If I find myself in the awkward position of denigrating a kind of genius in favor of propping up a kind of bore, well, I guess that's what happens when the genius is fronting The Howard Stern Radio Show and the bore is Saturday Night Live. These days, SNL exec producer Lorne Michaels is always easy to either ignore or ridicule for, respectively, his mannered reticence and his smugness (he's done it himself on the show). But Michaels said a very smart, simple thing two days before his show commenced its 24th season on Sept. 26, 1998: ''I sense if we weren't here,'' he told New York's Daily News, ''we'd be missed.''
He's right; that's what it's come down to. Familiarity, even when it arrives in the guise of news-driven sketch comedy, is always comforting on television, and no show has been as careful to work in gradual changes while maintaining a structure that coddles the viewer than SNL. From the inevitable presidential spoofs to the fake commercials (the adult-diapers one was South Parkishly crude and funny); from ''Weekend Update'' to the just-behind-the-curve musical guests (loved seeing arrogant Billy Corgan force an ingratiating smile to try and boost sales of the Smashing Pumpkins' dud CD), SNL is TV DNA encoded into a generation.
While the show's advance press announced three new cast members, SNL's premiere (featuring plucky-beyond-the-call-of-duty performances from guest host Cameron Diaz) submitted them to the usual rookie hazing i.e., reduced to extras if on screen at all. Instead, the eager, if always rather wooden, Tim Meadows has emerged as the show's linchpin member, doing everyone from Oprah to his tired ''Ladies' Man'' character to Whoopi Goldberg wounded and gasping on a collapsed Hollywood Squares set (the debut's one moment of real inspiration).
The rest of the cast usually behaves as though they'd be really funny if only they could burst the bonds of some restraint invisible to the viewer. What is holding you back, guys? A prime example of SNL's conservative approach is Darrell Hammond's Bill Clinton impersonation: technically impeccable, right down to the contrite lower-lip bite, yet lacking any sharp satirical interpretation. (Ironically, SNL's ''TV Funhouse'' mastermind, Robert Smigel, is infinitely better when he invests his own Clinton knockoff with hearty, desperate lust on another show, Late Night With Conan O'Brien.) Saturday Night Live: C+