Supersized Cast Puts ‘Saturday Night Live’ to the Test

Supersized Cast Puts 'Saturday Night Live'
Photo illustration VIP+; Michaels: AP Photo; cast: Courtesy NBC

When “Saturday Night Live” returns for its 47th season this weekend, the NBC warhorse will feature its largest cast ever ⁠at 21 deep.

With so many veterans of the series rumored to have had one leg out the door last season — Kate McKinnon, Pete Davidson, Aidy Bryant, Cecily Strong — “SNL” impresario Lorne Michaels is probably breathing easy right about now knowing he averted the kind of mass talent exodus that has destabilized the show every once in a while.

But it’s worth questioning whether “SNL” may be taking an unprecedented step that could amount to an overcorrection. And when you are on the verge of celebrating a half century as an in-house cultural touchstone for NBC, it’s never too early to point to even the smallest cracks in the facade.

That 50-year mark is something that motivated Michaels to do whatever it took to keep some of his longest-running players around long enough, according to Variety’s Brian Steinberg, to be part of what will no doubt be a big retrospective that will be important to NBCUniversal come 2024.

Holding onto talent longer than “SNL” traditionally has is part of a broader, subtler shift the franchise has been making away from its roots, where it lived or died on the strength of its core cast. We’ve seen this shift play out in recent years in the way the show has accommodated more recurring celebrity cameos, from Alec Baldwin’s multiyear residency impersonating Donald Trump to former cast member Maya Rudolph’s repeated returns as VP Kamala Harris (and other memorable characters).

An extension of that strategy is what seems to be the formation of a new tier in the cast that allows veterans the freedom to do TV and film work outside “SNL,” as Bryant and Strong did, respectively, for Hulu’s “Shrill” and Apple TV+’s “Schmigadoon!” But that means they’re gone for multiple episodes at a time.

In the “SNL” of the future, it will be like no one ever leaves. They’ll just have a looser affiliation with the series that keeps them in the show’s orbit, albeit used more sparingly than when they were full-time.

At first blush, that sounds like a great strategy: Maximize the time you get out of cast standouts, whydontcha? On a series in which new talent can take many years to gain traction with audiences, it’s good to have the ability to rely on returning favorites.

And therein lies the potential problem: The more time “SNL” gives over to celebrity cameos and veteran part-timers, the less there is to foster the next generation of talent that is so crucial to groom for the future viability of the show. If it seemed like a promising new cast member or two took forever to find their footing in the past, imagine how difficult that could be going forward.

Will that definitely hurt the show in the long term? Not necessarily. It’s conceivable Michaels & Co. can strike the right balance between new and old cast members to maintain the “SNL” equilibrium. But it won’t be easy, and the franchise hasn’t demonstrated a knack for that kind of balancing act in the past.

The problem here is not that anyone is overstaying their welcome. Even at a record 19-season run, Kenan Thompson remains a solid contributor. Other standouts, like McKinnon and Strong, will be embraced even in smaller doses.

But if Michaels isn’t careful, he could shortchange newer talent that could become the next McKinnon if an overcrowded cast doesn’t allow that person the time to shine.