Originally aired September 13, 2008. Written prior to the airing of the second episode of the season.
Since the early seasons of the show, critics frequently invoked the phrase "Saturday Night Dead" to describe what they perceived as an increasingly weakened show. If art can imitate life, it seems art can imitate criticism as well. The season opener from last weekend managed to bring back last season's cast mostly unchanged, save for a new fat guy who is being widely described as the love child of Horatio Sanz and John Belushi. So as you may have guessed, the Season 34 opener managed to skillfully pick a wide variety of comedic low-hanging fruit.
During an election year, SNL frequently acts as yet another place for the TV news media to turn to when filling the hours of dead air-- and as a result, you can bet a lot of these sketches are becoming increasingly sound byte-friendly and the show itself is generally going for a broader audience. There's nothing really wrong with making sure people get your jokes, but the Tina Fey cameo as Sarah Palin was almost insultingly obvious. After Sarah Palin was introduced on the world stage, people said two things. One, "VPILF." Two, "Golly, she looks like Tina Fey." Casting someone as their doppelganger isn't particularly innovative. Now, if you brought in Cookie Monster in a brown wig and glasses to play the part? That'd be something.
Michael Phelps himself managed to do what most stunt hosts do best-- play themselves, read the cue cards, and play themselves yet again. Michael Phelps got to play Michael Phelps at least twice, lending to the show in authenticity what he couldn't deliver in hilarity. As a pop culture victory lap, SNL has allowed a number of sports personalities, politicians, and musicians who may not be comedians by trade get a shot at making America laugh. As an added bit of toothless satire, Amy Poehler played Phelps' mom during the monologue-- and his actual mother was two seats over from her. Oh, the sneaker upper. Always a favorite, that.
Throughout the show fans were treated to the usual mix of music and comedy which makes America thank their creator(s) that TiVo exists. One sketch had Phelps and Poehler as a couple eating dinner with a waiter that kept coming by to talk about pepper or other things that someone thought was funny that really wasn't worth the snicker. On the other hand, Andy Samberg came through with a digital short on the Space Olympics that was delightfully amusing, and Will Forte played a (and I'm simplifying here) dancing swim coach on an equally amusing bit. (Actually, that's a lie, Forte was funnier.)
We're not going to make it a point to post reviews of SNL here regularly, but it is tempting to write up some sort of report card. Like always, some of it works, some of it doesn't, and a lot of it seems like it would have been more at home being dropped after the early rehearsals. Cranking out 90 minutes of comedy (well, maybe 40 minus Weekend Update, music, and ads) is a difficult job, perhaps a reduced running time could help amp up the funny-- after all, shows like Human Giant and Whitest Kids U Know managed to do well with 30 minutes.
...and speaking of 30 minutes, Saturday Night Live will be airing a few 30-minute Thursday night episodes in October. It's likely they're aiming for that sweet, sweet Daily Show with Jon Stewart buzz but interviews indicate that they're going to do some sketches as well. Here's hoping we can't see them coming a mile away.