Are SNL‘s growing pains over as it enters its 40th season? It certainly didn’t seem that way from the show’s bizarre season opener. While Chris Pratt—and Chris Pratt’s abs, in a supporting role—conducted themselves amiably, the show seemed to lack the festive air we’d expect from a premiere tied to such an important season. Instead, it seemed on a mission to prove that a new era has come to Studio 8H—one with a markedly different tone.
There was only one notable cameo, and it came from Pratt’s wife, Anna Faris—not, as might have been expected, his Parks and Recreation costar Amy Poehler. In fact, there was little about the show that was familiar. It seemed intent on showing off the new generation, lingering on new cast member Pete Davidson and its brand-new Weekend Update lineup. Even Leslie Jones, an SNL writer who joined the show midway through last year and made a controversial appearance on Update in May, had a chance to show off her material.
This confidence resonates better than last season’s opener, when the new cast members were forced to endure the “New Cast Member or Arcade Fire” sketch. But in doing so, the show seemed to push aside some of its strongest, more veteran players, like Kate McKinnon and Vanessa Bayer. Let’s move on to specifics:
I hate to reward the show for being safe, but this episode could have used more sketches that were automatic slam dunks. That’s why the best sketch prize has to go to the requisite Marvel sketch, which operated on the simple premise that Marvel can do anything—and audiences will pay to see it. Sometimes simple things work if you add in the phrase “a dude dressed as Grimace.”
Sort of against my better judgment, I’m a sucker for “He-Man and Lion-O,” in which Taran Killam—underused in much of this episode—and Pratt play Kyle Mooney’s action figures come to life. (Musical guest Ariana Grande, an enthusiast of Barbarella hair, also had an action-figure cameo.) The theme of the entire episode seemed to be unexpectedly horny people; the night also ended with Pratt and Vanessa Bayer as video game characters who aggressively make-out. But within that genre of sketch, “He-Man and Lion-O” came out the winner, mostly thanks to Killam’s stilted but slightly menacing delivery.
The night was filled with strange bits. (Case in point: “He-Man and Lion-O.”) I doubt anyone was clamoring for the return of the “Animal Hospital” nurses, and yet there they were. No sketch, however, was weirder than the Mooney and Beck Bennett offering “Bad Boys.” Look, Mooney and Bennett are an acquired taste; I can’t say I possess that taste, so take my evaluation of this sketch with a grain of salt. And this season, Mooney and Bennett (and SNL segment director Dave McCary) have been joined on SNL by Nick Rutherford, the last member of their old sketch group Good Neighbor—meaning that their takeover of the show may be complete.
The Good Neighbor guys attempted something similar to “Bad Boys” last season, though the sketch ended up getting cut. (Mike Ryan had a good breakdown of it at Screencrush.) Both that sketch and “Bad Boys” have an element of anti-comedy; they’re each framed as ’90s sitcoms, complete with overblown and out-of-place audience reactions. There is a case to be made that the sketch’s boldness makes it the weirdest of the night rather than the worst; surely, someone thought it was funny. But I didn’t; I’m afraid I’m not going to like the Good Neighbor era of SNL very much.
It was incredibly strange not to hear Don Pardo’s voice booming across the opening credits. I’m sure we’ll get used to Darrell Hammond’s take eventually. It wasn’t bad, just a bit quieter.
Biggest First Impression
SNL really gave Pete Davidson a chance to shine in his show debut, giving him a Weekend Update segment as “resident young person,” commenting on a teenager who photographed himself in a lewd manner with a statue of Jesus. What followed was a routine centered around what Davidson called the “‘How much money would you go down on a guy for?’ game.” He launched into an explanation of why he would perform sexual favors for cash, saying, “If you’re gay, it’s fine. Me and my friends are just trying to make money.”
The bit was daringly racy, but also felt backwards; the whole concept is that oral sex between two men is inherently gross. Clearly, it was an auspicious beginning for Davidson, and, if nothing else, it demonstrated that the comedian can capture an audience’s attention with ease. There have already been cries of “this kid is going to be a star” on the Internet, and I don’t necessarily doubt that—but this material just did not sit well.
Interestingly enough, Davidson was playing off of the show’s other newbie, Michael Che. Che visibly stumbled a bit in his first Update appearance, but was for the most part appropriately solid. Weekend Update was obviously going to be disorienting with a whole new set and two untested properties at the desk. (Jost’s time at Update last year barely counts.) For now, the desk simply seems crowded, and will until Jost and Che can develop a rapport. The best sign of things to come for this segment of the show was the final bit, in which both Jost and Che riffed on “Cheer Up, Obama” to the tune of Kenan Thompson crooning “Ooh Child.” More Kenan, please.
Most Welcome Return
Almost as if to prove that she really wasn’t pissed off at being booted from the Update desk, Cecily Strong made a triumphant return as The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With At A Party. Where was she? Her Birthright trip. She also recognized Colin. “He looks like my ex,” she said. “He died at Burning Man.”
Best Musical Moment
Half goes to Ariana Grande for doing something unexpected. Grande opened her performance of “Break Free” by performing just piano accompaniment, showing off her Mariah-like vocals. It would have been great to see Grande carry that through the entire song. Unfortunately, she didn’t. Cue Grande’s highly awkward dance moves.
Grande’s tied with Pratt’s endearing monologue. Like a number of other elements this episode, the monologue felt unpracticed. It certainly didn’t live up to some of the guitar work Pratt has done on Parks and Recreation. Still, the guy excels at that goofy-sweet thing, and it was nice to see him play with it here.
An entire summer’s worth of news, and still the show devoted not one, but two sketches to the NFL. Not that the NFL isn’t worth all the ridicule it can get—but it was really the only current event the show tackled (no pun intended) outside of Weekend Update. The cold open, a particularly stagnant sketch, found Aidy Bryant playing Candy Crowley opposite Jay Pharoah’s Shannon Sharpe and Thompson’s Ray Lewis. Having Pratt play Roger Goodell was an interesting choice; if Goodell stays in the news, the show will have a problem. (Or, you know, they’ll just give it to Taran Killam.)
A much better take on the NFL’s current problems was the “NFL Intros” sketch, in which the male members of the cast played football players introducing themselves in their lineups by their crimes. Davidson’s delivery of the word “treason” made me excited to see him do more sketch work.
In this episode, Bryant proved herself one of the show’s most reliable players. Though her Candy Crowley wasn’t particularly notable, she had a standout moment with “Booty”—part “Anaconda” parody, part chance to get Pratt rapping again. The sketch was really sold by Bryant’s seamless shift between her character’s shy and hyper-sexual sides. It certainly wasn’t completely new territory for Bryant—think of her work in the “Slumber Party” sketch last season—but SNL can use consistency right now, and Bryant can bring it.
– Props for Chris Pratt’s nod to SNL history, with mention of the fact that he “literally lived in a van down by the river.”
– “I’m afraid she was birdered.” In the totally unnecessary return of Animal Hospital, Kate McKinnon’s delivery of this line was perfection.
– Both Jost and Che proved that SNL is going to take advantage of having Hillary Clinton likely running for President again. Clinton said, “Hello, Iowa, I’m back.” As Che quipped: “If I remember 2008 correctly, that’s not as effective as saying, ‘Hello, Iowa, I’m black.'”
– “Uh, swipe left.” Couldn’t have said it better, Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With.
– The show gave quiet nods to both Derek Jeter and Don Pardo in the inter-sketch cards.