The speculation that Kristen Wiig was leaving "Saturday Night Live" was confirmed in the series' season finale when the episode culminated in a musical sendoff expressly for her. KristenThat "SNL" didn't tee up some heavily publicized, drawn-out goodbye to Wiig says a lot about how much class she has. This, after all, is a cast member that "SNL" creator Lorne Michaels has deemed one of the best performers the show has ever had, which is a pretty high compliment to pay given the caliber of talent that has passed through Studio 8H.

And yet as I argued in this space almost exactly a year ago, it's high time Wiig left. Michaels overused her so flagrantly over the last 3-4 years that her many recurring characters blurred together into one entity that came across more fatiguing than funny. That's no reflection on Wiig as a person or a talent; all the more reason she should jump with both feet into a movie career that's gotten off to a great start with megahit "Bridesmaids."

But with the presidential election coming in November, Wiig is leaving at an absolutely critical time for "SNL." The series was at its satirical best during the 2008 race, so there's pressure for "SNL" to return to form. Michaels needs to have an acute sense of what he has on his deep bench, so here's an unsolicited cast evaluation.

The biggest question mark is whether both Jason Sudeikis and Andy Samberg will be returning; the latter cast member only fueled speculation he has one foot out the door with a digital short in the finale that suggested it was his last effort. However, Michaels has said no further decisions will be made on who's in or out of the cast until the summer.

It's hard to believe he'll let Sudeikis go considering he's playing Mitt Romney (same goes for Fred Armisen, who shows no signs of exiting "SNL"). Sudeikis has a budding movie career of his own to tend to, but "SNL" will surely find a way to keep him around. His Romney impression isn't exactly memorable, but the fact that he can find a way to make such a bland personality even remotely entertaining is a tremendous credit to Sudeikis.

As for Samberg, he's probably been a bigger player on "SNL" than Sudeikis. But that may be more curse than blessing considering Samberg has yet to prove he can build a career for himself outside of sketch comedy. It doesn't look like his upcoming movie with Adam Sandler is going to change that. My gut says he'll move on, but just what he'll do is a mystery. Launching his own sketch-comedy franchise, as he's done to some degree with the musical-parody troupe Lonely Island, may be a viable route.

But even if both men stay around, neither is really the replacement for Wiig as the star. That designation belongs to Bill Hader, who gets stronger every year and is peaking at just the right time. In many ways, this season felt like the baton was being passed from Wiig to Hader, who also has perhaps the only "SNL" character to his credit that could sustain one of those usually awful Michaels-produced movies with Stefan, New York City's worst tour guide.

Another, less noticed emergence this season that needs to be noted is that of Taran Killam, a second-year player who stepped up in a way that elevated him from not-ready-for-primetime status to the show's nucleus. It's a subtle rise that isn't quite the breakout of a Will Ferrell, but it's going to be interesting to see if he can keep the trajectory going in coming seasons.

A less auspicious sophomore season was had by Jay Pharoah. As an impressionist, he is beyond brilliant; in every other regard he has barely inched forward. Again, it's less about judging innate talent and more about how that talent is managed. It doesn't seem Michaels knows what to do with him, which is a shame.

At least Pharoah doesn't have the disadvantage of trying to get out from under Wiig's shadow, which has singlehandedly suppressed the fortunes of every other woman in the cast. But that makes the coming season exciting, to see how that dynamic will change in Wiig's absence. Abby Elliott and Nasim Pedrad have been on the show for years and yet they've been so under-utilized over that time that it's like the audience hasn't really gotten to see what they can do yet. Vanessa Bayer hasn't quite lived up to the heat she generated in her freshman year in 2010-11 but still bears watching, as does Kate McKinnon, a rookie who has been around for just a few months but has impressed over that time.

It would be great to see all four of these women take it to the next level in the post-Wiig era.

 

 

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