Welcome back to another season of “Saturday Night Live,” everyone. It will be a momentous year for the show, as it seeks to shake off the hangover of last season’s uneven, sometimes turmoil-filled year. But in this, its fortieth season, there’s a lot about which to be optimistic. The cast is smaller, but its core cast is essentially intact, and those that “SNL” have added suggest a willingness on the show’s part to explore new comedic voices within its venerable institution.
Kicking things off will be recent box-office hero Chris Pratt, with the sister of “Big Brother 16” Frankie Grande serving as musical guest. (I just typed that in case Frankie has a Google search on his name. Sorry, Ariana.) I’m actually writing this from the road rather than my home, so I won’t have the usual luxury of pausing mid-show when needed. So things will be a bit faster and looser than normal.
For those that have followed along with my coverage for the past four seasons, nothing will really change this year. I’ll grade sketches one by one. These grades will threaten the very fabric of reality for some of you. The only big variation: I won’t be giving grades to the musical acts. It’s not my expertise, and talking about those segments of the show really doesn’t give a feel for how the episode’s comedy plays out on a weekly basis. I’ll discuss the music in the ending notes, but will omit as part of the ongoing liveblog.
We good? Good. On with the liveblog starting at 11:30 pm EST!
State Of The Union: Right off the bat, “SNL” takes on the NFL. Chris Pratt gets the plum role of Roger Goodell, a role that probably should have gone to a regular cast member. Seems like that will be a real-life person that will appear on a repeated basis, no? Ray Lewis (Kenan Thompson) and Shannon Sharpe (Jay Pharaoh) appear on “State Of The Union” to discuss the issue, only to further confuse the issue at hand due to their past actions and current verbal fumbles. (Pun intended.) The message is clear: It’s hard for many on-air personalities to discuss the current plights of players when they themselves have committed similarly illegal/suspect activities in the past. It’s more biting than the usual cold open, which is appreciated. Not a lot of real laughs, but some real meat on the bones. [Grade: B]
Monologue: First monologue of the year, and first song during the monologue of the year! Pratt is demonstrably nervous, but it’s endearing all the same. Pratt’s real-life wife Anna Farris is there to help support him, his nervous tics, and his verbal flubs. Oh boy. This premiere either be a shabby-but-happy party in which attitude rules comedic precision, or be an absolute mess. Time will tell. Hard to see much good here, but there was little truly bad, either. It mostly felt like it needed three more rehearsals. [Grade: C]
Cialis Turnt: It’s funny when white people dance to DJ Snake and Lil Jon, right? Wrong. [Grade: C-]
Alive Toys: Kyle Mooney is a child who wishes that his toys would come to life on his birthday. And lo, Pratt and Taran Killam turn into real-life versions of He-Man And Lion-O. Unfortunately, the two action figures don’t know anything about this world, so things like “cake” and “sister” confuse them. Sooner than you can say “hormones,” the pair are masturbating in the kitchen. Like ya do. This is a fine premise for the sketch, but Pratt’s timing is so off that the sketch more than occasionally dies. Not even Ariana Grande’s appearance as She-Ra saves the proceedings. The mess in the kitchen by the end of the sketch feels like a visual metaphor for the last twenty minutes. What works really works, but I can’t help but wonder what another two days would have done for this whole episode. [Grade: B-]
Animal Hospital: Whoa, did NOT expect to see this one again. It’s a fairly cruel concept for a sketch, one that I thought would have revealed itself during its initial appearance last season. Unlike the last few segments, everything is crisply performed, but the idea of incompetent veterinarians gives me the heebies and jeebies. It just does, so this will never work for me. If it works for you, awesome. [Grade: D]
Marvel Can’t Fail: After “Guardians,” Marvel is super cocky. That’s why we are soon getting “Creatures Of The Cosmos,” “Bus People,” and “Pam,” all of which feature strange casts strolling through hallways to the sounds of “Hooked On A Feeling.” Maybe they have a point: I’d watch the hell out of “Pam 2: The Winter Pam.” What a silly, stupid concept for a sketch, but the sheer repetition here won me over. [Grade: B+]
