The Saturday Night Live season 47 premiere demonstrates the show’s willingness to move beyond formulaic humor aimed at liberal millennials. In recent years, Lorne Michaels and company seemed content with weekly virtue signaling, lazy weed/sex jokes and surrealistic bits laced with heavy irony. Now, as the world recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, Saturday Night Live appears to be moving in a new creative direction, evidenced by the overall comedic tone of “Owen Wilson/Kacey Musgraves.”
Unfortunately, Saturday Night Live’s season 47 premiere lacks a standout sketch. In the cold open, “Biden Unites Democrats Cold Open,” new cast member James Austin Johnson nails the vocal tone of U.S. President Joe Biden, yet the overall impression seems unnatural and unimaginative. Viewers don’t need Jim Carrey’s gunslinger interpretation; however, there needs to be some comedic charm, a la Woody Harrelson, if this is going to be a regular, show-opening thing from week to week.
As the host, Owen Wilson mostly functions as the “golden retriever laying next to a fire” that he references in the introductory monologue — the actor is happy to be there; he fits in well and presents an endearing image. Wilson arguably peaks in the sketch “Cars 4,” a bit that allows the host to capitalize upon his aw-shucks persona while providing some pop culture nostalgia through his beloved animated movie character Lightning McQueen. Wilson handles the hosting gig like a mid-level NFL quarterback manages a game — safe plays en route to the goal line. It’s fine, much like Saturday Night Live’s tribute to the late Norm Macdonald, which consists of a few Weekend Update clips and a heaven-themed t-shirt worn by Pete Davidson.
Saturday Night Live’s new creative direction involves more opportunities for Davidson. In the past, he’d typically show up during Weekend Update to make self-deprecating jokes or to provide millennium-themed humor about marijuana and sex. In the season 47 premiere, he portrays former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in the cold open, and also appears as Dog the Bounty Hunter during “School Board Meeting.” Like the late MacDonald, Davidson elevates sketches with his mere presence and doesn’t necessarily need to deliver a spot-on impression. During Weekend Update, he unsurprisingly jokes about himself — this time involving a recent appearance at the Met Gala — but the bit sets up a slick commentary about perceptions of American masculinity. Davidson takes advantage of the platform in “Owen Wilson/Kacey Musgraves,” rather than acting like a sad clown or sideshow figure.
Newcomer Sarah Sherman shines alongside Andrew Dismukes in “Mail-In Testing Service,” a late-show sketch about doctors who may or may not enjoy playing around with stool samples. There’s long-term potential for the bit, especially if Saturday Night Live utilizes someone like Chloe Fineman for an extra layer of comedic depth. Even though season 47’s first episode doesn’t have that one special clip — an instant classic – it’s a good sign that the writers prioritized original comedy instead of relying on millennial trends for direction. Structurally, “Owen Wilson/Kacey Musgraves” feels somewhat like a throwback episode, or at least one that doesn’t continuously remind audiences about politics and COVID-19 (outside of the cold open and Weekend Update segments).
The collective sketches may be forgettable in the Saturday Night Live 47 premiere, and the wonderful vocalist Kacey Musgrave doesn’t do anything unique or innovative with her live performances (she mostly stays seated), but the show includes a few edgy one-liners that betray (in a good way) the family-friendly “we’re all in this together” vibe of recent years. Moving forward, hopefully at least one cast member will be willing to take big risks from episode to episode. Michael Che talks trash from a desk (and on his Instagram stories), but who’s going to challenge the audience from the main stage with some weird, wild stuff?
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.