This weekend, “Saturday Night Live” returned for its 47th season. With Beck Bennett (as well as one-and-done featured player Lauren Holt) out, Bowen Yang and Chloe Fineman promoted to repertory players, and three new featured players (Sarah Sherman, Aristotle Athari, and James Austin Johnson, joining the returning Andrew Dismukes and Punkie Johnson), “SNL” is back with its largest cast ever.
And it did so with “Loki” and “The French Dispatch” star Owen Wilson in both a metaphorical and literal (based on the “Cars 4” sketch) driver’s seat as host.
Host: Owen Wilson
As far as a return to Studio 8H goes, “SNL’s” decision to have first-timer Owen Wilson host its season premiere is the kind of thing that deserves an understated “wow.” In fact, in a surprising turn of events — considering how often “SNL” loves to go for spectacle — this season premiere was about as atypical as it could get: from the cold open featuring only active cast members to Wilson’s low-key monologue to the amount of screentime given to the featured players (culminating in this week’s 10-to-1 sketch). As much as “SNL” is able to go “back to basics,” that’s what this season premiere felt like at times.
Wilson’s monologue, effortless and easygoing, seemed to be a good sign for what the star could bring to the table for this episode, especially as a first-time host. However, that effortlessness didn’t extend to much of the rest of Wilson’s hosting duties within the sketches, nor did the episode play too much to what one would consider his comedic strengths. Sketches like “School Board Meeting” and “NFL on Fox” got the best out of Wilson, as variations of an affable doof in both; however, a sketch like “Cars 4,” where he was the driving force of the sketch, somewhat crashed and burned.
In the case of “NFL on Fox,” Wilson’s affable doof is also actually a real person, Troy Aikman. Wilson, James Austin Johnson, and then eventually Heidi Gardner’s reactions to the premise and concept of the show “Crazy House” are all surprisingly understated considering how weird it all is — “Wait, McKayla is the monster puppet?” — but Wilson’s Aikman is especially spot on, as he keeps asking Johnson’s Joe Buck for clarification he couldn’t possibly have. (And talking about his favorite show, “Dwight Shrute.”) For Wilson, sketches like this, “Billionaire Star Trek,” and “School Board Meeting” allow him to be at his best because he actually gets to channel a character and not just either play himself or himself in a doctor or priest costume.
The one pre-taped sketch of the episode — excluding the cut for time “Splitting the Check” — is also the sketch where Wilson gets to be at his most high-energy, as hyped-up space nerd Jeff Bezos. In a sketch that is mostly just fun and space girls, the bit with Kenan Thompson as the mistreated Amazon worker hits hard. That moment’s only truly challenged by Mikey Day as the villain and one-time “SNL” host Elon Musk.
“They’re saying we ran out.”
While the intention of the “Women’s Talk Show” sketch was clear from the moment it began — lampooning the COVID false-positive on “The View” — it was interesting to realize it honestly had enough legs to be its own recurring sketch. (Especially as “The View” and daytime talk shows of its ilk have plenty to parody.) Ego Nwodim, Gardner, Aidy Bryant, and Cecily Strong are all in fine form during this sketch, before and even while Wilson shows up as the straight man — which ended up being his setting for the rest of the episode, outside of “Billionaire Star Trek” — of the sketch.
However, as strong as it was and as much as Wilson’s straight man presence worked here, the sketch had the age-old “SNL” problem: It didn’t know how to end. As things ramped up, with Wilson’s doctor character removing each co-host one-by-one, it became clear that it would most likely have no satisfactory end — and that was just the case with the “false-positive” reveal.
Best Sketches of the Night: “School Board Meeting,” “Funeral Song,” and “Mail-in Testing Services”
“I don’t have a child! And I don’t live in this town!”
“Then you should not be here.”
The very premise of this sketch made it clear what the audience would be getting, but the execution really made it work — both in terms of the cast of characters crashing the titular school board meeting and the straight man reactions and Alex Moffat and, especially, Nwodim. Wilson’s affable doof Earth Sciences teacher — who accidentally segregated his students and then struggled to undo that — was a fun detour in a revolving door of actively terrible people. Strong kicked off said revolving door with a character type she can probably do in her sleep, but it was Bowen Yang’s dreadlocked, anti-“Barack Hussein Obama” character who really stole the show… until Thompson pivoted the sketch with his Halloween-loving, David S. Pumpkins-light (right down to how the sketch ended) character.
It’s difficult to actually parody a reality like the current one, but this sketch was able to successfully, while also having Kyle Mooney play a teenager for possibly the 100th time.
Strangely enough, funeral sketches — especially funeral sketches that become musical — are pretty instant hits for “SNL.” It’s hard for “SNL” to miss with them, especially when they do something very out of left field. Considering the topics of discussion during this week’s Weekend Update, the favorite song joke (and every other problematic issue with Gardner’s late Miriam) in “Funeral Song” was far from out of left field. But it still worked, due in large part to both Thompson as LeVar B. Burton and slideshow visual humor.
While the sketch actually started off with Wilson missing his cue that it had begun, he was again helped by the rest of the performers and ended up giving one of the best line deliveries of the whole sketch, when he talks about Miriam’s dying words being “I believe I can fly”: “And then she jumped.”
The final sketch of the night, anchored by featured players (Andrew Dismukes and Sarah Sherman), and all about messing around with stool samples — and somehow, it all worked. Not just as a sketch itself but with the live audience as well. If that’s not a good sign for this season, then what else is?
Worst Sketch of the Night: “Cars 4”
In the case of “Cars 4,” while the premise worked and the jokes technically landed — including the cash-grabbing conclusion — the pacing was just off from the very beginning of the sketch, and Wilson struggled in his delivery as things progressed. Austin Johnson arriving as Larry the Cable Guy allowed Wilson some help in the sketch, by having more of a partner to work with than Day and Punkie Johnson’s characters allowed. But things never quite fell into place, despite all the pieces being there.
Best Male Performer: James Austin Johnson
While the cold open was a positive sign for the season in the sense that it was populated only by actual “SNL” cast members, it also boded well for one of the debuting featured players, James Austin Johnson. It’s hard to remember a more impressive debut episode in recent memory because truth be told, few featured players have gotten the chance to show off what they can do as much as Johnson was in this premiere. Even in sketches that didn’t completely work — like the cold open, especially for its length, and the “Cars 4” sketch, for Wilson’s delivery — Johnson maintained like a cast member who had been around much longer than just one episode.
Best Female Performer: Ego Nwodim
For the way she ultimately says “Pope” in the “Women’s Talk Show” sketch alone.
While the cold open suffered from the usual issues — going much longer than it needed to, needing Pete Davidson to explain who his character was because there’d be no other way to tell — again, it was a sign of potential for the season in terms of who was featured. (Though it also featured possible joke theft.)
Weekend Update, however, fared much better in terms of “SNL’s” political and topical comedy. Nwodim excelled as “A Black Woman Who’s Been Missing for Ten Years,” while Davidson excelled in talking about reactions to his Met Gala dress, and the tribute to Norm MacDonald was just what the comedy doctor ordered.
It’s impossible to know where “SNL” will be going this season — Kim Kardashian-West has a completely different vibe from Owen Wilson and is hosting next week — but as far as season premieres go, this episode was a good sign for things to come.