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‘SNL’ Week 1: Kate McKinnon, Font Jokes Win the Night

The season premiere otherwise had a ‘back-to-school’ (read: uneven) vibe

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In theory, Saturday Night Live season premieres are all about inaugurating a new era: showcasing the latest additions to the cast and generally getting in a back-to-school spirit. In practice, however, premieres can often play it safe, betting on big-name, proven hosts and coaxing the crowd back into the show’s rhythm by giving the audience what it wants. That was certainly the unifying theme of Season 43’s opening episode, in which Ryan Gosling giggled his way through callback sketch after callback sketch—Spaceships! Terrible bands!—and the show’s topical segments struggled to play catch-up with three months of breakneck news.

As backward-facing as the night was, however, there were some lessons for what this season might hold in between the alien abductions and Alec Baldwin appearances. It wasn’t the show’s strongest night comedically, though premieres often aren’t. Instead, it’s better to think of last night as a warm-up and a preview of what’s to come. Here’s what Gosling’s sophomore hosting gig told us about where the show is at, going into one of its most high-profile, non-election-year seasons in years.

The Show Is in a Near-Impossible Political Bind

There were two obvious problems on display in the unsurprisingly Trump-centric cold open, one of SNL’s making and one not. The first was the seemingly random grab bag of in-house impressions—Aidy Bryant’s Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Kate McKinnon’s Jeff Sessions—on display surrounding Alec Baldwin’s Trump. Given that neither Sanders nor Sessions have been especially prominent in the news this past week, it’s an odd assortment of roles—until you consider that Sanders and Sessions are two of the precious few homegrown impersonations SNL has managed to cultivate in an era when outsiders like Baldwin and Melissa McCarthy have earned most of the spotlight. The characters may not have had much of a reason for being there, but they’re two of the sharper tools in SNL’s limited political toolbox, and that’s enough of a rationale. We’re starting to see the consequences of declining to cultivate a deep bench in favor of star power, not to mention the Trump administration’s pesky habit of running through personnel before SNL can get the chance to skewer them.

On the other hand, that SNL struggled to make lighthearted, yet clear-eyed humor out of an ongoing humanitarian crisis is understandable enough. The devastation in Puerto Rico and Trump’s appalling instinct to blame disaster victims feels too raw and too urgent to laugh at. But at a time when a new crisis develops almost every day, SNL couldn’t simply ignore it in favor of an earlier conflagration, like hostilities with North Korea or Tom Price’s private jet use. (The sketch, fittingly called “Chaos President,” even referenced this while playing catch-up with three months of news: “We’re all tired,” Baldwin admits in-character.) SNL has to stay on top of whatever’s in the news, and the news these days is ever-harder to mock in a way that feels appropriately outraged, but still inventive and amusing. Is it any wonder it’s not their best material?

… Except When It Comes to ‘Weekend Update’

Given that it’s modeled after a breaking news show, “Weekend Update” seemed much better equipped than the scripted cold open to handle, well, breaking news. Michael Che’s impassioned riff on Trump’s Maria response—“You just did this for white people twice!”—channeled outrage more directly than a fictionalized sketch could while still landing punchlines. Straight-up calling out bullshit in one’s own voice is more cathartic than trying to out-ridiculous the stranger-than-fiction Trump administration with a made-up scenario. The one-liner-heavy structure of “Update” also allows for a quicker turnaround time than structuring a five-minute bit, suggesting that the midshow segment might be slightly better prepared to handle the rapid-fire pace of Trump-era news. The rest of the premiere seemed to acknowledge those complementary strengths and weaknesses: Politics were notably absent from everywhere except the open and “Update.”

Kate McKinnon Is Still the Star of the Show

Jeff Sessions, Angela Merkel, the trashy lady used and abused by second-class aliens until they dump her “with my pink rocket and my stink rocket” out on a pool float: this was a night dominated by established and beloved McKinnon characters. This isn’t a surprise, just a reminder that the Ghostbusters costar remains the undisputed MVP of the current cast, without an obvious second-in-command—though second-year Alex Moffat had a strong showing with a bespectacled Chuck Schumer and a repeat performance by his Guy Who Just Bought a Boat “Update” correspondent. (That last one gave us Gosling saying “I have a shameful schvantz” as sidekick Guy Who Just Joined Soho House, which, God bless.) McKinnon’s monopoly is not great for whenever she graduates, but excellent for the audience that gets to watch her shine in the meantime.

… And Julio Torres Is Still Your Breakout Writer

One of the more fun parts of watching SNL in the digital age is the Twitter sleuthing that follows a standout sketch, where comedy nerds who stayed in on a Saturday night pick through writers’ accounts to see who claimed credit in real time. That’s exactly what happened with “Papyrus,” a video short starring Gosling as a man consumed by Avatar’s shockingly clumsy use of an extremely basic font in its logo. In a night otherwise dominated by repeated premises (aliens, Kenan Thompson’s bandleader, even yet another sketch where a notoriously handsome leading man falls in love with a chicken) and limp originals (a tiresome jab at SJWs, a dud about a tasting-test reveal), “Papyrus” was the clear winner. It turned out writer Julio Torres had tweeted out the idea way back in May and had brought it to life as soon as he had the chance.

The last time a talent with no on-camera presence established such a consistent and distinctive footprint was Stefon cocreator, Oh, Hello star, and mega-successful stand-up John Mulaney (though some on Twitter pointed out that this kind of behind-the-scenes celebrity wasn’t really possible before social media). Now that Torres has, he seems poised to continue his hot streak, consistently getting material on the air in an infamously competitive landscape and winning over audiences in the process.

Also: This Cast Is Crowded

The size of SNL’s repertory has always fluctuated. Some years, the head count has been as low as a dozen; some years, like this one and the past few before that, have gone as high as 16. Lorne Michael’s decision to fill each of the three spots recently vacated by Bobby Moynihan, Vanessa Bayer, and Sasheer Zamata was great news for Season 43’s fresh faces. But those hoping to get a glimpse of what Chris Redd, Heidi Gardner, and Luke Null could do were likely disappointed—Redd and Gardner were relegated to supporting roles, Null was nowhere to be seen, and even more comfortably rooted talents like Leslie Jones and Pete Davidson, the latter fresh off a revealing Marc Maron interview, had an off week.

It’s in SNL’s nature to be up and down for specific players, and veterans and freshmen alike will have plenty of time to shine over a 20-plus-episode season. The premiere simply demonstrated that this is an especially tough moment to try to make one’s presence felt, especially when giants like Baldwin and McKinnon are around. Hopefully, we’ll get some quality time with Redd, Gardner, Null, and even Melissa Villasenor, a relative newcomer who also didn’t get much screen time this week, in the months to come. Until then, we wish them the best of luck in an unusually packed environment.