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'Saturday Night Live' strives for novelty

Despite low ratings, the 47th season premiere of “SNL” was a strong start

<p>Coming out of the uncertainty of the 46th season finale featuring what appeared to be tearful sign-offs from longtime cast members — namely Kate McKinnon, Pete Davidson and Cecily Strong — season 47 of “Saturday Night Live” began with the surprising return of the entire previous cast aside from Beck Bennett.&nbsp;</p>

Coming out of the uncertainty of the 46th season finale featuring what appeared to be tearful sign-offs from longtime cast members — namely Kate McKinnon, Pete Davidson and Cecily Strong — season 47 of “Saturday Night Live” began with the surprising return of the entire previous cast aside from Beck Bennett. 

Coming out of the uncertainty of the 46th season finale featuring what appeared to be tearful sign-offs from longtime cast members — namely Kate McKinnon, Pete Davidson and Cecily Strong — season 47 of “Saturday Night Live” began with the surprising return of the entire previous cast aside from Beck Bennett. Three new featured players were also announced — Aristotle Athari, James Austin Johnson and Sarah Sherman — making for the largest ensemble to date. Pair this news with first-time host Owen Wilson and first-time musical guest Kacey Musgraves, and it’s clear that the long-running show is out to prove its ability to reinvent.

The cold open continued this message, leading with featured player James Austin Johnson alone on the stage dressed in his best Joe Biden. Following criticism for bringing in celebrity cameos to perform impressions, namely Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump, rather than employing their own talent, the show responded by positioning a newcomer as such a prominent political figure.

Johnson’s Biden impression proved to be confident as he presented the president’s summer as "not Cuomo bad, but not Afghanistan good." It was important Johnson hit his stride, as a weaker impression parade of veteran cast members performing prominent politicians joined him on stage, failing to provide more than a rundown of the summer’s headlines. Ego Nwodim as Ilhan Omar spoke for the audience as she comforted Johnson’s Biden half-heartedly like a mother does for a small child, saying, “No, no, it was good.”

The fumble was recovered quickly in host Owen Wilson’s monologue. Reportedly skipping the variety show of years’ past because he was nervous about performing live, it appeared that Wilson winked at his fear, with a portion of his monologue dedicated to a habit of avoiding bad reviews. 

With his two brothers in the audience, the host spent the other half of his monologue poking at his family. These jokes felt particularly pointed at a message of togetherness in the face of both social distancing and the return of beloved cast members. Wilson doubled-down on this, encouraging the audience at home to “just chill out for the next 90 minutes … get comfy.” 

Fellow Studio 8H first-timer Musgraves took Wilson’s advice to get comfortable, as she became the first musical guest to perform in the nude in her tribute to Robin Wright. Well, nude other than her cowboy boots. 

Musgraves’s “justified,” from her new album “star-crossed,” was a poignant first performance of the season, with her first lyric affirming that “[it] was a fun, strange summer.” Musgraves later followed up this performance with her new song “camera roll.” With two soulful performances and a trending Twitter topic under her belt, it is likely the singer’s first time on the stage will not be her last.

The “Weekend Update” shone with its character work from guests Davidson, as himself, and Nwodim, as “A Black Woman Who Has Been Missing for Ten Years.”

Nwodim’s dark-comedy bit was in reference to the popular interest in the homicide of influencer Gabby Petito and widespread observations that such news coverage is not extended to Black women. The serious topic found catharsis with jokes comparing the reward for finding a white woman with her own "$15 gift card to Chili’s Too." Nwodim ends the bit calling out host Colin Jost for his hypocrisy, saying, "Y’all haven’t even asked my name."

Davidson revisited his frequent spot at the desk dialoguing with Jost on current events. Topics included Davidson’s Met Gala dress fashioned as “if one of the three blind mice sold fentanyl,” and his homophobic uncle. At the end of his bit, Davidson declared, “I can’t believe I’m back!” over the applause in reference to his, seemingly rescinded, goodbye at the end of the previous season.

The highlight of “Weekend Update,” though, was the heartfelt tribute to former Update Host Norm MacDonald, who passed away due to cancer Sept. 14. Davidson wore MacDonald’s face on his chest, and Jost and Michael Che gave heartwarming remarks to introduce a highlight reel of the former host.

Other highlights of the program included character-driven sketches, like “School Board Meeting” and “Mail-in Testing Service.” The former was structured similarly to the impression parade failures of the cold open but found strides in faster pacing and original characters so as not to rely exclusively on the knowledge of celebrity. The sketch managed to balance outlandish caricatures — like Strong yelling, “I don’t have a child and I don’t live in this town!” — and current events.

Similarly, “Mail-in Testing Service” was set in a mail-in laboratory for fecal matter but offered an opportunity for featured players Sarah Sherman and Andrew Dismukes to shine as thick-accented technicians.

This tension between fact and fiction is relevant still, as many of Saturday’s misses came at the expense of reporting the news. While the nature of parody is grounded in the satirized real-life event, sketches like “Funeral Song” and “Women’s Talk Show” read more like proof the writers read the news with their overstuffed mentions of current events. “Funeral Song” featured a montage of infamous sexual abusers, while “Women’s Talk Show” was full of smart lines throughout its spoof of Kamala Harris’s delayed appearance due to a COVID-19 scare on “The View.”

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