A Perfect ‘SNL’ Opener, Predictably

It was in its way a perfect episode of “Saturday Night Live” – a lack of dud sketches, an opening monologue with cameo star power and a pair of memorable performances by Radiohead.

And yet, Saturday’s season opener with Alec Baldwin hosting a record breaking 16 times, had an air of predictability about it too. You  just knew Steve Martin, with whom he had tied the record at 15, would show up to question the numbers (instead: a drug test). Maybe the surprise was that Seth Rogen was on hand as well for no particular reason (“He’s an expert on drug use,” Martin said). (Real reason: he has a movie coming out).

The Republican debates have been so entertaining, of course it would make for an elaborate sketch full of sharp satire and darn good impersonations. After a summer of being off the air, they literally couldn’t wait to put on this bit: It served as the show opener.

There was another good showcase for impersonations late in the show when they did one of those auditions for a famous movie things. In this case, “Top Gun.”

There was a first rate commercial parody of a scent that warns men of a crazy woman – Red Flag. And a couple of good examples of things the show does so easily – a game show parody, a take off of a morning news show, a skewed domestic scene (this one involving an acting out youngster) and a wartime set piece (in which Baldwin’s dying soldier asks the surviving private to send a message to his kids that Santa isn’t real and goes on from there).

Baldwin’s funniest bit all night was his impersonation of Tony Bennett, going on loopily and optimistically during an OK “Weekend Update.”

It was interesting to see who worked a lot in the episode and who didn’t. Kristen Wiig wasn’t in every sketch as she usually is; the versatile Vanessa Bayer may have been used more. Fred Armisen wasn’t seen much while Jason Sudeikis and Bill Hader seemed like the go-to guys they usually are. Odd, though, that last year’s newcomer Jay Pharoah wasn’t seen much, especially in an episode that had so many impersonations.

There were no new cast members to introduce in this season opener; and none of last year’s has left, giving the show an added stability. But that led to the feelings that they had this thing down pat. Shouldn’t live TV be a bit more dangerous? Shouldn’t a show in season 23 try something a little different?  If it’s working this well, maybe not.

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