Saturday Night Live Season 42, Episode 1: Alec Baldwin and Margot Robbie get things off to a good start

WELCOME TO THE SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE RECAPS. THAT’S RIGHT! RECAPS. I’m getting in on this racket with a show I’ve seen every episode of.

Welcome to season 42 of Saturday Night Live. After a season of ups and downs (including probably one of the most unique downs the show has ever had), we’ve arrived with an altered cast, a new set of head writers, and an election to satirize. Usually election season is good to SNL. Season premieres, however, can be more of a mixed bag. It’s a time to clear the chamber, shake off the rust, and get things going.

Season Premiere Update!

For those of you following along, the most notable shifts have been this season’s loss of Taran Killam and Jay Pharaoh (which I wrote about here). Killam was the resident jack-of-all-trades and Pharaoh did a number of key impressions, including formerly being the sitting Presidential Impersonator. While Killam’s loss has meant that Beck Bennett as well as new addition Mikey Day (who we’ll get to shortly) has quickly slotted into his role, Pharaoh’s loss is still felt. I’m curious how the show handles the loss of an Obama impersonator, but that bridge will be crossed when it comes.

The new cast members are Mikey Day, a longtime SNL writer (who wrote the Farewell Mr. Bunting sketch, which is essential viewing) who bumped up to cast this season after working on the Maya & Marty variety show, Alex Moffat, a Second City Chicago vet, and Melissa Villaseñor, the show’s first Latina cast member and a popular YouTube impressionist.

The new headwriters are Chris Kelly (who also directed and wrote recent release Other People) and Sarah Schneider. These two have written some of SNL’s most popular recent pre-filmed sketches, including The Beygency, (Do It On My) Twin Bed, and Bern Your Enthusiasm. The two come from College Humor, and I think are a signal towards the weirder and more prefilmed direction SNL is going.

How’s the Cold Open?

It’s an obvious one, and not just because SNL announced it in the run-up to the Premiere. But the first 2016 General Presidential Debate was the most anticipated sketch the show’s had in some time, thanks to the ridiculousness of the real thing and the baited breath for which we awaited the debut of Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump, especially against now Emmy-winning Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton. Objectively two of the show’s titans, how’d it work out?

Pretty good! There’s never been this much hype for a sketch to live up to, but it was still a seriously entertaining way to get things going. Baldwin does a good Trump, leaning away from the buffoon that Darrell Hammon did and leaning more into meanness and insecurity. It’s an impression from the school of Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin, realizing that you can’t do anything more damning or hilarious than the actual subject, so let the performance get in and get out of the way. Baldwin’s Trump is more of a character, not as technically good, but a great “laugh because you hate” performance. Much ink has been spilled on McKinnon’s Clinton, but she was still in top form here.

Debate sketches are usually performance heavy and reference-based in their writing, and no different on this one. Not a whole lot of cutting jokes, but satire isn’t the real focus on this sketch. It’s hard to lampoon this at this point. But hey, the performances were strong and it kept things moving quickly. I particularly loved the way McKinnon played her reactions and how Baldwin did interruptions.

Who’s Hosting?

Margot Robbie is the kind of host this premiere needed. Talented as a performer and game for anything, she’s just fun and it’s clear she got along well with the cast. Most of the sketches ended up being about how hot she was, but not in a way terribly dissimilar from Hemsworth. Robbie wasn’t groundbreaking, no Timberlake or Hamm or Grande, but she played her game ably. Not there to dominate, but to help be glue for the sketches and for the cast to get used to working together again. No real standout performances (minus “The Librarian”), but nothing terrible. Perfectly fine.

What Sketches Are Worth Watching?

“The Librarian”

This is the kind of shit I love. All out weird and totally committed to the joke. This is just a fun sketch and the escalation is bananas good. Has a bit of a weak ending, but so good up that point I’m willing to excuse. It’s details, people. Details are what make things funny.

“Actress Round Table”

A sketch where your mileage may vary, but I’ve been a sucker for the recent genre of “Kate McKinnon makes the host break” sketches, and this one has just the right amount of bizarre ideas and McKinnon commitment to work.

“Long story short, I ended up flapping my toots for a bunch of Krauts. But that’s Hollywood, baby!”

“You stripped for Nazis?”

“I did what I had to do to support our boys.”

“Live Report”

It’s in the category of the episodes “Robbie is Hot” sketches, but hell, it’s just a fun and very weird sketch. It’s also Mikey Day coming out of the gate like a rocket. Dude got so much time in his first episode and he feels like such a natural fit. The final reveal is full-blown giggle-inducing.

