Season 40 of NBC’s Saturday Night Livehasn’t been a non-stop barrage of big laughs and sharp insights so far, but it’s been a lot better than people have given it credit for – which is almost always the case with this show that is constantly burdened by impossible expectations, the affection that people have for its ghosts and the anger that they have for a show that doesn’t age at the same speed as them.
The Chris Pratt-hosted premiere had some high points while Sarah Silverman’s return to the show that ousted her 20 years ago mostly fell flat, but Bill Hader’s own homecoming was a splendid reminder of how good Saturday Night Live can be at times.
That’s not me gazing at ghosts, though. I feel strongly that some of those times have come in the two years since Hader left. I’m also sure that they will come again with more consistency soon enough thanks to new cast members like Pete Davidson, Michael Che and now Leslie Jones, who was added to the cast today after spending part of last season as a writer on the show.
Jones is, of course, no stranger to onscreen work on Saturday Night Live and she’s also a rising star who has secured a number of big screen roles. In some ways, this looks like a master stroke by Lorne Michaels to align with a talent on the way up, but I was hoping that this move would be made even sooner.
Sometimes, it seems like Lorne Michaels gets too much credit for his ability to construct a cast even though I’ve handed out my fair share of praise lollipops to the man for his skills in that area. Yes, Michaels’ track record demands respect, but there have been some epic missteps as well. I wouldn’t put last season’s batch of rookies in either column at this point, but the worst thing that one can do with Saturday Night Live is to try and preserve a moment beyond its time.
That’s true of fans, but also the people behind the show. People who, I have to now admit, may have tried to replace departed cast members with similarly skilled performers last year. When an era dies, it should stay dead and we should all wait patiently for the next era to come so that we can both recognize the familiar string of mastery that runs through the work of all of the historical show’s finest talents and also see something new. That’s easier said than done, but it would still be better than the impatient and doomed alternative.
Davidson, Che and Jones aren’t going to single-handedly save the show from low ratings, but they’re probably going to be a part of the solution at some point. They aren’t going to be the next Hader and Wiig either. These aren’t polished sketch performers and master impressionists, they are all stand-up comics with the ability and desire to push the envelope and add a little intellectual danger to the show.
Since the start of last season, these three have been part of some of the best and also the most controversial sketches on the show – and that’s good. This show needs a little bit of controversy. Controversy means that people probably got pissed off and people probably fell in love.
Saturday Night Live needs that kind of passion, lest it become part of the scenery and a safe exercise in eliciting a half-smirk from people who are half-asleep. This show was never meant to be that. It’s also not the place where the best work comes from people who are in their sixth or seventh year (with few exceptions). Saturday Night Live is a show that is fueled by young blood and they just got a fresh helping. I can’t wait to see these three work off of each other’s strengths at the Update desk and in sketches beside talented sketch comics and show stars like Kate McKinnon, Cecily Strong, Aidy Bryant and Taran Killam.
This Saturday Night Live cast may not be “your” Saturday Night Live cast, but if they can live up to their immense promise and work well as a unit, they’re likely going to fill that need for more than a few people. And that’s what keeps Saturday Night Live perpetually young, relevant and necessary – the ability to attract new fans with new talent and the sum, not the parts.
Saturday Night Live airs Saturday nights @11:30pm on NBC.