While the writers and the cast of Saturday Night Live worked on the 17th floor of 30 Rock this week to once again pull off the magic trick that is creating a 90-minute live TV show in less than one week while on the run from expectations, exhaustion, the clock and the ever changing topical landscape, James Franco's behind the scenes documentary about the show was released after six years of sitting dormant.
In Saturday Night, Franco shows us what's going on behind the curtain at the show, allowing fans a chance to appreciate the labor and personnel required to make SNL happen. It's an exercise in trying to make order from chaos, but despite that effort, there is always chaos. Jokes don't land, talents don't pop and shows don't resonate. Somehow, SNL has found a balance and a way to keep going for 40 years, but on the outside looking in, prognosticators like me are often made to look foolish.
Last season's breakout star, Kate McKinnon, was supposed to truly take over the show this week, Colin Jost and Michael Che's strength was supposed to be in the way that they played off of each other on Weekend Update and young Pete Davidson was probably going to stay in the shadows in his debut. None of those things happened, but the episode was made solid by a few surprises and a few explosive performances.
Instead of McKinnon (who was depressingly low-key this week), the season 40 premiere's most constant presence was Aidy Bryant, who was the first cast member that we saw onscreen at the top of the show during the cold open where she played CNN personality Candy Crowley in a sketch about the NFL's response to repeated domestic violence controversies. Unfortunately, the sketch also asked Jay Pharoah to mug for the camera while playing former NFL player Shannon Sharpe in a performance that almost overshadowed Bryant's strong but less busy character work.
Pharoah did a better job later on, playing multiple characters (ever so briefly) in the show's second NFL sketch, which featured cast members portraying fictional players for the Baltimore Ravens and the Carolina Panthers with each player revealing his past criminal history in the way that they usually rattle off their alma mater. The funniest part of that sketch was Kyle Mooney playing an offensive lineman, but that probably wasn't the intended high point.
Following the cold open, we had our first chance to hear Darrell Hammond introduce the cast in his role as announcer. Unfortunately, Hammond's voice was a bit more laid-back and far less booming than Don Pardo's, and his voice also seemed like it was outshouted by the sound of the band as they played into the show. A rough start for Hammond in his small but crucial role.
Coming out of Chris Pratt's somewhat musical monologue, we got a mostly lifeless pre-recorded commercial parody for Cialis Turnt - a concept that felt like the writers had been sitting on it all summer. Later on, there was a similarly pop music-influenced sketch that paired Bryant and Pratt as two shy singles trying to convey their interest to each other at a bar by singing a few lines from sexually aggressive pop songs. That sketch got a much better result, mainly because it was an effort to say something about the parallel between the incredibly self-confident lyrics in our pop anthems and our less boastful real social interactions.
The show's first signs of life came after Cialis Turnt, thanks to a simple and silly concept about a lonely boy (Kyle Mooney) who wishes that his toys would come to life as they do in Toy Story. Unfortunately, when He-Man (Pratt) and Lion-O (Taran Killam) appear as humans they are incredibly dim and sex obsessed, rubbing their crotches for comedic effect while trying to follow the boy's sister (Cecily Strong). Bryant absolutely steals the sketch as the boy's randy mother, grabbing He-Man, Lion-O and She-Ra (musical guest Ariana Grande) and leading them to the hot tub. It's majesty really is in its simplicity.
It was surprising to see the return of the insensitive vet technicians sketch after its lackluster debut last year. This is one of the last sketches that I thought we'd see become a recurring bit and there was simply nothing added on to the one-joke premise to make the case that the sketch had value as anything more than filler. "Oh, your turtle is sick? Now he's dead." Repeat, repeat, repeat. The Saturday Night Live content assembly line is at its worst when it gives time to something as unimaginative as this.
I didn't really see the greatness of the "Good Neighbor" sketch later on in the show that starred Mooney, Beck Bennett and Pratt as roommates in a stereotypical '90s cheeseball sitcom, but they get an "A" for effort. I can't be as kind to the half-baked and weird closing sketch about the soap opera within a video game, but if the show is going to cede a few minutes, I wish that they'd just let more weird things like those two sketches live on the off chance that they hit rather than burn time with junk like the vet tech sketch.
From this episode's worst moment to its best, the biggest benefit of having Pratt as host came through loud and clear in an inspired sketch that imagined a world where Marvel was honest and admitted that they can pretty much green light anything now and watch it become a worldwide hit. Some of the fake Marvel movies that were teased in the sketch were The Creatures of the Cosmos (featuring a Pastry Chef, a Harlem Globetrotter, an alien sign spinner, a guy in a Grimace suit and an office chair), Marvel's Fancy Ghosts and Marvel's Shopping Carts, all complete with a bit of Blue Swede's "Hooked on a Feeling" and a fresh take on the slow motion corridor walk from Guardians of the Galaxy.
Weekend Update was another high point for the show, but not for the reason that Lorne Michaels probably hoped for. Part of me wants to say that Colin Jost and Michael Che have very little chemistry together, but they barely acknowledged the other's presence. Even at the end, when Kenan Thompson sang "O-o-h Child" while Jost and Che joked about the President's looming lame-duck status, they switched off and didn't interact. So it's an incomplete for the pair, but separately, Che did reasonably well as a news reader and really clicked with Cecily Strong, who returned to the Update desk as her Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation with at a Party character to talk about Ebola.
Jost also had a nice exchange with Leslie Jones, but really, that is all on Jones, who delivered a supercharged desk piece on what it's like to be single. Jost's solo delivery was decent, but he still seems a bit wooden.
The best part of Update, though, was 20-year-old Pete Davidson. A stand-up comic before joining the cast, Davidson kept pushing further and further as the laughs got bigger. It felt like one of those debuts. Pete Davidson might wind up being a star on Saturday Night Live, and there I go being a prognosticator again.
All in all, the season premiere was a solid episode with a good host who made himself useful but didn't take over the show. There were misses, of course, but also a few hits and a few things to build on. Despite the historical backdrop of this season, SNL will have great episodes and bad ones and a lot of middling ones this season, just as they always have. People will say that the cast isn't as good as past casts have been, and the show will persevere. As it always does.
Saturday Night Live airs Saturday nights @11:30pm on NBC.