is white. They at least acknowledged it during the decent "New Cast Member Or Arcade Fire?" game show (Lorne Michaels thought "the black guy," Kenan Thompson, was the new guy), but it still feels very strange.
Only three of the new members had much to do: Kyle Mooney appeared as Bruce Chandling on Weekend Update, a kind of low-rent version of Fred Armisen's Nicholas Fehn character. Mike O’Brien, a longtime SNL writer and host of the wonderful "7 Minutes In Heaven" web series, starred in the just-okay "Rick’s Model T’s" sketch. But Noel Wells provided a perfect Lena Dunham impression for the Girls sketch. Either way, there's plenty of time for them all to figure out where they fit in.
More transitions: Thompson, now the longest-running cast member not named Seth Meyers, has inherited the game show host slot from Hader. Kate McKinnon is the next breakout star (just look at what she did in the EMeth commercial); Taran Killam is taking over the leading man roles; and Bobby Moynihan has become the secret star. "Drunk Uncle" is his best work, and tonight's appearance (with Meth Nephew Jesse Pinkman) rivaled last season's Peter Drunklage spot for best appearance ever. His brief role as a smiling farter during the otherwise forgettable "Express Air" sketch was one of the laugh-out-loud moments of the night.
We had a few honest-to-goodness hilarious segments to kickoff the season: the aforementioned "Drunk Uncle," the Former Porn Girls Informercial (last season's best new recurring sketch), and the pitch perfect Girls parody. Of course, there was also the god-awful "Cinema Classics" sketch. And the show still has a glaring problem with the cold open: they keep doing political sketches that just don't work (although Jesse Pinkman showing up was a highlight). And hey, what the hell happened to Jay Pharoah, one of the show's two black actors, after the open? Was he even in the background of any other sketches?
Click through to check out all those sketches. Overall, this was a pretty interesting, mostly funny opening episode of a transitionary season—we'll likely have a lot of bumps along the way (um, Miley Cyrus is doing double duty next week), but there's a lot of forward momentum here.