With the show battling some of its lowest ratings of all time, it’s safe to say that “Saturday Night Live” is not currently in its glory days. As only one cast member, Beck Bennett, is departing, things are shaping up to be the exact same brand of mediocre sketches as in the past seasons, but with much more work for the writer’s room — especially with the show beginning to turn away from farcical political sketches and toward a different source of comedic inspiration. Unfortunately, the season premiere of “Saturday Night Live” serves up the show’s tired formula and controversy as before, leaving little reinvented.
To its credit, this season of “Saturday Night Live” seems to be doing a better job of pairing hosts and musical guests. This week’s pair, host Owen Wilson and guest Kacey Musgraves, is particularly strong as their folksy charm shines through, and these moments become some of the best parts of the episode. Both Wilson and Musgraves have an inherently likable, widespread appeal that hosts and musical guests for a season premiere need. Musgraves’ performances of “Justified” and “Camera Roll” — while falling short of the show’s usual spectacle — were incredibly heartbreaking in their simplicity.
In contrast, the most unsettling parts of the premiere were surely the embarrassing number of sketches themed around sexual assault and cancel culture. The first sketch of this variety centers on a hypothetical “Cars 4,” paying homage to what is arguably Wilson’s most well known role as Lightning McQueen. In this sketch, Wilson plays himself as he’s invited into a recording booth to reprise his starring role as the renowned red race car in the “Cars” Disney film franchise. This time, however, a predatory Lightning McQueen hits on every woman in sight, including some high school students. While this behavior is rightfully condemned by a horrified Wilson, this sketch seemed to be wholly one-dimensional and a waste of potential. A Lightning McQueen-themed sketch could have gone in a multitude of directions, but what ended up airing kept audiences uncomfortable, all the while watching Wilson stumble through the sketch’s awkwardly written dialogue.
Another sketch with similar themes is set at a funeral procession as various family members grieve their recently deceased Nana (Heidi Gardner). Yet, the history of the seemingly innocent old woman is brought to light as her love of an R. Kelly song and companionship with Donald Trump and Kevin Spacey are revealed at her funeral. The sketch devolves into what feels like a nonsensical cancel culture-themed bingo game. This outdated, banal humor is unfunny at best and uncomfortable and offensive at worst, demonstrating the out-of-touch sensibilities spoiling “Saturday Night Live.”
The show’s longstanding staple, “Weekend Update,” carried the most potential, but still seems in a rut. The dynamic between longtime co-anchors Colin Jost and Michael Che is endearing but nothing new, as their sly digs at one another have remained constant throughout the show since 2014. Pete Davidson made a welcomed, hilarious cameo and landed a few wry, stellar jokes, elevating the sketch as one of the show’s high notes. At the same time, the show could benefit from letting someone else take a seat behind the “Weekend Update” desk, as Jost and Che’s banter cannot be new forever.
While its brand of comedy has changed dramatically since the show’s founding, “Saturday Night Live” has done little to keep its recent seasons fresh, relying on trite gags and gimmicks. In this sense, the sketch-comedy show could really benefit from some new blood — both onstage and in the writers’ room — as repeating last season’s ills doesn’t seem to benefit the show, especially in helping it retain viewership. Although this week’s episode isn’t promising, there is hope for future weeks of “Saturday Night Live,” as it seems like the only place this season can go is up.