Without anything to promote, Tina Fey's appearance as host for the season premiere became something between a substitute-teaching gig and a favor to her old pal Lorne Michaels. With six (!) new featured cast members, one new Weekend Update host, and the task of re-shaping the show's identity in a post-Hader/Armisen/Sudeikis world, it became clear that Fey's presence was needed to help usher in yet another new era at SNL. As she noted in her monologue, it's not like she's got this huge stable of recurring characters to bring back (heeey, Kristen Wiig). She was mostly there to give her blessing, on behalf of The Show's History, to these new kids, and she did so not once but twice.
If the episode felt a bit sputtering as a result, that's understandable. Of the new cast members, only Noël Wells and Mike O'Brien stood out much. And now that there's such a vacuum at the top of the male half of the cast, the absence of Jay Pharoah in any sketch not involving Obama is even more glaring. After three seasons, I still don't know if I have an answer to the question "Is Jay Pharoah Funny?" and that is a problem.
Grim Dedication to Format of the Week
I suppose cold-opening the show with anything other than a current-events sketch would rob the show of some of its cachet as a source for time-capsule social satire, but boy, can you ever feel it when a sketch is more obligatory than anything else. Whether or not Obamacare is overly convoluted, it sure isn't fun to talk about in a comedy setting! The sketch succeeds best when it's just letting ordinary people be obnoxious about their ignorance and irresponsibility. Aidy Bryant was a particular delight in a short drive-by ("I've stopped washing my hands, and I'm licking hella subway poles!"), as was Kate McKinnon's chain-smoking, exasperated ER doctor, who just wants people to stop putting things up their damn butts. I don't suppose they could have done anything funnier with Taran Killam's Ted Cruz? Anything on the filibuster? Nothing? I'd get into the subject of the Aaron Paul cameo, but luckily I will have MANY more chances to address that over the course of the episode.
This Week's Regret You Didn't Know You Had
Look, I'm not even sure what Queef Latina's character would have been like. But man, did I ever want to see her ruin Christmas. Tina's monologue was the first of several overt attempts by the show to acclimate the audience to its six new featured players in this "rebuilding year" (though, interestingly, neither of those attempts involved us learning their names). As a link to the show's past, Tina explained the time-honored tradition of newbies taking part in the hosts' musical numbers, as background dancers. Cue the gold lamé bike shorts!
Noël Wells: +2 for Hannah's preening anxiousness; +3 for getting to play the main character on her first day; -3 for the umlaut in her name that will make recapping this season a complete waking nightmare for yours truly; +1 for that thing where Hannah rests her head on her turned-in wrist.
Cecily Strong as Marnie: +2 for taking on the least accessible of the four impersonations; -3 for being basically shunned from the rest of the sketch as a result.
Vanessa Bayer as Shoshanna: +2 for capturing Shosh's unrealistically childish demeanor; +2 for all those motormouthed monologues; +1 for being a better actor than Zosia Mamet, just on principle; +1 for the hair bun, even if it's not her doing.
Kate McKinnon as Jessa: +3 for absolutely nailing the accent; +3 for Jessa's bohemian mannerisms and ability to deflect criticisms of her inane behavior; +1 for "I just find orgies so boring."
Taran Killam as Adam: +4 for DAT BODY
Tina Fey as Blerta: +2 for real-talking Hannah about pulling the shit she does at age 24; +3 for "If they know you are simple, they will drown you in river"; -2 for slut-shaming Jessa's status as an unpaid prostitute; +1 for the Albanian folk-dancing to Robyn; +1 for really carrying off that rubber hand.
Final Standings: McKinnon +7; Bayer +6; Fey +5; Killam +4; Wells +2; Strong -1Gold Spun From Really, Really Old Straw of the Week
Look, we all know that airplane/airport humor dates back to the more satirical chapters of the book of Genesis (where Abel really annoyed Cain by taking the window seat even though he knew he would have to get up and use the restroom multiple times). Somehow, this boarding-procedures sketch wrested a few more laughs from this endless source of frustration. Tina and Taran's delivery on the increasingly ludicrous special boarding classes was suitably deadpan, and the observations managed to be weird yet specific ("All Brazilian and Italian passengers to begin pushing and shoving and selectively understanding English … "). And then Kenan showed up with his insane oversized carry-on and I died the end.
Inside Baseball of the Week
The New Cast Member Familiarization Initiative continued with "New Cast Member or Arcade Fire?" This played like half a PR gesture and half a hazing ritual, with hosts Kenan hollering at any cast member who even attempted to be funny. Most important takeaways: 1) Whoever got to spend all week teaching Arcade Fire's Win Butler to make a De Niro face, I want a behind-the-scenes video; and 2) I'm really, really, really going to miss Kenan Thompson if he ever decides to leave this show.
Zeitgeist Latcher-Onner of the Week
In case the multiple Aaron Paul appearances didn't clue you in, the Breaking Bad finale loomed large over this episode. So to strike while the iron's hot (and while the number of e-cigarettes in the wild is reaching critical mass), we got this commercial parody for E-Meth. Almost all the points in this one go to all the places Kate McKinnon passed out now that she can use her smokeless meth anywhere.
Solid Debut of the Week
First of all, kudos to Cecily Strong for nabbing the Weekend Update heir-apparent gig. Second of all, R.I.P. Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With at a Party. Third of all, growing pains or not, that was a SOLID O.J. Simpson bit ("You stay strong, Juice!"), and nobody has written that sentence since 1996. It was a less auspicious debut for Kyle Mooney playing veteran stand-up comic Bruce Chandling, who never met a reference to L.A. he couldn't wrangle into something barely passable as a joke. I don't envy Mooney for trying to get over with a character whose whole purpose is that he's not funny, but I admire the dedication to awkwardness in the face of tepid audience response. Luckily, Drunk Uncle was around to slur and watch the white sports for us (featuring the third of three Aaron Paul cameos).
Unsafe Working Conditions of the Week
Seriously, though, how sleep-deprived were the writers who worked on the taxidermy-in-1940s-cinema sketch? You gotta let your bodies re-charge, people.
Hidden Talent of the Week
It seems Tina Fey is REALLY good at playing desperate, unfortunate, perhaps crazy women from old-timey times, who maybe should be in a sanitarium, but who definitely say things like, "I gave all my babies to the well" and are likely on their way to becoming the ghost in next summer's supernatural blockbuster. Maybe Tina was just extra comfortable since she was sharing the scene with insane Jack McBrayer lookalike Mike O'Brien, who did a pretty great job as an old-timey Model T used-car salesman ("They've got everything: seats").
Wary Truth of the Week
It's not surprising since it was one of their most sneakily popular sketches of last year, but I'm getting diminishing returns on the porn stars gimmick. In a sketch this formulaic by nature, the number of times you've rewatched the old versions (uh, lots) work against you, because you see what a search/replace job the writing is. Tina Fey doesn't really bring much to it — though "Manilow's Blankets" is pretty funny as the second botched pronunciation of Manolo Blahnik — and the only thing that really got me was Cecily Strong's solar-eclipse/car-trunk key-hold anecdote. It's important to note that I thought the porn stars sketch was dead after the Justin Timberlake iteration, but then it came back stronger than ever with Ben Affleck, so not all hope is lost.