It could have been bad. Like really, really bad.
No matter how much Lorne Michaels or anyone else may have wanted to play down the importance of the 39th season premiere last night, injecting six new cast members into a series is a dicey proposition. Even if “SNL” has proven remarkably adept at doing so over its long run.
Having returning veteran Tina Fey as guest host was a smart move. What better way to convey a sense of stability than to bring back an old favorite and get our minds off the fact that a whole bunch of other old favorites were gone (goodbye, Jason Sudeikis, Fred Armisen and Bill Hader) and replaced by a bewilderingly high volume of new faces.
Another big change that hinted at departures still to come came with the Weekend Update segment, when sophomore sensation Cecily Strong assumed anchor duties alongside Seth Meyers, who is leaving “SNL” in the midseason for his own late-night talk show.
While Fey has been better in past guest-host outings, “SNL” utilized her appropriately to ease the transition, even self-consciously so by having her opening monologue serve as a humorous hazing of the new folks. If anything, “SNL” went a bit overboard in addressing the elephant in the room by devoting a second skit to them that had Fey guessing who was new and who was a member of musical guest Arcade Fire.
We get it, they’re new. Let’s move on.
“SNL” also savvily frontloaded the series with the best sketch of the night: a parody of the HBO series “Girls,” where Fey played an Albanian refugee who made the privileged problems of the cast’s quartet of gals seem all the more absurd. “Girls” isn’t the most timely comedic target, but funny is funny.
“SNL” struck a timelier note with multiple cameos from “Breaking Bad” star Aaron Paul on the eve of his series’ big finale. In character as Jesse Pinkman, it made for a lot of methamphetamine jokes like the one that couldn’t quite save the episode’s opening sketch, which showed Jay Pharoah needs to work the rust off his Obama impression. Strong is also going to need time to gel with Meyers, but if she can summon even half of the spark she had last season, she’s going to be fine.
Michaels should at least take comfort that Taran Killam is showing every sign of growing into the cast alpha male “SNL” desperately needs after losing so many of its best guys. On the femme side, Kate McKinnon was such a standout last night, she just needs to get recurring characters to make her a star.
To expect perfection from a season premiere is absurd, particularly one that is an introduction to so many new faces that don’t yet have rust to speak of. In that respect, “SNL” can pride itself on a successful opening in that it steered clear of that flopsweat stink that tends to permeate past episodes when rookies take their wobbly first steps. None of the new kids demonstrated glimmers of greatness to come, but that’s OK, too.