The 38th season of the ol' war horse kicked off without a splashy choice of host — Family Guy's Seth MacFarlane, "fresh" off the summer success of Ted (remember Ted?!?!) — and thus far without any obvious sense of desperation to replace the deep character stable of Kristen Wiig or the digital anarchy of Andy Samberg. It's an election year, and the host can pull off a lot of weird voices, so that's how the season kicked off. I guess we'll have to wait another week to see if Kate McKinnon can deliver the next Gilly. (Or if Kate McKinnon can deliver anything, if last night's severe lack of screen time is any indication. Free Kate McKinnon, et cetera.)
The show wasted no time getting to its biggest news of the week, with Fred Armisen handing off Obama-impersonating duties to Jay Pharoah, who got quite a bit of crowd support for his first outing. It wasn't bad, with the focus on the President's aloof overconfidence in the face of Mitt Romney's abundant gaffes, with a few extended "UHHHHH" pauses for good measure. It's an accurate impersonation, but I still don't think the show has been able to zero in on what (if anything) makes Obama funny. The search continues. I found myself more tickled by Jason Sudeikis's Mitt Romney, all the obliviousness of Joe Biden doused with a bucket of flop sweat, and the briefest hint of Taran Killam (also underused tonight) as eager-beaver exaggerator Paul Ryan.
Look, I know John Mayer's presence during both Frank Ocean performances was intended to mitigate the "who?" factor for a talented but still relatively unknown-by-the-mainstream singer. But between Mayer's face-pulling and the busy set full of arcade games both competing for attention, Ocean looked a bit drowned out. (Bad pun, sorry, it's early in the season.) Tough to blame Frank for ducking out for a bit of Frogger while Mayer hit his solo.
Best Use of the Host's Range of Talents
Didja know Seth MacFarlane does funny voices? If you didn't before tonight, you were told so explicitly in the monologue, where the host dipped into Peter and Stewie and the Giggety-Giggety Guy (a voice which got an inexplicable reprise during the patience-trying "I'm All.../You're All..." first date sketch with Nasim Pedrad). But unquestionably the highlight came during Weekend Update, when MacFarlane pulled out a most unexpected Ryan Lochte impersonation, complete with stoner-doof non-sequiturs ("It feels so weird to be dry...") good enough to forgive the occasional cobweb-covered joke. That "if you put your ear up to my ear, you can hear the ocean" bit has been around AT LEAST since the dumb-blonde-joke craze of my junior high years.
Best Performance By a Newbie
Tough week for my long-held theory that Taran Killam and Vanessa Bayer are the future of SNL, with Killam all too absent and the usually excellent Bayer delivering a scattered, unfunny take on Honey Boo Boo. But Update was also our first real look at Cecily Strong, whose Mimi Morales character might have simply been called Puerto Rican Girl. Her appearance to speak on Election Issues was an awfully thin premise, but she got some laughs and certainly showed up more prominently than Aidy Bryant or Tim Robinson.
Least Explicable Sustained Laughter
It's just Bobby Moynihan dancing around to Gangnam Style. Then Bobby Moynihan and Taran Killam and Bill Hader dancing around to Gangnam Style. Then the actual Gangnam Style guy and Bobby Moynihan and Taran Killam and Bill Hader dancing around to Gangnam Style. No larger point to it. Just people being silly in a Lids store. Oh God, LIDS! Bros at Lids! Remember hanging around at the mall in high school and seeing all the bros at Lids?? Anyway, the pointless goofiness of the sketch probably speaks to the same part of me that enjoys "What Up with That?" is my best explanation.
Best Candidate for Furlough
If Fred Armisen is just going through the motions of his cranky daytime-TV producer Roger Brush so he can devote more time to coming up with Portlandia sketches, that's fine. Just maybe bump these creaky repetitions into the final half-hour?
Best Reason to Appreciate Bill Hader While We Still Have Him
With Wiig and Samberg gone, Armisen (maybe? possibly?) with his mind on other projects, and Jason Sudeikis a candidate to bolt at any second, I'm feeling a "gather ye rosebuds" vibe whenever Hader's onscreen. (Kenan Thompson, however, will be around forever, and thank God.) After laying down an obligatory shot at Clint Eastwood's RNC performance — yelling "JUST LET THE PEOPLE EAT SODA!" at an empty chair representing Michael Bloomberg — Hader pulled the puppetry class sketch across the finish line with the sheer force of his commitment to his creepy, shell-shocked veteran of the harrowing invasion of Grenada.