It's fashionable to say that Saturday Night Live isn't the pop-culture touchstone it once was, that its era of inspired, risk-taking comedy passed with the departures of John Belushi in 1979 and Bill Murray in 1980. But the series remains television's most surprisingly durable franchise, capable of retaining just enough of its cutting edge to...well, to help set policy during times of war. The New York Times recently reported that after seeing SNL's Feb. 9 broadcast which opened with a sketch ridiculing pushy, ill-informed reporters during a gulf war press briefing White House aides decided that there was no reason to ease the tough press restrictions on covering the war. Why? Because, the reasoning went, if SNL was poking fun at the press and not the government, it meant that public opinion approved of the way the Bush administration was handling the war.
On other fronts, the show that used to pride itself on its ragged individualism has become most pleasurable for its ensemble seamlessness. Jan Hooks, Kevin Nealon, Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, Victoria Jackson, and the understatedly great Phil Hartman are the exact stylistic opposites of SNL's glorious hams from the past Belushi, Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Eddie Murphy, and Chevy Chase. A modest, sly actor like Hartman brings a depth and understanding to the portrayal of middle-aged white guys that this youth-culture show has never had, whether he's shouldering his way through a blunt Frank Sinatra impersonation or playing an unctuous pitchman for ''Execu-John, the briefcase you can poop in.''
The current cast downplays star personality and prides itself on its convincing, prickly impersonations. Hooks' Diane Sawyer, for example, is an exploding blond bombshell who doesn't know the difference between reporting and flirting; Carvey's George Bush is a dithering WASP emitting feel-good buzzwords. It really doesn't matter what lines Hooks and Carvey are reciting their comic criticism of these public figures is contained in the performances themselves.
The White House notwithstanding, the Persian Gulf war proved inspirational for Dennis Miller's gratifyingly mean-spirited ''Weekend Update'' segments. Noting that ''the air war is like sanctions with a bad attitude'' and impishly suggesting that the Kuwaiti oil-field fires were set by New Kid on the Block Donnie Wahlberg were typical of Miller's culture-stomping style.
It took a while, but some of the rookie players are beginning to pull their own weight. There was Chris Rock's sharp black-militant talk show spoof, ''The Dark Side With Nat X'' (''The blackest 15 minutes on television. Why only 15 minutes? Because the Man wouldn't give me an hour!''). There was Chris Farley's revelatory Tom Arnold impersonation, which somehow managed to be both affectionate to Roseanne Barr's husband and contemptuous of him at the same time.
And of course, there was this season's breakout character, Rob Schneider's obnoxious, name-mangling office worker, Rich (''Steve! The Stevemeister! Baron Von Steve, makin' copieeeees!''). Next season, let's hope executive producer Lorne Michaels permits Julia Sweeney more on-screen time with her bright eyes and heart-shaped face, Sweeney has shown glimmers of mock-innocent cleverness, but she hasn't been allowed to shine yet.
The guests hosts have proven more problematic. You never know who's going to make a good one or who's going to be a flopping fish out of water. Both Kevin Bacon (who hosted Feb. 9) and Alec Baldwin (Feb. 23), who are not known for their low-down comedic flair, threw themselves into their assigned skethces with enjoyable relish. Bacon in particular was more beguiling than he has ever been in the movies, and his range of impersonations was impressive the man does an excellent Vanilla Ice.
On the other hand, I was looking forward to the April 13 show, hosted by the luminous Catherine O'Hara. Yet O'Hara was left stranded in the middle of a half-thought-out sketches; she was so underused that most of the time she seemed to be gazing at the studio ceiling, toting up her profit points from Home Alone while waiting to say her next line. As for the season's musical guests well, the time is long past when SNL strove to rile up its audience with something new. Mariah Carey, Vanilla Ice, Whitney Houston obvious choices all. Even when SNL opts for groups slightly out of the mainstream The Black Crowes, for example, or Deee-Lite they're invariably acts that have already been overexposed on MTV and in countless magazine and newspaper profiles. The predictability of SNL's choices signals its cultural conservatism more overtly than any other show.
Looking at SNL reruns these days on Nick at Nite and CTV: The Comedy Network, it's striking how uneven the shows used to be moments of hilarity were followed by scenes of stupefying banality. What's clear about the current version of SNL is that the show has, to a large extent, sacrificed brilliance for consistancy you don't get extreme highs and lows, but you can watch comfortably, knowing that Hartman and company are giving you what David Letterman calls ''solid, professional comedy.'' Consistancy and professionalism are qualities that were distorted in the '80s; for Saturday Night Live in the '90's, they seem to be the secrets of success. B+