“Melania Moments”

This is older SNL in a very big way. A “Deep Thoughts with Jack Handey” by way of Tina Fey. I really hope to see this thing recurring through the election season.

Mr. Robot”

While I haven’t seen Mr. Robot (I know, I know), this is a great sketch mostly out of meta reasons. Leslie Jones had a bad summer, and this is about her reclaiming it and standing her ground against it. I really appreciate her getting the chance, and really knocking it out of the park. Plus, I’m pretty sure the impressions were really spot-on here, and I love the joke about the unbalanced shots.

What Didn’t Work?

“Family Feud: Political Edition”

“Family Feud” is always an excuse to show off impressions, I get that. There’s a lot of fun bits and funny impressions here. Bennett’s Putin is a work of genius, Trump’s creepy kids are great, finding out Strong has a Lin Manuel-Miranda is wonderful, and always good to see more of Larry David as Bernie Sanders.

But the other impressions range from nothing new to bland. Villaseñor really needed something more unique than a basic Sarah Silverman to announce herself, good as the actual technical aspects of the impression were. And honestly, this sketch always just goes on too long. There’s never any comedic momentum, just a series of performances, and the “Feud” showcase has not worked for me.

“The Hunch Bunch”

There’s something off about this one the more I think about it. It seems like a collection of jokes in search of a connective tissue to keep the laughs going. A Scooby-Doo-ish parody, I could see this being funny if it ever found the core of what it’s actually mocking or making comedy about.

“Margot Robbie Monologue”

Thankfully it wasn’t musical, but just a slow uninspiring little bit. Elicited a few chuckles, but too short to dig in. The Fact-Checking was a cute angle, but the monologue is always hard to get a hook into outside of a standup.

Weekend Update!

I really like the Jost/Che team. They’ve essentially pitched their partnership as two buddies goofing around about politics, and occasionally making some damn fine points while doing it. Jost uses his seeming-blandness and tight delivery to create a sort of edge against Che’s looser and more overtly shocking jokes and delivery. Their banter has really developed. While the writing still needs work, given that they’ve not quite found the angle that brings them in front of the Late Night parade, they as anchors don’t.

On Kaepernick: “It’s a protest, it’s supposed to be inconvenient.”

On Clinton’s choice to come out to “I Feel Good”: “James Brown died of pneumonia!” “If she actually had black friends, she would have known that.”

On the Debate: “The debate was like watching a divorced couple fight over a kid that hates them. It’s like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie if Brad Pitt only wanted to keep the white kids.”

Our guests this week were Kenan Thompson’s David Ortiz and Cecily Strong as Che’s Neighbor Cathy Anne. David Ortiz is a reliable guest, fun, even if he’s been on a few too many times for his weird product endorsements to keep landing. Cathy Anne is on the wrong side of abrasive, more irritating than awkward.

Plus, they did a “Weeknd Update.” That concept makes me laugh.

Did You Actually Watch The Musical Guest?

I did! I like The Weeknd and I thought he did a fine job here. The biggest news is him having cut his Basquiat-locks, but hey, his whole look still works for him. I like first song “Starboy” more than the second one, but he’s an energetic performer with a cool stage set-up.

Impression of the Night?

Probably Beck Bennett’s Putin. Not one I ever would have thought of, but so much fun to watch.

Steve Harvey: “I had a nightmare about you last night.”

Putin: “I know.”

MVPs!

Kate McKinnon. Duh.

WHO WEREN’T KATE MCKINNON!

Okay, fine. If I’m moving away from the obvious winner, I think I’d go with Mikey Day, Kenan Thompson, and Leslie Jones. Mikey Day had a remarkable first night, appearing multiple times and actually proving himself an addition to the show’s sketch work, finding a specific kind of weird straight-man to play, as well as that great Christian Slater. Thompson is still the show’s most valuable utility player. And Jones came out to rapturous applause and owned every moment she had, a great deal of fun and a reminder of the kind of personality SNL often had back in the 90s.

Final Thoughts!

A solid way to get the season going. More worked than didn’t, plenty of individually strong performances. No sign of anyone asserting themselves just yet, but this is a strong ensemble cast. I’m excited for the direction of Season 42 based on this one. And not just because they actually have the weapon to start dealing with Donald Trump.

Season Ranking (Shamelessly stolen from SNL Scorecard)

  1. Margot Robbie
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