When any high caliber group leaves Saturday Night Live and an era dies - fans and critics both have a tendency to flip the panic switch and unduly judge the new "kids". They forget that once upon a time, Andy Samberg and Bill Hader were just a couple of nobodies trying to help the show transition away from the greatness of Will Ferrell and Jimmy Fallon, just as those two were once charged with helping the show move on from the likes of Mike Myers and Adam Sander.
The point? The new cast deserves every opportunity to shine and people need to let go of the past with more ease and respect the show's unequalable track record for walking unknowns through the often messy process of becoming a star. In this instance, however, it's Saturday Night Live producer and creator Lorne Michaels who needs to let go of the past a bit after overseeing an excessive, un-disciplined, cameo-explosion during last night's Saturday Night Live finale that felt unfair to the current cast.
Anytime a Saturday Night Live alum comes back to host, there are going to be pop-ins, and there is nothing wrong with that in moderation. It's cheap fan service, but its a nice gesture and a treat to see usually. But while it made sense to see Maya Rudolph (whose Michaels' produced eponymous variety show premieres on NBC this Monday) appear, as well as host Andy Samberg's castmates and friends Seth Meyers (who had every right to make an appearance after wrapping up his 12 year run on the show earlier this season) and Bill Hader during the opening monologue, their later appearances and other less justifiable cameos felt like a distration. Its hard to believe that I am writing this, but we needed more Aidy Bryant last night and less Kristen Wiig. More Beck Bennett and less Bill Hader.
Look at the "Vogelcheck Family" sketch from last night, which featured a huge contingent of stars - Samberg, Fred Armisen, Wiig, Paul Rudd (who worked nicely with Samberg's "Get in the Cage" return during Weekend Update), Rudolph and Hader - and only Taran Killam and Kate McKinnon from the current cast. The purpose of the sketch was to highlight how ironic it is that the Vogelchecks - a family that proudly open mouth kisses each other to say hello - objected to the Michael Sam NFL Draft day kiss on ESPN, but the execution is poor thanks to Armisen (the central player in the sketch), who breaks character and can't stop giggling throughout while Hader and Wiig play in the background. The only two actors in that sketch who seem committed are Killam and McKinnon, but this isn't exactly surprising.
Killam finally took his place at the grown ups table late this season, but McKinnon (who just won an American Comedy Award for her work on the show) is, without question, this season's breakout star. And after just two and a quarter seasons she seems as if she may be on the express train toward the kind of revered run that Wiig had. This is due, in large part, to McKinnon's tremendous and lush character work (look at how many levels there were to her seemingly throwaway adolescent girl character in the middling summer camp sketch) and her ability to squeeze a laugh out of the driest stones. Despite that, even she was limited last night to only a couple of appearances, popping up in "Camp Wicambe", "The Vogelchecks" and with a supporting role in the surprisingly funny "Confident Hunchback" sketch that felt like something that was written in the early 90s and found in an old desk drawer - and I mean that in the best way possible.
Speaking of Wiig, her character's numerous disruptions proved to become truer than fiction in the Cecily Strong/Vanessa Bayer ditsy pitch-woman recurring sketch as they seemed to take some of the focus off of Strong and Bayer, making this the worst edition of the now popular, ridiculous, and always surprisingly hilarious bit.
Like McKinnon, Strong and Bayer (and Bobby Moynihan and Taran Killam) were given little to do last night, and that is a shame, because no matter the talent, this show means more to the people who are presently on it than it does to the ones who are just stopping by their old haunt to have a little fun and pump up the audience.
The past is the past, and with all due respect to Killam, Jay Pharoah (who finally solidified himself thanks to the show's ample pre-taped bits) Keenan Thompson and Moynihan; McKinnon, Strong, Bayer, Aidy Bryant, Sasheer Zamata, Noel Wells and Nasim Pedrad (if she sticks around and doesn't leave to focus on Mulaney) are the biggest part of Saturday Night Live's future and the future is bright.
Simply put, that group is, inarguably, the strongest group of female comics that Saturday Night Live has ever seen. Each uniquely talented with broad range. Does a sketch call for a musical number? An intensely physical or off-the-wall character? Something aggressive or more subdued? Their skillset seems limitless and they are the beating heart of this show, more irrefutable proof that the old ideas about women and comedy are nothing but rotting nonsense, relatively early in their run together and the chief reason that this cast will soon garner the praise that most of its ancestors have.
Are there weak spots within this current roster? Of course. Thompson (who just ended his 11th season) doesn't have a lot of range and with regard to this season's first timers, it wouldn't be surprising to see a John Milheiser or Brooks Wheelan dismissal in the off-season considering that neither (specifically Milheiser) found his place on the show. But all of the rest of this year's rookie class seemed to rebound from a slow start (save for Noel Wells, who started strong and seemed to fade a little as the season went on) while displaying ample potential.
Beck Bennett and Mike O'Brien look like they might become valuable utility players, Sasheer Zamata made every one of her 10 episodes count and seems to possess that same magnetic pull that McKinnon has whenever she is in a sketch, and Kyle Mooney is an oddity that we need more of, thanks to his hit-or-miss digital shorts and his awkward presence. Though not a sketch performer, Colin Jost also showed off a lot of positives in his time in front of the camera, shaking out the butterflies with impressive speed to team up with Cecily Strong (who had an amazing season thanks to her ascension to the lead Update anchor chair as well as her endless string of key original characters, a double-threat not seen on the show since the days of Amy Poehler) to form a deft and confident Weekend Update team.
Speaking of Jost, he was also one of the people who replaced Meyers at the top of the writing food chain on the show, but while the writing is sometimes uneven - and I've bashed the show for that this season - they are finding their voice and experimenting, with results that can be wonderfully weird, incredibly flat, a little bit dangerous and occasionally hilarious. And after 39 years, Saturday Night Live is still on the cutting edge when it comes to topical comedy and especially pre-taped material.
How fantastic has Saturday Night Live's pre-taped stuff been this year? Last night's Lonely Island video and Samberg's other digital short, "Davvincii", don't even rank among the most memorable pre-taped bits of this season, usurped by "Blockbuster", "We Did Stop", "The Beygency", "Dyke and Fats", "Twin Bed", the international nasty girls anthem and my personal favorite, "Ooh Child".
The writing will get better, the cast will continue to get better as time goes by, and though it will sometimes be a messy process filled with infuriating lows and myopic snark about how the show has allegedly lost its relevancy, Saturday Night Live will continue moving forward. It's just a shame that the decision was made to look back and not toward the dawn of this next great era last night, robbing this cast of a much deserved chance to put an exclamation point on a season that saw them perform far better than the naysayers said that they would.
Saturday Night Live returns for its 40th season on NBC this fall.