I have a long-term and at times dysfunctional relationship with "Saturday Night Live." It is exactly the sort of thing I wish TV did more of: live, seat-of-the-pants, risky, not star driven, and (more often than not) extremely funny. But those risks come with a downside and at times "SNL" has been utterly, hopelessly, intolerably awful. The best and the worst of the show were on display last night in its 34th (!) Season premiere. Let's take a look at it scene by scene.
Cold Open -- The political openers on "SNL" can be sort of rote and perfunctory. Something bubbles up in the news and you just know they gotta take a swipe at it, whether they have a decent comic take for it or not. As the new season gets under way, there was no doubt that they had to address the meteoric rise of Sarah Palin on the political scene. In line with the Governor's policies, they had no choice. The stage was set for a flat, lifeless "gotta" scene.
But here, they do everything right. The casting of Tina Fey is as dead solid perfect as it is obvious. She nails the Governor's Marge Gunderson speech patterns and practiced "gee whiz" posings beautifully. But the real masterstroke here is to stand her next to Amy Poehler's Hillary Clinton. The Republican conceit with this nomination is that Palin will attract the women who supported Hillary all through the primary and the sketch points out how little ("Nothing!") they have in common. Hillary expresses her surprise that people suddenly care so much about sexism. Palin remarks that she can see Russia from her house. The Governor doesn't like being called a "Milf" and the Senator doesn't appreciate being referred to as a "Flurge."
I had to look that one up. "Flurge" is a combination of "flush" and "purge." Applied in an uncomplimentary way to a person of the female persuasion ... well, I'll let your imagination take over from there.
It concludes with Poehler's Hillary admonishing the media to "grow a pair" when it comes to dealing with Palin. Huzzah! Just about perfect and the new season is off to a flying start. 4 stars.
Credits -- Basically the same as last year. Looks like they monkeyed a bit with the color palette. Casey Wilson is still a featured player, along with newbie Bobby Moynihan.
Monologue -- All you have to do to become the host of "SNL" these days is win eight gold medals in an Olympics. They've really lowered the bar. Swim champion Michael Phelps is cheered on by both his fake Mom (Poehler) and his real Mom. He promotes new TV opportunities like the NBC drama "Swim Cop." William Shatner cameos and shamelessly plugs Priceline. Let me see if I've got this straight: they could have had the uproarious Shatner as host and they went with Aquaman? There's an old Hollywood line about swimming star Esther Willams: "Dry she ain't much, but wet, she's a star." Phelps could do with a good dousing. 1 star. For Shatner.
Quiz Bowl -- Jason Sudeikis hosts a TV quiz show of the sort they had about a million years ago pitting sheltered homeschool kids against victims of our public school system. The Richmond school takes on the Jasper family brethren of the Ezekiel compound and both are shown to be clueless in different ways. Only Kristen Wiig, wandering through the sketch as the omen-spewing matriarch of the Jasper clan makes any real impact. Former "SNL" writer Conan O'Brien once observed that game show sketches were a sign of desperation. It's a smidge early in the season to be copping to this. 1 star.
Jar Glove -- Commercial for a handy device claims that not having it will lead to dire consequences. Advertisers love to paint a bleak picture of your life without their product and here, those stratagems are pushed to ridiculous extremes. Solid, if unspectacular. 3 stars.
Swim Team Locker Room -- Okay. Hold on. I call foul. I am throwing the yellow flag. This is exactly -- EXACTLY -- the same sketch as the one they did with Peyton Manning two seasons ago. In both cases, Coach Will Forte attempted to rally his team with an inspirational song that turned out to be highly inappropriate. I hate to go to this, but the "SNL" writers had all freaking summer and the best they could do is this rehash? Unacceptable. Forte throws himself into his little dance again, just like he did with the Colts quarterback. He's a committed performer and scores some points for shear elan. Phelps is dreadful. Maybe they had to do this given how stiff the host is. I dunno. 1 1/2 stars.
