Saturday Night Live returned from its mid-season break with all eyes on new addition Sasheer Zamata and host/musical guest Drake - the show's third double duty host of the season (a once rare honor that has become common over the last two seasons) - but while Zamata's debut was solid and Drake's energy never waned, the SNL writing staff failed to rise to the occasion.
Unfortunately, it appears that this is becoming a recurring theme this season: occasional standout performances from the show's unseasoned but evolving cast, a mostly solid stable of hosts that are willing to fling themselves into the storm, and a buck-shot approach to the material that is filled with more misses than hits and not nearly enough boldness.
While people girded their loins in anticipation of the onscreen absence of Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis, and Fred Armisen, perhaps its the exit of writers Jim Downey and John Mulaney, Michael O'Brien's thus-far unremarkable shift from the writer's room to the cast, and Seth Meyers' reduced behind-the-scenes role that have weighed most heavily on the show.
That's a disquieting thought considering the inevitable loss of Meyers and Weekend Update/Late Night with Seth Meyers head writer Alex Baze, but while the writing staff hasn't yet jelled into a cohesive and consistent unit, it doesn't mean that they won't - it just means that we have to live through a set of growing pains that might be less evident with a more experienced cast. That's something that no less of an authority than Bill Murray spoke about during a recent Reddit AMA when he was asked about the new cast.
"It's all about the writing, the writing is such a challenge and you are trying to write backwards to fit 90 minutes between dress rehearsal and the airing. And sometimes the writers don't get the whole thing figured out, it's not like a play where you can rehearse it several times. So good actors - and those were really good actors [the previous cast], and there are some great actors in this current group as well I might add - they seem to be able to solve writing problems, improvisational actors, can solve them on their feet. They can solve it during the performance, and make a scene work."
There is no way of knowing which current cast members Murray is referring to, but it seems like Kate McKinnon deserves to be in any conversation about the next wave of Studio 8H All Stars. In just her second season, McKinnon simply draws our attention to her with an electric collection of crazy-eyed characters, celebrity impressions, and a way of squeezing every possible laugh out of a joke with a glance or a throwaway line.
Last night, it was McKinnon's Justin Bieber impression that saved a Piers Morgan cold open that strained to put the SNL stamp on both the Chris Christie bridge scandal (which was more ably dealt with during Weekend Update) and the A-Rod steroid suspension.
Besides that, McKinnon also top-lined one of the better sketches of the night - a Nancy Grace/talk show setup (with Noël Wells playing the character) that seemed like a second stab at what the cold open had attempted. This time, the sketch focused on Colorado's new marijuana laws with McKinnon playing a suddenly successful pot baker who exclaimed, "I got this turf locked down. I'm Walter White and this is 'Baking Bad.' "
Joining McKinnon and Wells in that sketch was Drake, who pulled off a flawless Katt Williams that overshadowed his character work in an earlier "BET Hip Hop Classics: Before They Were Stars" sketch that existed solely to allow the cast and the host a chance to pair impressions with a few warmly remembered TV shows from the '80s and '90s. Was there a higher point than Taran Killam's Eminem impression in that sketch or a lower one than the disappointment of seeing Drake and not Jay Phraroah doing a Jay-Z impression beside Mr. Wizard?
Drake - a former teen actor and Degrassi: The Next Generation star - also went all out as the upbeat MC of the Indiana Jones stunt spectacular who hopelessly tried to communicate with a woman who does not speak English. The sketch lazily relied on your ability to find language barriers funny, but it certainly doesn't fail because of Drake, who also hung in beside Vanessa Bayer in the latest "Miss Meadows" poetry teacher sketch.
That "Miss Meadows" and the "Miami Mornin" sketches are now in rotation as recurring sketches stands out as further evidence that the writing staff is still not where it needs to be as the show is clearly hampered by the lack of non-Weekend Update fan-favorite characters.
Speaking of Update, after 12 episodes, Cecily Strong seems beyond ready to take sole possession of that desk, having surpassed her initial shakiness. She still doesn't have Meyers' semi-serious tone down, but there is a command and a confidence in her delivery and a more accessible approach to Update that should serve her well. Congratulations Cecily Strong, you're no longer the most scrutinized cast member on SNL, that honor now falls to Sasheer Zamata.
Recently added to SNL following a firestorm over the show's lack of diversity and a vigorous casting process, Zamata joins the cast with a collection of asterisks and expectations that have been unfairly put on her by critics and fans. Add to that the usual pressures that come from nabbing a job on SNL and it seems like the deck is stacked, but in her first night out, Zamata did as good a job as one can, delivering a few key but unmemorable lines (such is life as a featured player). That may not sound very glamorous, but Zamata signed up for a marathon, not a sprint, and now she has something to build on.
Can SNL's writers do the same despite an episode that felt limp and uninspired? Hopefully, because right now the cast seems to be running in place at times, holstered by material that feels formulaic, sleepy, and absent swagger. As the second half of this season marches on, we'll be watching and hoping for change, but at least we know that there are a few bright spots to focus on as we wait for the material to catch up to the talent.
Saturday Night Live returns next Saturday on NBC @11:30pm with Jonah Hill as host and Bastille as musical guest.