‘Saturday Night Live’ Scouting Report: Sizing Up the New Season

If the truckload of statuettes Lorne Michaels carted away from the Emmy Awards earlier this month wasn’t indication enough, “Saturday Night Live” is coming off a true annus mirabilis. It was a season memorable enough to qualify as peak performance for a 43-year-old show presumably well past its peak.

The presidential election had a lot to do with that, but don’t sell Michaels short by reducing his success to simply riding the country’s political tsunami. Many of TV’s comedic properties got the Trump bump, which only underscores how incredible 2016-17 was for “SNL” to stand out amid such a crowded field.

How did “SNL” defy those odds? Generating huge buzz bringing in ringers like Alec Baldwin, Melissa McCarthy and Larry David for recurring guest roles impersonating political figures. Elbowing the rest of the cast aside to make room for these consistent cameos was an inspired decision, one Michaels had never made to this extent over the course of the show’s long history.

Baldwin will be back this season, and though McCarthy and David probably won’t be, my guess is we’ll see other special guests take their place. Anyone famous out there do a good John Kelly impression? Chances are, we’ll see them in Studio 8H soon.

But the reliance “SNL” has on its special guests is something that bears watching, particularly as the Trump effect wears off, and the series will have to draw its strength as it typically once did more from its full-time employees.

After relatively few departures over the past two seasons, “SNL” saw the exit of three regulars: two of them, Vanessa Bayer and Bobby Moynihan, were pretty versatile veterans, and a third, Sasheer Zamata, was less utilized but not a minor player, either. Three rookies were just added earlier this week, which is always a delicate task on a show that isn’t always patient about grooming new talent.

Because the additions were made relatively late in “SNL’s” offseason, one wondered whether Michaels was going to bother replacing the departing trio at all considering he could very well have got by on a lighter roster given how much he could go to the well on special guest stars.  But the trio of newbies brings the current cast to 16, in line with the total team the show has fielded going into the fall in three of the last four seasons.

Going 16 deep seems to be what “SNL” does when its ensemble isn’t at optimal level the way the series was back in 2007-09, when just 12 players per year was necessary given the Dream Team in place at the time, including Tina Fey, Seth Meyers, Andy Samberg, Amy Poehler and Jason Sudeikis.

“SNL” doesn’t currently have that kind of all-star nucleus. Kate McKinnon remains the star head and shoulders above the rest, an exalted status similar to what Kristen Wiig enjoyed on the show in her final seasons. “SNL” is also well-served by a nice “Weekend Update” duo in Colin Jost and Michael Che, whose chemistry has really gelled. Cecily Strong, Beck Bennett, Kyle Mooney, Leslie Jones, and Kenan Thompson are all solid, though they pale in comparison to that 2007-09 era.

Of the 16 in place for Season 43, six of them will be “featured players,” the junior varsity level of the “SNL” cast. It’s actually somewhat surprising Michaels hasn’t promoted Alex Moffatt and Mikey Day, who were utilized unusually often for rookies, to the main cast. It is equally surprising that another rookie, Melissa Villasenor, is still in the cast considering she was barely used at all and didn’t do much memorable in her limited time.

But trust Michaels when he demonstrates patience. Some of “SNL’s” current stalwarts like Aidy Bryant and Pete Davidson took time to grow into their now indispensable roles.

That said, there are plenty of comedians who come into “SNL” and discover quickly that they aren’t going to hack it. RIP Jon Rudnitsky, a one-and-done from 2015; and who can forget the bloodbath of 2013, when four rookies bit the dirt (Noel Wells, Brooks Wheelan, John Milhiser and Mike O’Brien). It’s not an indictment of their talent; “SNL” history is littered with people who went on to bigger, bettter things after unremarkable runs on the show (see: Silverman, Sarah; Rock, Chris, etc.).

The cast chemistry may seem trifling in importance when “SNL” has the capability to draw stars like McCarthy in with some degree of regularity. But if that strategy doesn’t prove to have staying power, there’s tremendous risk. Even if Michaels somehow found a way to bring back Baldwin every week, “SNL” will still live and die on the strength of its core cast.

Popular on Variety

More TV

  • Sterling K Brown SAG Awards

    Sterling K. Brown to Produce Drama Series 'Everyday Insanity' in Development at Fox

    Fox is developing a one-hour drama that boasts Sterling K. Brown among its executive producers. Titled “Everyday Insanity,” the series is inspired by the life events of series creator Laura Bensick. It is described as an uplifting drama about three wildly different families who form a “created family” to support each other after their loved [...]

  • Karyn KusamaGovernors Awards, Arrivals, Los Angeles,

    Survival Drama 'Yellowjackets' Lands Showtime Pilot Order, Karyn Kusama to Direct

    The hour-long drama “Yellowjackets” has been ordered to pilot at Showtime, Variety has learned. In addition, “Destroyer” director Karyn Kusama has come onboard to direct the pilot in addition to serving as an executive producer. The series was created by Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, who will also executive produce and serve as showrunners. Drew Comins [...]

  • Elizabeth McGovern, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter,

    'Downton Abbey' Movie Sequel? Producers Tease That They Have 'Some Ideas'

    “Downton Abbey” holds the record as the most-nominated international show at the Emmy Awards with 69 nominations and 15 wins — and now, it stands a chance to nab an Oscar. More than three years after the beloved series signed off the air following six critically-acclaimed seasons, “Downton Abbey” is making its big-screen debut. “It [...]

  • Bob Bakish Viacom CEO

    ViacomCBS Leaders Talk NFL Negotiations, Streaming Wars and Merger Focus

    Viacom and CBS aim to prosper in the streaming arena by covering both ends of the marketplace, blending Viacom’s focus on ad-supported platforms with CBS’ strong head start on subscribers for CBS All Access and Showtime. ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish and incoming ViacomCBS chief financial officer Christina Spade outlined the combined company’s vision for how [...]

  • Bill's Brain Netflix

    TV Review: 'Inside Bill's Brain'

    A certain type of documentary has grown in prevalence and popularity lately — the piece that marshals evidence in service of the case that a very widely known contemporary figure is actually even greater than one had previously thought. The vogue began in summer 2018 with the features “RBG” (about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader [...]

  • Kiefer Sutherland'Forsaken' film premiere, Toronto International

    Kiefer Sutherland to Star in 'The Fugitive' Remake at Quibi

    Kiefer Sutherland is heading to Quibi. The “24” actor will star in a series remake of the 1993 Harrison Ford movie “The Fugitive,” which has been given the greenlight at Quibi. Sutherland will play legendary Detective Clay Bryce who is trying to apprehend Mike Ferro, played by Boyd Holbrook. Stephen Hopkins, who previously worked with [...]

  • Thandie Newton and Regina King70th Primetime

    Emmys 2019: The Ultimate Party Guide

    The 71st annual Emmy Awards may be going hostless this year, but that doesn’t mean the big night will be any less of a celebration. For all the details on the biggest bashes happening this week and throughout the weekend, check out Variety‘s Ultimate Emmys Party Guide below. Tuesday, Sept. 17 Variety’s Showrunners DinnerEveleigh, 7:30 p.m [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content