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Saturday Night Live in the ’90s: Pop Culture Nation

Far from the expected clip shows, producer Kenneth Bowser brought a journalist's eye and surprising context to his first two "Saturday Night Live" retrospectives, focusing on the show's first five years and then continuing into the 1980s. With this third installment, however, the conceit comes close to running out of steam, feeling less like a cultural dissertation and more like an excuse to dredge up old bits.

Far from the expected clip shows, producer Kenneth Bowser brought a journalist’s eye and surprising context to his first two “Saturday Night Live” retrospectives, focusing on the show’s first five years and then continuing into the 1980s. With this third installment, however, the conceit comes close to running out of steam, feeling less like a cultural dissertation and more like an excuse to dredge up old bits and, not incidentally, stroke Lorne Michaels’ ego. Still watchable enough, after this third documentary, nobody should shed any tears if “SNL in the ’00s” doesn’t arrive until the ’10s.

While the first special benefited from the novelty of the concept and turbulent history of the original cast, “SNL” in the ’90s invariably became more about franchise maintenance and establishing a new roster of comedy stars. In that latter respect, the two hours reinforces the latenight mainstay’s role, as former cast member Chris Rock wryly puts it, as “the X-Men school for comedians.”

As Bowser documents, “SNL” actually came into the ’90s in fine form with a solid cast, only to see its relevance again questioned mid-decade amid a flurry of journalistic obituaries proclaiming it “Saturday Night Dead,” ratcheting up pressure from then-NBC West Coast chief Don Ohlmeyer to give the show a wholesale makeover. Notably, both Ohlmeyer and NBC latenight exec Rick Ludwin are among those interviewed, though their perspective on events hardly receives equal weight, with cast members recalling how Michaels would listen politely and then ignore West Coast suggestions.

Consistent with “SNL’s” remarkable endurance, though, the series quickly reloaded after a cast housecleaning, assembling a roster that included newcomers Will Ferrell, Molly Shannon, Chris Kattan and Cheri Oteri, birthing such memorable recurring bits as the cheerleaders and the Roxbury guys.

There are some amusing and interesting observations along the way — among them the show’s traditional surge in popularity during election years, and how whichever candidate wins provides four years of job security for the cast member adept at impersonating him. There’s also once-over-lightly treatment of Chris Farley’s death (as well as his gift for completely unrestrained physical comedy); Norm MacDonald’s firing from “Weekend Update,” at Ohlmeyer’s insistence; and an ode to frequent hosts Alec Baldwin, Christopher Walken and John Goodman.

Ultimately, though, unlike Bowser’s Emmy-nominated maiden effort, this special finds itself with nothing particularly memorable to say — diverting in places simply by virtue of the clip highlights, but with little more depth than Adam Sandler’s baby-voiced ditties and barely worthy of such extravagant made-for-sweeps primetime exposure.

Then again, that’s generally in keeping with “SNL” in the ’00s most of the time, as well as the fleeting attention span of what has indeed become a pop-culture nation.

Saturday Night Live in the '90s: Pop Culture Nation

NBC, Sun. May 6, 9 p.m.

Production: Producer-writer-director, Kenneth Bowser; supervising producers, Brian McDonald, Ken Aymong.

Crew: Camera, Teodoro Maniaci; editor, Mary Perica. Running time: 120 MIN.

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