The fall 2012 TV season is officially here, and tomorrow night, SNL returns from hiatus and kicks off Season 38. Even during its low points, SNL has given us plenty of incentives to tune in – cultural relevance, live television, pre-Tea Party Victoria Jackson. As we brace ourselves for this season, here are five reasons we’ll be glued to the TV on Saturday nights (or more likely, sit through 30-second ads preceding Hulu clips) over the coming months for network television’s oldest-yet-still-somehow-coolest late night comedy powerhouse:
1. Election Coverage
Like a child suddenly invited to the grown-ups’ table, SNL seems especially giddy during an election year. The show possesses an unrivaled ability to frame debates and to characterize candidates (i.e. “I can see Russia from my house!”), so much so that Studio 8H is nowadays a routine campaign stop for presidential hopefuls. In addition to the expected candidate cameos and debate parodies, this fall will see the return of the primetime “Weekend Update Thursday” (which allowed SNL to play The Daily Show in 2008 with election maps and various other beyond-the-desk segments). And interviews this week have revealed Lorne’s casting choices: Jay Pharoah stepping into the big role of President Obama, Jason Sudeikis returning to play Mitt Romney (and presumably Joe Biden), Taran Killam most likely as Paul Ryan, and Bill Hader as a highly anticipated Clint Eastwood.
2. New Blood
Last season premiered with no new additions to the cast (SNL later hired Kate McKinnon for the season’s last few episodes), but with the departure of Kristen Wiig, Andy Samberg and Abby Elliott over the summer, it was time for some fresh faces. The city of Chicago scored three big hires in Tim Robinson, Aidy Bryant, and Cecily Strong. I’ve had the opportunity to watch all three perform improv at the iO Theater – Bryant and Strong in the hilarious all-female show Virgin Daiquiri and Robinson in Cook County Social Club (perhaps the funniest long-form ensemble in the country) – and I can say Lorne made wise choices. Joining the writing staff is UCB’s Neil Casey, himself an accomplished improviser who has enough talent to follow in Jason Sudeikis’ footsteps and move from writer to cast member on the show. Because they’re rookies and the run order will likely be filled with political sketches, I doubt we’ll really get to see them bloom for at least a few months. But make no mistake: SNL is a better place with these folks on the payroll.
3. Rising Stars
Another effect of Wiig and co. leaving the show is a more open playing field for less-proven cast members who have spent most of their time at SNL on the sidelines. While it would appear that female performers Nasim Pedrad, Vanessa Bayer, and Kate McKinnon would have the most to gain from the departure of the cast’s alpha female, I predict Taran Killam and Bobby Moynihan will emerge as the show’s new stars, thanks to their aggressive character work and ability to make the most out of every precious second of screen time. And of course, let’s not forget newly appointed Castmember in Chief Jay Pharoah. He finally got his big break as Barack Obama, whose victory in November would more or less secure Pharoah’s job on the show for the next four years. While his impersonation of the president will likely be an improvement on Fred Armisen’s, the question remains of whether he will be able to find something other than Obama’s reasonableness… and ears, I suppose… to make fun of him for.
4. Bill Hader
We could discuss other cast members for hours, but none are currently more valuable to the show than Bill Hader. The most “built for SNL” cast member since Phil Hartman, Emmy-nominated Hader’s array of comedic talents knows no bounds – expert impressionist (James Carville, Alan Alda), stellar character actor (Stefon, Herb Welch), as well as a pitch perfect spokesman and a steady straight man. Despite his workhorse role, Hader looks like he’s having more fun than anyone else on screen (he attributed his frequent breaking last season to feeling more relaxed on the show), and audiences seem to forgive him for it. And from the moment I watched Clint Eastwood walk out on stage in Tampa to deliver what I learned would be a mostly ad-libbed, un-vetted speech, I knew this would be a good year for Bill Hader.
5. Kristen Wiig As Host (Hopefully)
It’s not confirmed – not even a rumor, really – but SNL has brought back former cast members to host the show more and more in recent years (three times in each of the last two seasons, to be exact), and Kristen Wiig would be a fine choice. While the weekly guest host is a longtime staple of SNL, to me it often feels like a publicity stunt and only gets me more excited than usual to tune in if the host is one of the all-time favorites (Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin, Tom Hanks, Justin Timberlake) or a former cast member who understands the ins and outs of the show and can move at pace SNL demands. Wiig is at the top of my shortlist for alum hosts, followed by Amy Poehler (who hasn’t hosted in two years), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (whose Veep will launch a second season in the spring) and long-shot Will Forte. What can I say… I miss the stink of Greg Stink.
I will be returning to my SNL post this season, so keep an eye out for my recap of the season premiere. I’ll leave you with a few predictions for Saturday’s episode, hosted by Seth MacFarlane and musical guest Frank Ocean (not cooperative conman Danny Ocean, as I’ve been telling people all week): Pharoah’s Obama will sound more like the president but still won’t be much funnier than Armisen’s; Hader will appear as Clint Eastwood and probably James Carville or Shephard Smith; Seth MacFarlane will stand out in ensemble character pieces but will be relegated to an awkward straight man the rest of the show; and no less than three celebrities/politicians will make random cameos during the night.
SNL’s back, folks! Get excited!