Last night kicked off what will be the biggest transitional season for Saturday Night Live since 1995. The show has added six new featured players to the cast (as well as a few new writers) to help replace Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis, and Fred Armisen; but rather than bury the newbies behind host and SNL alum Tina Fey or returning talents like Vanessa Bayer and Taran Killam, Lorne Michaels threw the new kids into the deep end of the pool to see if they could swim, resulting in decent - but not yet stellar - results.
Among the highlights: a surprisingly funny double-shot of self-referential humor that allowed SNL to take on the "rebuilding season" room elephant.
Tina Fey obviously had the authority to sell the rookie hazing bit that called for her to mock the new cast while they stripped down to degrading gold lamé shorts and danced during the monologue, but Keenan Thompson did not in a later game show sketch that asked Fey to tell the difference between a new featured player and a member of Arcade Fire, the musical guest.
Thompson is a versatile performer, but as he enters his 11th season, it seems like he's followed in the footsteps of Tim Meadows and Darrell Hammond. Both of those men had long careers on SNL, but with the exception of Hammond's Bill Clinton impression, neither really stood out for more than their durability. Was it funny when Thompson yelled at new cast member Kyle Mooney for trying to participate by doing a quick funny voice? Yes, but it was much funnier when Michaels made an onscreen appearance and pretended to not know Thompson, mostly because one can imagine casual fans of the show making the same mistake.
Right now, there is no senior cast member that stands out as the unquestioned leader of the show in the way that Hader and Sudeikis did. That's a bit scary, but it could also be a boon to the show as the whole cast races to capture that flag.
Speaking of Mooney, he did get a chance to stand out later in the show during Weekend Update when he introduced us to Bruce Chandling, a parody of a stand-up comic. The character was a part of Mooney's pre-SNL repertoire, but the debut was slightly groan inducing and it may not be ready for primetime.
There's no doubt that Cecily Strong is ready for a bigger role on SNL this season. Her character work made an impact last season, particularly the "Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With at a Party" character that cracked the Weekend Update rotation, but as Strong takes over the Weekend Update co-anchor chair, it's clear that there are going to be some growing pains. For one thing, Strong lacked the semi-serious tone needed to punctuate what are, essentially, super silly news stories.
Longtime Update anchor and soon-to-be Late Night host Seth Meyers is a master of this kind of delivery, selling the last inch of every joke. He has become one of the most well-regarded Weekend Update hosts of all time because of this, but in their first pairing together, the two seemed far apart. No one expected this to look like Meyers and Amy Poehler on the first night, but there is clearly work to be done, especially since the Seth Meyers safety net is going to disappear in the very near future.
Strong did, however, appear in what is becoming one of SNL's best and most absurd recurring sketches - nearly nonsensically shilling Manolo Blahnik shoes with her fellow former pornstar cohort (as played by Vanessa Bayer), so it's not like she dragged the show down.
Other standout sketches included a Girls parody that saw Fey play a grizzled Albanian woman named Blerta beside rookie cast member Noel Wells' solid Lena Dunham impression, and a pre-recorded faux commercial for an electronic meth cigarette. That bit was the best of the night even before Breaking Bad star Aaron Paul popped up to endorse the product, thanks to geeked out, sailor hat-wearing, and pantsless performances from Killam, Kate McKinnon, and Brooks Wheelan, respectively. Paul was practically the unofficial co-host last night, popping up in two sketches and on Weekend Update where he played Meth Nephew beside Drunk Uncle. I wonder what he's promoting.
Next week's host and musical guest is Miley Cyrus (because the twerking joke well has run dry and must be replenished). And while there's always the possibility that Michaels and company will pull a guest star or two out of thin air, unlike this week where Tina Fey delivered a polished comedic performance as host and chaperone, the SNL cast will mostly be on their own with the comedically green Cyrus.
Will they struggle? Perhaps, but after watching the season 39 premiere, it seems like this surprising all-hands-on-deck approach may provide enough energy to smooth out the rough spots and make this a sneakily good season.
Saturday Night Live airs Saturday nights @11:30pm on NBC.
Photos: Dana Edelson/NBC