People have been saying Saturday Night Live isn’t as good as it used to be for at least 37 of its 38 seasons. That means either they have bad memories — which I doubt, if my experience of being taken to critical task by you readers over the years is any measure — or they have an intense engagement with SNL that spans decades. The late-night staple is a unique TV phenomenon: What Lorne Michaels and his producers have created is an entity that has withstood the passing of the variety-show and sketch-comedy eras, is constantly in the process of rejuvenating itself, and thrives on irritating audiences almost as much as on pleasing them.
All of which is a lead-up to guarded praise: The current season of SNL is proving a strong one, with a lot of good performances from new cast members as well as some of the guest hosts. As always, timing is important. 2012 was an election year, and SNL tends to uptick in quality when parodying our political process. While it hasn’t again hit the heights of the immortal Tina Fey–as–Sarah Palin episodes in the 2008 cycle, SNL has made a smooth, needed transition in its presidential impersonators, from Fred Armisen’s uptight Obama to Jay Pharoah’s looser, testier one. With Jason Sudeikis as a glassy-eyed Mitt Romney and Seth Meyers making puncturing political jokes during ”Weekend Update,” SNL cruised to a satirical victory.
Another surprisingly efficient transition? The introduction of a few new Not Ready for Prime Time Players, most notably Kate McKinnon, who’s got everyone from Ann Romney to Long Island Medium’s Theresa Caputo down cold, and Cecily Strong, whose ”Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party” has been an ”Update” standout. When it comes to guest hosts, the best are those who want to engage, not just stand around and read cue cards while acting as human billboards for whatever new movie or TV show they’re plugging. SNL has served its audiences with well-chosen hosts recently. Seth MacFarlane actually played characters different from variations on his own Family Guy dynasty of voices (his Ryan Lochte impersonation was dead-on), and Louis C.K. was likely a revelation to any viewer who thinks he’s just a stand-up comic with a permanently pained expression. C.K.’s amazingly well-thought-through Abraham Lincoln-starring-on-Louie bit was one of the best taped pieces the show has ever done, right up there with the finest Digital Shorts.
Sure, the bulk of any episode’s 90 minutes are usually taken up with too-familiar recurring characters. (Here’s some heresy: I think the 15 minutes of fame should be over for Bill Hader’s club-obsessed Stefon character.) And there will always be the aimless, one-joke sketches. But so far, SNL is displaying a surge of renewed energy it hasn’t shown for a long time. B+