Ever since Kenan Thompson pointed out that the number 39 looks like a foam finger poking a butt, I've had high hopes for this 39th season. Yes, Saturday Night Live lost no fewer than three of its best players this year. But each of those guys had a good run – eight years for Bill Hader and Jason Sudeikis, eleven for Fred Armisen – and their recurring characters were starting to feel a little self-congratulatory. It's time for a shake-up. Sometimes, SNL just needs to be poked in the butt.
Cold Open: Obamacare. Not surprisingly, we open with a political sketch. Maybe it's just absence making the heart grow fonder, but Jay Pharaoh's Obama impression seems to have gotten funnier. Those clipped sentences are taking on their own sort of comic rhythm. Jordan Peele is still the Obama to beat, but Pharaoh is gaining ground. In this sketch, Obama brings "ordinary Americans" to the podium to testify as to how the Affordable Care Act will improve their lives. Instead, each of them successively blames it for everything that's wrong in their lives. As a disgruntled iPhone5 user and a jittery doctor, Cecily Strong and Kate McKinnon get the biggest laughs. I suspect I'll be writing that last thing again before too long. Taran Killam pops up as a Dr. Seuss-reciting Ted Cruz. ("Horton may hear a who, but the only thing I'm hearing is socialism!") This sketch is reminding me of the one advantage SNL has over topical humor shows like Colbert and The Daily Show: an endless supply of characters. Speaking of characters, here's a surprise cameo from Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul, testifying as "Jesse from New Mexico." His chemistry teacher, he says, wouldn't have turned to cooking meth if he'd had Obamacare. Fair.
Monologue: "Unless I'm on TV once every three weeks, a little part of me dies," says Tina Fey. US TO TINA: BE ON TV MORE. Fey makes some jokes about reprising her "popular characters" from her SNL days, like Salvador Dali Parton and The Lady with No Theme Song ("and she's a vampire!"). The joke being that Fey never did characters until her post-SNL days, when she became the living embodiment of Sarah Palin. She does not pull out that impression, thank goodness. But she does go all Dance Moms on the featured players, whom she orders to do an embarrassing routine while she says things like, "Remember – it was your dream to work here."
Girls: Tina Fey has always been aces at commercial parodies, and we wouldn't be surprised if this was her idea. It's a promo for HBO's Girls, with "an all-new girl from Albania" (played by Fey) who gives Hannah's life some unwelcome perspective. Marnie: "My ex-boyfriend is an internet millionaire!" Blerta from Albana: "My ex-boyfriend is buried in shallow grave." Judging from these 45 seconds, the women of SNL are coming out as the stronger impressionists this season. New girl Noel Wells does a decent Lena Dunham, while Vanessa Bayer and Kate McKinnon do flawless impressions of Zosia Mamet and Jemima Kirke, respectively.
Now Boarding: It's the Flight Attendant Sketch 2.0! Tina Fey and Taran Killam are doing the boarding announcements for a flight at O'Hare, which get increasingly ridiculous. Fey announces that the flight is overbooked, saying, "If anyone is willing to give up their seat for the first available flight tomorrow, please approach the desk and explain why your lifestyle permits this." Kenan Thompson pulls off the funniest visual gag of the episode, responding to the boarding call for "people whose carry-ons have no chance of fitting in the overhead compartment" while dragging a ten-foot-long piece of luggage. It's a great sketch that would have tanked if it were even one minute longer.
New Cast Member or Arcade Fire: Man, they are really trying to sell us on these six new cast members. Usually, the featured players are lucky if they get a line on this first episode. In fact, that's the joke of this sketch, a game show in which Tina Fey tries to tell the new players from members of the guest band, Arcade Fire. It's all pretty self-congratulatory, though it's good to know that Win Butler does De Niro impressions. The best moment is the Lorne Michaels cameo; when asked to name the new cast member onstage, he turns to Kenan (playing the host) and says, "Is it the black one?"
eMeth: Commercial parody #2. Aaron Paul cameo #2. Kate McKinnon's "grocery shopping on meth" bit is laugh out loud funny. She's shaping up to be the new Kristin Wiig: a good impressionist whose characters are unabashedly weird.
Weekend Update: Everybody welcome Cecily Strong! She looks nervous and her blazer doesn't fit well. We have faith, Cecily. She gives a nice hat-tip to the original female Weekend Update anchor, Jane Curtin. Right now, there's a Stefon-shaped hole in the Weekend Update guest spot. The first candidate to fill it is Veteran Stand-Up Comic Bruce Chandling (new guy Kyle Mooney), who responds to every question with the same one-liners he's been doing since the '90s ("Everyone these days is so obsessed with CDs, right?"). It's kinda funny, in an awkward Comedy-Central-Roast sort of way. Turns out he's just the opening act for Bobby Moynihan's "Drunk Uncle" character. This one hasn't gotten old, and the more absurdist Drunk Uncle gets ("Nowadays, it's just, can I get some chard on my Roku?"), the better he is. At the end, he introduces his Meth Nephew, played by – you guessed it! – Aaron Paul.
Rick's Model Ts: It's the first-ever used car dealer commercial! New guy Mike O'Brien plays Crazy Eddy's turn-of-the-century predecessor, Rick. Sad to say his timing is a little off. Tina Fey walks on as Rick's wife Daisy, and gets horrified guffaws from her first joke: "We're so crazy, not only did we slash prices, but I gave all my babies to the well." Even if I had no clock, I'd know it was 12:40. The sketch in this time slot is always the one they came thisclose to cutting.
Manolo Blahnik: Here are two more characters we're happy to see again: the ditzy ex-porn stars (one is Brookie, the other always forgets to say her name) who promote luxury brands. This time around, it's Manolo Blahniks, which they pronounce Manual Blonde Dicks. "Other shoes are flat and for nurses," says Vanessa Bayer. "You'll feel like you're drinking lobster straight out of the sink," promises Cecily Strong. This sketch is all about Bayer and Strong's delivery, and the guest stars are never quite on par – not even Fey, whose dead-eyed lesbian porn star is DOA.
As the episode closes, Arcade Fire plays us out and head right into their special, Here Comes the Night Time. Before this episode started, I made a list of topics I expected them to cover. I guessed correctly on Obamacare, Breaking Bad and twerking (which was only mentioned once, presumably because they're hoarding those jokes for Miley Cyrus next week). Things they didn't mention: Tina Fey's Emmy nipple slip, and Seth Meyers' upcoming gig replacing Jimmy Fallon. For this episode's MVP, I'm naming Aaron Paul, who worked those three cameos like he was Justin Timberlake. Good night, everybody, and have a pleasant tomorrow.