Q. What do you think of “Saturday Night Live” these days? I’m not enjoying it at all.
SATURDAY NIGHT SNOOZE
A. For years, my broad take on “SNL” has been that it was flawed from the start, that it has always been “not as good as it used to be.” And that that unevenness has been part of the distinctive pleasure of the show — the gamble, the waiting for something good to come along. I can’t imagine any 90-minute sketch comedy series nailing every single sketch every week.
That said (here it comes), I’ve been surprised at the mediocrity of the current season, the show’s 47th. It’s hard to pick one overall reason, but the size and nature of the current cast is certainly among the issues. There are 21 cast members at this point, in part to deal with the fact that some go missing for weeks at a time to fulfill other commitments. (In the early years, there were usually fewer than 10; the number has climbed into the teens here and there over the decades.) And add to that the fact that every episode seems to have a few guests in the mix, such as Maya Rudolph, in addition to the host. So it’s hard for many of the newcomers to have a real impact, or even, sometimes, make an appearance, especially since the veterans get all the attention when they return.
Last Saturday’s episode, featuring former cast member Will Forte as the host, highlighted some of what’s missing right now. He, along with guest Kristen Wiig, were reminders of a more unified moment in “SNL” history, with folks like Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis, and Andy Samberg onhand. How can the show create new standout cast members like Forte & Co. in this current crowded situation? I imagine the newcomers feel some frustration, aware that it might be harder than usual to break out. Yes, James Austin Johnson does a great Donald Trump, but it’s a little late for Trump jokes, and his Joe Biden impression isn’t nearly as good (that recent sketch blaming everything on “Spider-Man” was excruciatingly bad).
When Wiig and Forte brought back Clancy T. Bachleratt and Jackie Snad to sing a few bizarre country songs involving toddlers, and when they did a trio of “MacGruber” bits — all of which worked well — I was more acutely aware of the shortage of returning characters right now. Perhaps that lack of characters is a mandate, but perhaps the possibility of creating returning characters has been choked off by the cast size.
The political material is lacking these days, too, even with the tight deadlines. Another parody of a looney tunes Fox host? Yawn. It has all become rather predictable, almost rote. It sometimes seems as though the writers feel obligated to deliver a political cold open, even when they don’t really have anything to say.
So there you go. I’ve become the person I hate, complaining about how “SNL” isn’t what it used to be. At the same time, I feel confident that, like so many times before, the show will find another peak before too long.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.