Ordinarily, it would be high praise to say “Saturday Night Live” saved its best episode for its season finale, the momentum fueling hope for its future. But those that saw the episode might have felt all the more discouraged considering the finale was a strong one primarily because of its guest star, Andy Samberg, and a truckload of other former all-stars.
Such is the double-edged sword whenever “SNL” dips into its alumni pool: It typically makes for a better episode, but one that only reminds you how inferior the current cast is by comparison.
If you compare this season with the preceding 38 years of “SNL,” this clearly was not a good season for “SNL.” But that’s really not a fair comparison considering this was a rebuilding year in which Lorne Michaels weathered a mass exodus by bringing in a much larger freshman class than usual. Grading on a curve is a necessity.
True, there was nothing this season approaching singular breakouts like Will Ferrell or even the cast nuclei that emerged around Tina Fey and Kristen Wiig. But this cast was good enough that there’s no need to make anything more than a few substitutions in the off-season, which may sound like the ultimate backhanded compliment but really isn’t.
What “SNL” should be proud of is that the returning cast members seemed to get better now that the departing cast members gave them room to grow. Taran Killam has been on a steady growth curve since he started. Vanessa Bayer had the kind of year we’ve been looking from her for years; after a promising rookie season, she seemed stuck in second gear for too long. Jay Pharoah does a barely passable Obama, but he’s better doing just about everything else, like his killer Jay Z in the finale’s cold open (pictured above).
But if “SNL” can be faulted with something, it’s that the show actually does have a bona-fide star in its midst right now but Michaels doesn’t seem to realize it. This season, Kate McKinnon finally started getting the kind of screen time that proved she is the real deal. The woman simply is never not funny, even in the smallest of roles. She has the kind of versatility that Wiig had, with even more range (if that’s even possible).
But the problem is that while “SNL” is giving her more to do, they’re not giving her the recurring characters that help take a cast member from up-and-comer to star. When McKinnon pulled out her devastating Justin Bieber impersonation midseason, that was the moment to start milking one of the biggest headline makers on the globe. And yet we haven’t seen her in Bieber mode much. Even a character of her own creation, the fabulously drunken Sheila Sovage, isn’t getting the visibility it deserves to take McKinnon over the top.
If there’s a question mark, it’s “Weekend Update.” Seth Meyers’ midseason departure led his head-writer replacement, Colin Jost, to take over the role opposite Cecily Strong, who was deserving of the promotion after a great first year. But the new “Weekend Update” is a toss-up, neither good nor bad. If there’s a criticism, it’s that while Strong is just OK in anchor mode, she seems to do less of the kind of character work that made her shine. Jost takes some getting used to as well, but they’re not so bad that they don’t deserve more time to gel.
Did the rookies manage to match their predecessors to the point where “SNL” didn’t lose a step? Of course not, but that was never going to happen. First-year cast additions never have an instant impact; best they can do is show promise, and more of the new folks did than didn’t.
Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney look like the freshman standouts right now. Bennett’s recurring “Baby Boss” character is just genius, he could ride that alone to a long life on “SNL.” Both he and Mooney were given a lot of room to experiment with their own weird skits in the back half of many episodes. Many of them didn’t work, but it’s nice to see they were given enough leash to try their own thing; they are the closest thing “SNL” has to recapturing that off-kilter spirit Samberg brought to to the show.
Noel Wells and Sasheer Zamata look like solid additions too. Wells could get some room to step up given the likely exit of Nasim Pedrad, who is in the cast of the new Fox sitcom “Mulaney.” And though the circumstances surrounding Zamata’s midseason entry couldn’t have been more awkwardly handled, she breezed in with solid supporting work that made you instantly forget those circumstances.
If the rookies want some inspiration as to how to really grow in year two, look no further than Aidy Bryant. The sophomore cast member looked utterly dispensable in her first year, but she really stepped up in 2013-14 and became the kind of performer you look forward to seeing.
Consider that there’s eight first-year “featured players” on the cast, just one short of the nine full-fledged repertory players, and you have a sense of dramatic the turnover was this year. So anything better than “not bad” is actually pretty good.
“SNL” didn’t have a great season, but it could have been so much worse that Michaels & Co. deserve more praise than criticism.