Stacia and Cousin Craig -- Another rehash. This is the first show of the season, isn't it? I didn't miss a grueling month or six somewhere down the line that might have excused this level of laziness, did I? This time the script comes from the folder marked "Seth Rogen - 2007" and once again features Kristen as the obnoxious, supposedly precocious Stacia. In a twist (?) she teams with Cousin Craig (Phelps), her brother Jeremy having been packed off to French camp. It was fairly funny the first time around. Less so the second. Phelps displays the comic timing of an Olympic swimmer. 2 stars.
Lil Wayne performs "Got Money" -- Dwayne Michael Carter sends us thisaway and thataway. He wants us to throw our hands in the air, say "Yeah," and gives not one but several shout-outs. He would also like for you to wave your money around. And they say there are no meaningful songs any more. A compendium of dumb rap cliches complete with those awful sounding electronic effects on Wayne's voice. What's with those? Why do rappers and boy bands all want to sound like Peter Frampton circa 1976? The track itself is actually pretty catchy, but it's hard to get there through the bramble of stupidity up top. 2 stars.
Weekend Update -- Seth and Amy are back with a decent jab at the fake news. I wonder if the "SNL" team is saving its best political material for the series of primetime specials they have scheduled leading up to the election. Seth's comparison of Sarah Palin to Patriots back-up QB Matt Cassell is a "Bingo" moment. The anchors do a lovely job reenacting a 911 call from a cockatoo. Will Forte's Alaska Pete is a bit too on the nose. Fred Armisen's political comedian Nicholas Fehn amuses Seth, but not me. Andy Samberg takes a brave stance as he zings comic strip character Cathy in a routine that would have been slightly less irrelevant twenty years ago. But only slightly. Ack! 2 1/2 stars.
The Charles Barkley Show -- Kenan Thompson traffics out one of his better impressions as the NBA analyst with no internal filter. His guests include gymnastics coach Bela Korolyi (Darrell Hammond, barely there) and -- Surprise! -- Michael Phelps. Phelps is unconvincing as himself. Thompson gets off a good line about Barkley's "werewolf-like fear of silver." Forgettable. 2 stars.
T-Mobile Fav 5 -- Once again, advertising claims precipitate disaster as a family is torn apart by its cell phone plan. Nice performances all around. Phelps even scores a laugh at the end! Good stuff. 3 1/2 stars.
SNL Digital Short "Space Olympics" -- Andy as an intergalactic ambassador of the Olympic spirit from the far future extols the virtues of the Space Olympics while sporting a Wayne Cochrane hair-do and ABBA fashion. Unfettered goofiness with loads of energy from Andy and actual comic momentum. I notice Andy uses the same electronic distortion on his voice as Lil Wayne. It sounds just as stupid here as there. Which is good. 3 stars.
A Date at the Pizzeria Uno -- Phelps and Amy go out on a date and get stuck with a truly awful waiter. New cast member Bobby Moynihan gets a showcase character scene and if this is any indication of things to come, it's going to be a long season. Moynihan's Mark Payne is obnoxious and dull and repetitive and excruciating and unfunny. I liked Phelps's passion about his coupon. Maybe he's getting better. The show isn't. 1 star.
Lil Wayne performs "Lollipop" -- On this one, Dwayne almost sounds like he's attempting to sing. It's hard to tell over the vocal distortion. I like the tattoo that makes it look like his skull is cracked. Rappers should not try to play guitar. 1 1/2 stars.
The Michael Phelps Diet -- A certain Olympic champion endorses a diet plan that lets you eat all the food you want. And more besides! The 12,000-calorie diet is touted as "almost certainly fatal." Hey it's Jared from the Subway commercials! Maybe he can host next! He couldn't do much worse. The fake ad is funny enough to overcome Phelps. But just barely. 3 stars.
And then the show ends with the usual good nights and a quick tribute to Bernie Brillstein. He was the manager for a number of SNL'ers, including producer Lorne Michaels. He passed away on August 7.
And on that rather somber note, the first episode of the 34th season of "Saturday Night Live" limps to an end. The Palin/Clinton opener points to a hopeful future. The rest of the show doesn't. Next week we get James Franco and Kings of Leon. I'll be there. And by "there," I mean "here."