Monday Morning Quarterback: SNL Season 35, Episode 1

Posted by Jesse September 28th, 2009 at 09:15am In SNL

Welcome to this TV season’s Monday Morning Quarterback series, in which I review each new episode of NBC’s Saturday Night Live with the relatively unique perspective that the show isn’t a horrible embarrassment. Theoretically, SNL should be riding high off of a highly rated 34th season, in which their election-season forays into prime-time produced some of NBC’s highest-rated scripted content all year. This is most clearly visible with this fall’s return of Weekend Update Thursday, that makeshift SNL appetizer that performed so well after The Office last year.

Of course, this year it’s a little different: the Thursday editions started up more than a week before the show proper, are scheduled for six solid weeks, and, perhaps most importantly, are not happening in the middle of a hotly contested national election. This, as well as their 8PM leadoff slot away from The Office and the canceled ER, probably accounts for the Thursday editions performing at normal-or-worse NBC Thursday levels, averaging around five million viewers for their first two broadcasts – about half the audience of last year’s installments. What’s more, Lorne Michaels decided to fire two cast members, Casey Wilson and Michaela Watkins, over the summer – especially odd considering how much screen time Watkins got in her first year, with several recurring characters to call her own. Wilson’s departure is less surprising, though unfortunate, as she was funny (if underutilized). I’m far from immune to the charms of Abby Elliott, but it’s hard not to read her retention and the other ladies’ firing (and subsequent replacement with two younger women seemingly closer to the Abby Elliot mold) as a somewhat craven pandering for younger, prettier ladies.

So NBC may have been temporarily high on one of its most enduring properties, but even more secure seasons of SNL can’t escape that tumultuous, up-and-down, hot-and-cold variety show thing. For better or worse, and no matter how much they might actually want to, this show doesn’t really do victory laps. Coasting, maybe; victory laps just don’t get a chance.

Which brings us to the actual season premiere, after two thoroughly amusing Thursday go-rounds complete with semi-departed cast member Poehler, who’s well on her way to logging more post-departure screentime in her first year off than some cast members get while actually on the show. You think they’ll have her hosting by May? She didn’t appear on the Megan Fox-hosted premiere, nor did Darrell Hammond (who I assume will nonetheless turn up again, as he did as Bill Clinton during this week’s Thursday Update). The cast has been pared down to eight vets, plus four featured players, including new additions Jenny Slate and Nasrim Pedrad.

Jenny Slate, of course, achieved insta-infamy as soon as she said “fucking” on her first big sketch, Biker Chick Chat. Watching at 12:40, I didn’t even notice, amidst the freakings and the frickings, that she slipped into an actual swear word, which I’ll just attribute to Slate’s fully realized performance, and not my inattentiveness.

The Biker Chick sketch itself was amusing, with Slate, Wiig, and Megan Fox having fun with their characters, but a bit slight, which more or less described most of the sketches. None of them were completely without merit, but nothing really stood out except maybe the Live Lounge chat-line ad. In recent years, starlets in their twenties have turned out to be some of SNL’s most surprisingly game and agile hosts: Scarlett Johansson, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Gwyneth Paltrow, Anne Hathaway, and Jennifer Garner have all turned in performances that exceeded their more narrow reputations.

Fox certainly seemed game enough, and was far less wooden than you might expect given her squeaky voice and perpetually parted lips. But her bombshell looks proved a slight distraction in that most of her appearances were entirely predicated on her looks, not character work. Sometimes this was funny, as when she played a more expensive Russian mail-order bride than Fred Armisen’s heroin-addicted, wink-deficient version (who could be bought for ten dollars less). But elsewhere it felt lazy, as when she played herself talking to “your mom” (Kristen Wiig) or when a digital short put her on a nonsensical date with Will Forte.

The Forte date was the first of two digital shorts; the second — which also featured Fox playing herself — at least had a typically low-budge Andy Samberg take on the ridiculous Transformers franchise. But some of these pieces might’ve played better if Megan Fox had, you know, an actual persona to play off of, not just a reputation — or if the writers had just thought a little less about writing for Megan Fox in particular and more about writing for their talented cast and letting Fox fit in accordingly. Even so, the episode wasn’t awful. It was sort of like those songs U2 played: acceptable, fitfully entertaining, not too painful. In other words, coasting.

Episode Grade: B-


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