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‘SNL’ Cast Departures: A Winning Season Still Has Its Challenges

SNL Trump Clinton Saturday Night Live
Dana Edelson/NBC

Alec Baldwin has loomed so large over the breakout season “Saturday Night Live” just concluded that he makes you almost forget about the cast. But it’s the strength of Lorne Michaels’ core unit that typically dictates the vitality of this show over its four-plus decades on the air.

A trio of cast departures in recent days is a reminder that if and when Donald Trump leaves the headlines–and that may not be for quite a while–“SNL” is going to be judged in ways Baldwin can’t obscure if he’s not needed to play the president. The show has never been stronger, and yet there’s lots of new questions as to who Michaels can count on to keep his franchise healthy for the future.

Bobby Moynihan, Vanessa Bayer and Sasheer Zamata all signaled their exits over the past week. It’s entirely possible more offseason departures could yet yet be announced, though no rumors indicate anything imminent. If a fourth name or more joined their list, that would be concerning considering too many open slots suggest Michaels is still trying to find the right elements for great cast chemistry.

While Moynihan and Bayer weren’t big surprises because they were in the cast for nine and seven years, respectively, Zamata was a more conspicuous departure. She had an engaging presence in her run on “SNL”; it’s not like you ever minded seeing her. But if that’s the best that can be said about a cast member after four seasons, it probably is a good time to skedaddle off to the next thing.

Unfortunately for her, Zamata had about as unremarkable a run on the show as it’s possible to have. She not only didn’t have a single memorable character to play, but played supporting roles that barely had speaking parts most of the time.

Still, it’s difficult to say she failed because she never was really given much opportunity to succeed.

In contrast, Bayer was given a lot to do and did so much in her time there. She takes away a roster of strong characters both in sketches and on “Weekend Update” that will be sorely missed.

Put Moynihan somewhere between the spectrum of Zamata and Bayer in terms of cast strength. Like Bayer, he got a lot to do, but didn’t make as strong an impression.

Post-“SNL,” all three of the departing cast members are cut out more to be strong character actors who could continue working for a long time. Moynihan, who was excellent on “Girls” in a guest role a few years ago, already has a CBS sitcom set for fall–about as cush a landing pad as you can grab when jumping ship from 30 Rockefeller Center.

Just as she was last season, Kate McKinnon remains the standout. Hillary Clinton’s failure to win the presidency could have been a big blow to her momentum because it robbed her of the opportunity to play a major character for the next four years, but McKinnon bounced back without missing a hitch with new creations like KellyAnne Conway and Jeff Sessions. “SNL” is going to be her oyster for years much the way Kristen Wiig had the spotlight to herself for a long spell.

But if any cast member could be said to have enjoyed a breakout year–perhaps not really possible during a season when Baldwin essentially sucked all the oxygen out of Studio 8H–it was Beck Bennett. He seemed to have inherited leading-man honors from Taran Killam, who departed the previous year, getting his share of memorable characters like Vladimir Putin while being pressed into duty as a utility player in so many other ways.

If there was a real disappointment in the cast this year, it was Leslie Jones. She seemed poised for a breakout season after gaining huge buzz last year off coming off”Ghostbusters” and her Olympics tweeting, but there just wasn’t much sense of her kicking into high gear on “SNL” in 2016-17. She’s still a valuable piece of the puzzle, but no larger a piece than she was last season.

The weakness of Jones and the departure of Bayer and Zamata might seem to mean the female side of “SNL” is weaker than it’s been in awhile. But McKinnon is still surrounded by Cecily Strong, who has been a versatile pro since day one, and Aidy Bryant, who gets a little better every season–an upward trajectory hardly guaranteed on this show.

Among “SNL’s” men, Kyle Mooney and Pete Davidson seem like their best years are still ahead of them and are worthy of staying around to watch grow. That Kenan Thompson is still around after 14 seasons and doesn’t feel tired is a credit to one of the franchise’s best-ever utility players.

“Weekend Update” is gelling nicely. As shaky as Colin Jost and Michael Che seemed when they first came together, they have developed a relaxed chemistry that has made “Weekend Update” a strong part of a show during a high-intensity news cycle, when it can’t afford to be weak.

As rookie classes go, “SNL” was a relatively strong year. Mikey Day and Alex Moffatt seemed to get far more airtime than “featured players” typically get, a credit to both men. But Melissa Villaseñor just isn’t cutting it; it’s hard to believe she won’t be the fourth cast member to go as it is fairly typical for Michaels to axe at least one rookie every season.

Whether four or even more are headed for the door at “SNL,” there are clearly some weak spots scattered around a group that is unspectacular but moving in the right direction. If Baldwin isn’t back next season as Trump, the pressure will be on Michaels again to get this overshadowed cast into even better shape.