Review: ‘Saturday Night Live’ Season 39, Episode 1 with Host Tina Fey

By September 30, 2013
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Tina Fey - SNL Bumper

The 39th season premiere of “Saturday Night Live” not only went back to the well by bringing back veteran Tina Fey as host, but it also went for pandering by bringing “Breaking Bad” star Aaron Paul in for not one, but three appearances throughout the show. Actually, it was more like Jesse Pinkman from “Breaking Bad” was a guest star. The premiere might have fared better having Paul or the aforementioned AMC drama’s star Bryan Cranston as host, but with six new cast members taking on their first live show, maybe it was better to have some experienced blood.

Of course, because this is a transition year, and there are all these new cast members, poked fun at multiple times, this season is off to a rocky start. Thankfully, there were still laughs to be had, and we’ve recapped the sketches below:

The Best


Girls – Noël Wells came right out of the gate by taking the lead in this stellar send-up of the HBO comedy series “Girls” from writer, director and star Lena Dunham, lampooned masterfully by the only female freshman talent this season. But Wells was also surrounded by great work from Kate McKinnon, Vanessa Bayer, Cecily Strong and Taran Killam doing pitch perfect impersonations of the rest of the principal cast members. Now the premise itself was simple by having Tina Fey as Dunham’s character’s new Albanian refugee roommate, but this was the right way to kick things off after the monologue, even if the show never got better than this.


Drunk Uncle – We’ve seen Bobby Moynihan do this before, but for whatever reason, Drunk Uncle seemed much more loud and full of energy than before, changing up the usual delivery of some of the character’s expected bits. But so far, Drunk Uncle still hasn’t gotten old, and might be the best recurring character to fill the void left by Bill Hader’s departure as Stefon. Plus, even though it’s brief, it’s nice to have Aaron Paul wink to his “Breaking Bad” character (though this was his final appearance in the show for the night).


Manolo Blahnik – Despite the fact that there was a wide breadth of bumps to work through with six new cast members, it was nice to see that the season premiere didn’t rely on a plethora of familiar characters for laughs. This sketch was the second of two recurring sketches in the series, though it might be harder to have those kinds of bits with names like Andy Samberg, Bill Hader, Fred Armisen and Jason Sudeikis out of the mix. But these mumbling, confused former porn stars always land big laughs, and having Tina Fey enter the mix as another fellow adult film star resulted in another luxurious time.


E-Meth – We all have friends who have brought their electronic cigarette out and about to kick the habit, but what about those other pesky addictive substances? Thankfully, “Saturday Night Live” has a timely answer as America seems obsessed with meth, or at least certain characters who make it. This fantastic commercial parody gives meth a friendly, but still scary, face in the style we’ve come to love from the standard “SNL” advertisement spoofs. This also marked the second appearance of Aaron Paul for the night, and its a toss up as to whether this was more satisfying than his tag-team with Drunk Uncle.

The Average


Used Car Commercial – This was a great idea, but the sketch led by new cast member but writing veteran Mike O’Brien just didn’t go the extra mile to really make the 10-to-1 sketch truly weird and hilarious. Tina Fey’s presence as this Model T salesman’s crazy wife helped a little, but something was missing. O’Brien holds promise, but this just lacked the energy and oddity to make it anything more that slightly amusing.


Airport – It’s a familiar sketch formula, and it had some silliness that felt like it was transported from the 80s, but anyone who’s flown a few times knows the kind of people called to their seats in this sketch. Perhaps the biggest problem was the ending that fell completely flat on its face, a problem that “SNL” frequently runs into when they’re not sure how to conclude even their most hilarious sketches. If only they could master the seamless flow that Monty Python mastered in their television run where nonsensical animation or non-sequiturs led to the next sketch. But that’s a bit harder to do with a live broadcast when things are changing behind the scenes right up until the sketches air.

The Worst


Obamacare – The cold open for the season premiere went for the topical subject of Obamacare as the kick-off of the new policy begins October 1st, but not even Jay Pharoah’s spot-on impression could make this one work. Though the sketch set the precedent of Aaron Paul showing up as Jesse Pinkman from “Breaking Bad” for the rest of the night, it was about the only amusing thing that resulted from this sketch. Well, Kate McKinnon talking about people putting things in their butts got some big laughs, but that’s a given.


New Cast Member or Arcade Fire – This was a sad attempt to highlight some of the fresh-faced new talent, but unfortunately it didn’t really give the new cast members featured an opportunity to do anything except stand there and be mocked by Tina Fey and Kenan Thompson. The latter senior cast member yelling at each of the new cast members was funny, but it was hardly enough to warrant this entire sketch. A game show where each of the cast members does a contrived impression would have been infinitely better.

The Weird


Weekend Update: Bruce Chandling – Since Kyle Mooney didn’t get to do much besides be awkward in the New Cast Member or Arcade Fire sketch, his talents at impersonations were shown with this Weekend Update segment where he played comedian Bruce Chandling. Obviously, the bit was meant to be awkward, but not necessarily in the way that it came off. Yes, his impression was spot-on, but it felt like the writers were just looking for a way to pigeonhole this one into one of the sketches, and maybe just for their own amusement. Hopefully, Mooney has more up his sleeve down the road.


Cinema Classics – Seriously, what the hell? The basis for this sketch involved a mentally disabled taxidermist hobbyist contributing to the production design of a classic film, but having a stuffed squirrel in shorts with a basketball is hardly hilarious. It felt like someone with the same mental disability wrote this sketch. Tina Fey put all of herself into this sketch along with Taran Killam, but this was a complete dud with the exception of Kenan Thompson as the peculiar host. It’s too bad we don’t have Bill Hader for the TCM Essentials sketch anymore.

The Host


Tina Fey did her best to make this season premiere a success, but with so many new cast members, there were bound to be some hiccups and shortcomings. But Fey’s presence made everyone fairly comfortable, including in the above monologue, which was also aimed at mocking the new cast members. It ended up being the funnier of the two attempts to do so, but again, didn’t really highlight any of the performers’ individual talents.

The MVP


Cecily Strong – Though she was clearly a bit nervous for her first time behind the Weekend Update desk, Strong didn’t do any worse than more recent previous anchors like Seth Meyers, Tina Fey (who passed the torch above), Amy Poehler and Jimmy Fallon when they first took the position. Strong also starred in two of the funniest sketches of the night, so she seemed like the top player from the season premiere.

The Final Word

As many avid watchers and followers of “Saturday Night Live” have indicated (along with Fey in her monologue), this year is going to be one for rebuilding on the late night sketch series. But it’s times like this that help Lorne Michael find the next Chris Farley, Kristen Wiig, Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler, and other breakout stars who have gone on to successful careers on the big screen. At the very least, there seems to be some promise in the more prominently featured new cast members, but they’re still figuring things out. With time, hopefully the cast will come together and start bringing the funny with less stumbling.

Next week we’ll be back recapping the October 5th episode with host and musical guest Miley Cyrus.

**Bonus**

Those who watched “Saturday Night Live” right up until the goodbye from Tina Fey might have noticed that the host said the network was letting them go long and musical guest Arcade Fire had a show coming. That send-off turned into a pretty cool introduction to a 20-minute concert special called “Here Comes the Night Time,” directed by Roman Coppola and featuring special appearances from James Franco, Ben Stiller, Rainn Wilson and Bono from U2. If you feel compelled, you can watch the whole special right here:

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Ethan Anderton
Some of his favorite films include Ghostbusters, The Empire Strikes Back and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, while his favorite TV series include LOST, Mad Men, 30 Rock, Parks & Recreation, Arrested Development and Saturday Night Live.