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After 39 seasons, we expect unevenness from Saturday Night Live; what we hope for are a few good sketches, one terrific taped parody, a couple of flattering showcases for the guest host, and, if we’re lucky, an entertaining music act. By this modest measure, the 40th-season premiere was almost very good.
Host Chris Pratt was invariably charming, even when trapped in glum sketches about lousy videogames and awkward dating. He made a fine He-Man to Taran Killam‘s Lion-O, and Pratt’s starring role in Guardians of the Galaxy served as the inspiration for the night’s best taped bit, a parody of Marvel Comics-based movies that suggested upcoming superhero titles such as Fancy Ghosts and Bus People.
SNL guru Lorne Michaels made two excellent moves. By freeing Cecily Strong from the “Weekend Update” news anchor slot, she was liberated once more to score numerous wins, this night turning in an especially adroit “Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party” segment, and providing stalwart support throughout. Michaels’ other success is the hiring of young comic Pete Davidson, whose gleefully raunchy “Update” segment about performing oral sex for a million dollars was exceptionally strong. Essentially a stand-up bit done sitting down, Davidson’s comic rhythms were smoothly impeccable—it’s no wonder that, during the closing-credits, Pratt and Bobby Moynihan brought Davidson forward onstage and pointed at him: They knew who scored the night’s most memorable moment.
Which is not to say there weren’t other mighty performances. In addition to Strong, Aidy Bryant brought a witty swagger to everything she appeared in. The night needed a whole lot more Kate McKinnon and Sasheer Zamata, however.
Lame jokes hobbled Michael Che’s debut as “Update” co-anchor with Colin Jost, and the show went to the NFL-problems well once too often with both a cold-open that featured Pratt as Roger Goodell and, about an hour later, a totally laugh-free football sketch.
In general, SNL continues to suffer from a wobbly point of view when it addresses political issues — its foolish insistence on trying to be evenhanded in hitting Democratic and Republican targets looks cowardly in the Stewart–Colbert era, and it doesn’t cur deeply enough into semi-timely subjects such as the Ray Rice scandal.
Music? Ariana Grande proved once again that she has a big voice with little nuance, and has mastered all the dreadful techniques that American Idol has instilled in a generation — pointless melisma; grasping the mic dramatically to feign passion, etc.
The season premiere began with former cast member Darrell Hammond settling in as the show’s announcer, replacing the recently deceased Don Pardo. (Note to the engineers: Hammond’s voice was difficult to hear in the sound mix.) Preceding this, NBC aired a prime-time rerun of a 1975 SNL featuring Richard Pryor as host. It concluded with a sweet irony — Pardo delivering this final joke: “This is Don Pardo saying, ‘Who do I have to shake hands with to get off this show?’ ” Very nice touch, Lorne.
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