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At ‘SNL,’ 4 Puzzles to Solve as Show Enters Fifth Decade

Analysis: A young cast seemed to gel last season, but can the show keep its momentum?

The 41st season of “Saturday Night Live” is about to debut on NBC, and not even Lorne Michaels can tell you if it will be as memorable as Will Ferrell or as snubbed as George Coe.

This year, “SNL” has a better story to tell. After a period of rebuilding in the wake of departures by veterans like Kristen Wiig, Fred Armisen, Andy Samberg and Jason Sudeikis, the show’s cast seemed to gel last season. Was it the female bragadoccio in the “Back Home Ballers” video? The ISIS ad parody showing a daughter bidding farewell to her dad to she could join the terrorist organization? Breakout moments from Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, Pete Davidson and Bobby Moynihan? Or the realization that Aidy Bryant, Taran Killam and Vanessa Bayer have emerged as the cast stalwarts who are as much the glue of this current assemblage as Phil Hartman or Amy Poehler were in previous eras?

To be sure, never before has “Saturday Night Live” boasted such a disparate crew: Leslie Jones is gung-ho and unflappable. Bobby Moynihan inhabits oddball characters like Drunk Uncle or the fascinating Riblet. Pete Davidson is the newbie with an edge. Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett revel in the weird. And Kate McKinnon, as wacky as her portrayals of Judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Justin Bieber are, often carries a sketch all on her own. In years past, the cast seemed to be a bunch of like-minded folk. In 2015, they are a group of very different types lashed together by Michaels and NBC, and it’s never quite certain if they will band together or bounce off each other like atoms.

The show, by its nature, is a beast to put together each week. Even Michaels will tell you that it is broadcast on Saturdays at 11:30 p.m. not because everyone is ready and each bit has been honed to perfection, but because the show must go on and there are 90 minutes to fill on NBC’s schedule. People expect commentary, satire, crazy antics, and maybe even something really peculiar (especially in the show’s last ten minutes). Below, some other elements worth monitoring as “SNL” enters its fifth decade on the air.

SNL’s new edge?: Last season, it seemed as if “SNL” was walking a tightrope like it hasn’t done since the original cast sent Gilda Radner on stage as Candy Slice, a Patti Smith wannabe who crooned the lyrics “I’m your biggest funked-up fan”( which on live TV sounded like a word one is not supposed to utter in that medium.) A monologue from Chris Rock last season included a long joke about the Boston Marathon bombing. The aforementioned ISIS parody drew complaints as much as it did laughs. And Louis C.K. finished the season with a monologue that included a few jokes about child molestation.

For a certain kind of fan – the ones who can recall when “SNL” regularly featured edgier material and skirted the bounds of TV propriety (like its 1998 “Nude Beach” sketch,which used the word “penis” a whopping 43 times  – the sharper material is more welcome than the usual “It’s great to be in New York hosting ‘Saturday Night Live!” shtick. And one can argue that with John Oliver and Comedy Central’s lineup drawing notice every week, “SNL” needs to burnish its experience with the fringe to continue to attract today’s mainstream.

Kate McKinnon’s broadening popularity: One suspects McKinnon, who joined the cast in 2012, remains under contract, but her breakout status on the show has led to many opportunities outside of it. She has a role in a reboot of “Ghostbusters”slated for the summer of 2016. And she is taking noticeable roles in recent ad campaigns for Ford Motor Co. and MasterCard.

To be sure, those projects took place when the comedienne was off from the show, but success tends to breed success, and you have to wonder whether any new attention from outside interests might keep McKinnon’s attention from a show that would seem to be counting on her to regular impressions of Hillary Rodham Clinton and many others.

Whither Weekend Update?: Remember a time, well before social media, when no one really seemed to care who anchored the show’s fake-news segment? Even Norm McDonald’s ouster from the seat by NBC brass during the 1997-1998 season was a relatively minor affair. Now, switching Michael Che for Cecily Strong, a feat that took place before the start of last season, was cause for agonizing digital hand-wringing. Both Che and Colin Jost, who co-host the segment, have their strong points. Jost is a fast distributor of snappy lines while Che has great rapport with some of the wackier characters who come on to vent (see: “Riblet,” above). Can the two establish more of a rapport as this season builds?

Current events vs. characters: Once a haven for multiple visits from a range of offbeat characters – anything from the “Cheeseburger/Pepsi” diner workers in its early tenure to Kirsten Wiig’s Gilly and Kenan Thompson’s “What Up With That” host Diondre Cole – SNL seemed last season to rejigger its formula. Many of its best sketches riffed off in-the-moment popular culture. A sketch featuring Cecily Strong as CNN daytime anchor Brooke Baldwin had the newscaster offer to read off a “loose collection of daytime nonsense.” A pre-taped segment featuring Pete Davidson riffed off new policies regarding marijuana in New York City. Scarlett Johansson reprised her Black Widow characters from the “Avengers” blockbuster franchise – as the star of a new romantic comedy.

The show’s legion of kooky characters got more of a showcase during ”Weekend Update,” which featured McKinnon’s killer take on Judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg, among others (no offense to McKinnon’s “Whiskers R We” cat freak Barbara DeDrew, who showed up anew in a sketch late in the season). Producers will likely have to balance the desire to produce popular catchphrases with the need to stick close to current events to engage an audience keenly aware of the latest trending topics.

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