SNL Seth MacFarlane
Credit: Dana Edelson/NBC

Seth MacFarlane brought all his voices to hosting the season premiere of Saturday Night Live. The Family Guy creator came off as a genial fellow who gamely enjoyed being in a bunch of mostly unamusing SNL sketches. MacFarlane’s opening segment was a series of voice performances of some of his best-known characters from Family Guy, with a few other impersonations (Droopy Dog, Kermit the frog) thrown in, with a bit of the mildly accomplished Sinatra-style crooning that MacFarlane is fond of doing and he’s powerful enough to compel producers and audiences to submit to.

But the biggest attention-getter probably wasn’t the host. This was the night that Jay Pharoah officially took over the impersonation of President Obama from Fred Armisen. It proved a frustrating experience. In the past, we’ve all wanted to see more of Pharoah, who’s a terrific impersonator and comic actor rarely given much air-time. But his Obama was merely a good approximation of Obama’s vocal timbre and verbal tics; there wasn’t an idea of what attitude Pharoah or SNL has toward Obama. The series’ greatest impersonations have presented interpretations that became pop-culture truths, the way Darrell Hammond’s Bill Clinton was a horndog smoothie, and Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin was vacuously camera-hungry.

So far, Pharoah doesn’t have a coherent take on Obama, who, admittedly, resists easy interpretation. But these days, there’s genial campaign-Obama and battered-by-the-Republicans-and-world-events beleaguered Obama to delve into; Obama is revealing more of himself than before, and not always by choice. Satirists can no longer get away with merely doing Obama doing Al Green. If the show can’t do better than increase the amount of gray hair the President has acquired over the past four years, it needs to get out of the political satire business.

And more parlously, if SNL thinks it’s going to get away with continuing to have the excellent Jason Sudeikis do Mitt Romney as a verbal bumbler, as the candidate was presented this night, they’re missing whole aspects of Romney’s personality and policy positions that are going to come ever more into focus as the October debates begin. The notion that Romney is a fool is foolishly short-sighted. Time for the show’s political-sketch writers who re-sharpen their pencils.

The show is going to have to decide how it’s going to make Obama and Romney, and Taran Killam’s startlingly mediocre Paul Ryan (Killam has never been this weak, so clearly this is a work in progress), and all of their positions on the economy and foreign policy, much more pointed, more cutting. (Seth Meyers’ one attempt to get a laugh from a reference to “The Innocence of Muslims” was mirthless — it felt like a test line, to see whether the audience would even get what he was referencing, and from a muted chuckles, it was hard to tell.)

A number of sketches were one-joke dead-ends: The Army sergeant (MacFarlane) who had a stutter. The Steve Harvey talk-show parody (Kenan Thompson played Harvey) featuring MacFarlane dressed like Steve Harvey.

Those weren’t MacFarlane’s fault; he performed their built-in tedious repetitions with gusto. He and Nasim Pedrad had the kernal of a terrific sketch playing a couple on a blind date who, like others around them in a restaurant, used those all-too-common irritating verbal tics, “I’m all… ” and “I’m, like… ” over and over. But the bit just dribbled on and on too long. By far the best thing MacFarlane did was his impersonation of Ryan Lochte as a mumbly dumb-dumb during “Weekend Update,” which was also probably the night’s most sustained bit of writing.

The show seemed to believe that it was enough to simply demonstrate it was aware of what’s popular right now — Honey Boo Boo; “Gangnam Style” — rather than actually make something funny of them. Wedging PSY and his hit song into a sketch about a mall hat store (why that context? no reason provided) didn’t work after the initial novelty quickly wore off.

The best pre-recorded sketch was doubtless Bill Hader as Clint Eastwood talking to the empty chair. The idea was predictable, but Hader’s inventive physicality sold the bit.

New cast members Tim Robinson, Cecily Strong, and Aidy Bryant were, in the SNL tradition, consigned mostly to the background. The exception was Strong, who was the focus of a Weekend Update moment as a young woman stressing the importance of the Latino vote in the upcoming election. For some reason, Pharoah was along in a wordless, needless role as her boyfriend; putting him there drew attention away from Strong, who delivered her lines with a sharp acuity. It was pretty clear from his brief appearances that Robinson can be a strong player; judgment must be withheld on how Bryant will fit in, since she was barely permitted to register this evening.

Overall, SNL isn’t entering the election season with much of a sense of purpose or clarity about how it’s going to grapple with the political issues that can often lift the show to becoming part of the national conversation.

What did you think of the SNL premiere?

Twitter: @kentucker

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