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‘Saturday Night Live’ Knows Who Its Stars Are

If your last name isn’t McKinnon (or Baldwin), this won’t be your season

NBC
NBC

Saturday Night Live is a glacier, moving inch by inch until we suddenly realize it’s made Kristen Wiig a megastar. A four-decade show with hundreds of episodes is constantly in flux, but premieres, like this Saturday’s 42nd, offer the ideal check-in point. Three new cast members, one new Donald Trump, and a whole lot of well-rested returnees added up to a solid mix of the self-assured and the newsworthy, not to mention the best-rated season kickoff since two election cycles ago.

Host Margot Robbie and musical guest The Weeknd both did serviceable jobs, the latter endearingly game for yet another stupid-but-winning “Weeknd Update” joke and the former putting up with her fair share of “hot actress is hot” sketches. (“Live Report” and “Librarian” were decently executed, but it’s probably time to put this premise on ice.) But as always, routine movie and album promotion isn’t nearly as interesting as the people for whom this show is a main (the cast) or at least recurring (the cast-adjacent election players) gig. So let’s run through what this episode coached us to expect from the weeks to come. In short: The already successful, both on and off the show, will continue to reap the rewards — and a new season doesn’t necessarily mean a friendlier environment for new talent.

1. Hey, There’s an Election Going On!

On top of the usual run of “Weekend Update” zingers, last night featured not one, not two, but three separate political sketches: “Melania Moments” (perfect), “Celebrity Family Feud: Political Edition” (impression-showcase business as usual with a thin veneer of topicality), and the cold open, which saw Alec Baldwin roll out his disturbingly accurate (and accurately disturbing) Trump impression.

While Baldwin’s performance was note-perfect, if sourced beat-for-beat from Monday night’s debate, his appearance on the show marks the peak of one of SNL’s weirder ongoing trends. As unofficial president of the Five-Timers Club, Baldwin is basically a de facto guest cast member. But he’s the third freelancer whom Lorne Michaels has brought in for the election, after Larry David’s Bernie Sanders and announcer-alum Darrell Hammond’s Bill Clinton (and, up until now, Trump), both of whom also appeared in the premiere. It’s odd for a show so determinedly built around promoting new talent to grow this dependent on established outsiders, and after firing its Obama and rotating in “Update’s” Michael Che to play moderator Lester Holt, SNL appears to have reached a crisis point. It’s a short-term gain (as the show benefits from the talent and celebrity of its hired guns) that threatens a long-term loss (as a major opportunity for in-house players to gain celebrity and an audience of their own gets taken off the table).

Still, SNL is making the election top priority. This is the most politically minded the show’s been in years, and even if the writers haven’t quite cracked the code to mocking an election that’s doing a fine job of mocking itself, they’re making a renewed effort.

2. 8H Is Still a Big, Big Pond

Laying off three cast members over the summer raised the possibility that Michaels was giving the current cast some room to breathe. Instead, he hired three more, keeping the overcrowded roster at last year’s 14 sketch actors and two “Update” anchors.

And while there may be some strength in numbers (last year, poor John Rudnitsky had to fly solo into a pretty solidified cast), early signs indicate it’s just as hard to break through. Mikey Day grabbed the initial edge in screen time, which isn’t surprising, given that he’s a promoted writer with experience producing material for the show and working with the rest of the cast. But none of his appearances were showcases; except for their joint cameo as Eric and Donald Jr., both he and Alex Moffat stuck to straight-man roles. (I am choosing to interpret having the two as-of-now interchangeable white dudes play the Trump brothers as a brilliant act of shade, rather than a depressing reality.)

Melissa Villaseñor, meanwhile, was confined to a single Sarah Silverman impression semiorganically grafted onto the political Family Feud sketch — in a lineup with Bill and Bernie, the Silverman character didn’t so much scream “relevance” as “this bit was on my audition tape.” That’s probably wise; after some initial attention for being SNL’s first-ever (sigh) Latina castmember, Villaseñor promptly counteracted the good PR with yet another “bad old tweet” scandal. (PSA to all UCB, Second City, and Groundlings performers on the come-up: TweetDelete exists, and you should use it while you can.) She’ll probably get more air time after that storm passes, but elbowing your way into the main cast is still a Herculean task.

3. McKinnon Stays the King

Or it is for everyone except Kate McKinnon. Fresh off her Emmy win, McKinnon strutted onstage with all the confidence of her most prominent character. (“I’m better than ever. Let’s do this!”) Her irrepressible weirdness couldn’t be more perfectly suited to the reaction shots required to capture Hillary Clinton in full “can you fuckin’ believe this guy?” mode. She created yet another unforgettable weirdo in the form of Debette Goldry, a blasé survivor of the Hollywood studio system. And while she didn’t make an “Update” appearance, Cecily Strong’s Cathy Anne, though a recurring character, did little more than conjure the specter of McKinnon’s alien abductee, a superior riff on the cigarette-smokin’, indecipherable-accent-havin’ oddball. She’s the indisputable star of the cast, and will be until she inevitably departs for movie stardom.

Honorable mention, however, goes to Leslie Jones, who anchored Saturday’s 10-to-1. (As in, literally 10 to 1 a.m.) It’s easy to see why the sketch, which currently isn’t available online, got placed there: For one thing, it’s a (spot-on) parody of Mr. Robot, a show that’s critical catnip but boasts only a fraction of SNL’s broadcast viewership. For another, it’s about Jones’s off-camera struggles with racist trolls stealing her nudes, a risky subject for comedy if there ever was one, particularly on a show that doesn’t tend to break the fourth wall and comment on its current cast’s IRL stardom. But the sketch is Jones’s second time in just a few weeks mining a horrific violation for laughs, complete with a winking Ghostbusters reference, and it cements her status as one of the fastest-rising stars in the ensemble.

Overall, Season 42 is looking like an incumbents’ game. Before the premiere, Michaels promoted every single returning cast member to the main cast, with only the trio of rookies designated as featured players. The message seemed to be that the post-2013 transitional period is over; Michaels has found his people, and intends to invest in them (when he isn’t outsourcing key roles). Whether that investment will see a return is an open question, and whether it leaves any resources left for the newcomers is a potentially critical concern.