When “Saturday Night Live” returned this weekend for its 48th season, the grandaddy of all sketch shows ripped itself apart before anyone else could. In a cold open, host Miles Teller and cast member Andrew Dismukes played Peyton and Eli Manning, hosts of ESPN’s “ManningCast.” But instead of a play-by-play commentary on "Monday Night Football," they critiqued the premiere episode’s opening sketch.
“Let’s see what they spent the entire summer coming up with,” they said, watching the skit-inside-a-sketch — a purposely wooden number that featured every clumsy comedy move imaginable.
It was a clever way to address the challenges the storied NBC comedy show faces, with the loss of a sports team's worth of cast members between seasons (including Pete Davidson, Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant) and the addition of four new faces. The preemptive strike was also a smart move given the diminished profile of “SNL” as a relevant or reliable comedy source. But even with the funny, self-depreciating opener, the first episode of the new season wasn’t a stunning success or a total flop. It was middling, which is perhaps the worst place to be for a series whose writing, particularly its political satire, hasn’t popped in some time. Like so many "SNL" episodes before it, the hour started out strong and lost momentum with each skit, save for two dynamic performances by musical guest Kendrick Lamar.
Executive producer Lorne Michaels referred to this season as a "transition year," after stars Davidson, McKinnon and Bryant left along with Kyle Mooney, Melissa Villaseñor, Aristotle Athari, Alex Moffat and Chris Redd. Change is something that “SNL” really needs, but Saturday showed that scrambling the cast won't make a difference if there is not enough consistently strong material to work with.
The cold open focused on Donald Trump (James Austin Johnson) at Mar-A-Lago. Peyton complained that there were no “fun” impressions, like Rudy Giuliani or Lindsey Graham. But those were all done by McKinnon, said Eli, noting "SNL's" major talent loss right at the outset. They called out the "new guy" Michael Longfellow for freezing on camera and noted a surprise fumble from "veteran Bowen Yang" (still one of the show’s bright spots) when the comedian, playing China's President Xi Jinping, purposefully flubbed the pronunciation of "corgi." Peyton then stopped the commentary to read some disappointing "stats": "only 14 attempted jokes, 1 mild laugh and 3 chuckles." The duo patched in Jon Hamm to comment. “What have you seen so far tonight?” they asked. “I don’t know, but it’s not comedy,” said Hamm. “They haven’t even used Kenan [Thompson] yet.”
The opening was funny, self-aware and creative. Another skit at the top of the show, a game show called "Send Something Normal," also gave hope that the series might be headed in an upward direction. Four male contestants simply had to send a normal direct-message response to a woman to win $100 million. Adam Levine (Mikey Day), Armie Hammer (Johnson), Neil deGrasse Tyson (Thompson) and Yang (playing himself) all failed. Then things slid downhill, with a Charmin Bears sketch, a bit about two day-trader bros at a bar who struck out with women, and a missed opportunity to truly lampoon Nicole Kidman’s cringeworthy AMC tribute to the magic of movies.
It’s too early to tell how the show’s new players — Longfellow, Molly Kearney, Devon Walker and Marcello Hernandez — fit in. The returning troupe include Dismukes and Punkie Johnson, who were promoted to repertory status, alongside Day, Chloe Fineman, Heidi Gardner, Ego Nwodim, Cecily Strong and Yang. Sarah Sherman and James Austin Johnson remain feature players. “Weekend Update” is still hosted by Michael Che and Colin Jost, and it’s still hit and miss.
Saturday marked the start of Thompson’s 20th year on the sketch show, and judging from the episode, he’s still their ace in the hole. But he alone can't close the gap between meh and worthwhile, and neither can a meta sketch about the weaknesses of your own show.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.