Weekend Update: As a consolation prize for losing her anchor position, Cecily Strong returns as That Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started A Conversation With At A Party. She’s here to talk ebola, which she calls an “Obamanation” among other malapropisms. The last joke about her dad hating the selfie she took of them worked, but little else made Che stand out. Would "Update" neuter his personality and perspective? Luckily, almost immediately after that interview, Che lands solid joke after solid joke that sound like his stand-up/”Daily Show” brought to “Update.” Whew. Leslie Jones makes her second appearance on “Update” to discuss her singledom, which involves “Ghost Whisperer” reruns on ION. Whereas her last appearance was marked by audience confusion, but tonight she’s absolutely on fire, and the crowd is totally onboard. Finally, newbie Pete Davidson appears to discuss the monetary exchange needed for him to give a man oral sex. “I’m not gay. I’m a business man!” He keeps almost breaking, which immediately makes the audience love him. It helps that he’s immediately confident and has a perspective that feels fresh on the show. Some of his turns of phrase are just incredible. (“Once in the summer…so you have a GREAT summer!”) As for Jost: He was fine, but essentially forgettable. Amazingly, that’s an improvement over last year. And he and Che did team up for a "Cheer Up, President Obama" segment, suggesting ways in which the two can be a team instead of just two anchors occupying the same space. So good things all around! [Grade: A-]
Legends: Aidy Bryant’s character strikes up a flirtation with Pratt’s nerd, which is a meet-cute until it turns into a hip-hop verbal grindfest between the two. The pair have absolutely dynamite chemistry, and it’s never not funny hearing Bryant sing “Anaconda”. The sketch is high-concept, but simple in execution. There’s not a lot of there there, but it’s amusing all the same. [Grade: B]
Roommates: A similar Digital Short was cut last year during the Andrew Garfield episode, so God bless Mooney and Beck Bennett for trying again and succeeding this time. An incredible take on late-80’s/early-90’s TGIF-esque sitcoms, it takes the best of the Mooney/Bennett sensibility and marries it to some stellar editing and odd-as-hell touches. (That cut to the mystical castle made me laugh harder than anything else tonight.) As with all Digital Shorts by these two, this is an acquired taste. But damn did I love this. [Grade: A-]
NFL on CBS: A variation on the “Key & Peele” “East/West” sketch, this is all about the various crimes committed by the Ravens/Panthers players listed out one by one. A late appearance by Leslie Jones is funny, but the rest is “nice idea, mediocre execution.” I know Bismo Funyuns. I respect Bismo Funyuns. You, sketch, are no Bismo Funyuns. [Grade: C]
Video Game Testers: Vanessa Bayer (underused tonight) and Pratt are in-game characters that celebrate the completion of each level with excessive, amorous interactions. I could have watched about ten more minutes of those two melodramatically playing out their relationship, but apparently there’s not enough time. Oh well. I liked what was presented, but there wasn’t enough to take it to the next level that seemed incredibly within reach. [Grade: B]
Best Segment: “Weekend Update”. I have a special place in my heart for this part of the show, and it’s encouraging to see some life breathed into it. You could argue (and I wouldn’t disagree) that Strong should not have been the one to leave. But the Jost/Che combo is what we have, and it’s good to see “SNL” might be able to use this duo for more than simply sparing Jost’s feelings and not abandoning the show’s investment in him over the past few years.
Worst Segment: “Animal Hospital”. Just ugh.
How Was Ariana Grande? Great voice, but ultimately forgettable songs. I’m very curious where the current crop of female pop stars are eighteen months from now. Grande, Iggy Azalia, Charli XCX, and others are certainly having a moment now. But there’s (other than Grande’s headgear) to make them truly stand out at this point.
Overall Assessment: A sloppy start for most turned into a well-oiled machine by the end. Even if certain sketches didn’t work late in the episode, at least the show didn’t feel riddled with nerves and miscues. There were not many sketches involving lots of characters, which means we still don’t have a truly ensemble feel yet. But that might come soon enough. Plenty of time. I'm optimistic!
What did everyone else think of the premiere? Sound off below!