“Saturday Night Live” began its 45th season with a bang, despite pre-season controversy over racist remarks made by former new cast member Shane Gillis. Gillis’s hiring and subsequent firing was left in the rearview window in the premiere, which featured Woody Harrelson as a host for his fourth time and first-time musical guest Billie Eilish.
The episode fulfilled fan expectations that the season premiere would highlight key political events that took place during the show’s summer hiatus, including the Democratic primary debates and the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump. Harrelson’s presence in the first episode of the season felt less prominent than that of hosts in past season premieres, and his performances in “Roadside Museum” and “Locker Room” didn’t do much to elevate his importance to the audience. Instead, the return of previous cast members, such as Maya Rudolph and Larry David, and the reprise of familiar characters, like Kenan Thompson’s David Ortiz, combined to provide viewers with the late night sketch comedy they crave weekly.
Various Democratic presidential candidates came together for CNN’s Impeachment Town Hall in the sketch “DNC Town Hall,” the highest point of Saturday night’s episode. The breakout star of the night was easily Maya Rudolph, whose impersonation of California Sen. Kamala Harris prompted a Twitter response from the politician herself. Rudolph’s Harris was a self-described “funt,” or fun aunt “that would give you weed, but then arrest you for having weed.” Her numerous advertisements for cable crime shows throughout the debate assured the audience that, even though she didn’t think she could win the presidency, this town hall would not be the last of Harris. Also of note was newcomer Chloe Fineman’s portrayal of author Marianne Williamson, who appeared live for the debate “via astral projection.” As Williamson becomes a more obscure figure in discussions concerning the Democratic primaries, viewers must hope that Fineman still receives opportunities to reprise her portrayal of the author.
Unfortunately, some of the less politically-inclined sketches flopped hard. Harrelson’s role as the patriarch of a family that invested its entire life savings in erecting a museum dedicated to the world’s largest Cheeto in “Roadside Museum” felt weak, especially since the entire sketch hinged on the accidental destruction of the museum’s only attraction. The “Downton Abbey Trailer” also felt drab, with stereotypical jokes about preparing for the arrival of the British royals falling flat — though, the sketch may have appealed more to regular viewers of the PBS show.
Some familiar characters helped even out the episode, providing much needed balance to an otherwise politically-dominant season premiere. Thompson’s Ortiz on “Weekend Update” is certainly a fan favorite, with the athlete visiting the show this time to discuss injuries from his recent trip to the Dominican Republic. His descriptions of Dominican cuisine and endorsements of niche spin-off products, not limited to Hairbnb for when “you need a wig for the weekend,” never fail to elicit laughs from the live audience. The sketch “Dad,” an ‘80s themed music video that harkens back to an episode of “Saved by the Bell,” joins the list of music video sketches headed by Kyle Mooney that combine nostalgia and awkwardness to produce hilarious results.
Though SNL has a ways to go in order to better integrate its weekly host into the shenanigans of its sketches, the premiere of season 45 marks the return of an escapist show that is a constant comedic presence in changing political times.