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“I’m not an actor, I’m a [movie/TV] star!”

Chris Pratt took time off from his victory lap as America’s goofy brother to host SNL’s 40th season premiere, and he was unobtrusively fun. Lost in the inevitable Internet backlash (“I hate him—He’s so nice and effortlessly funny!”) is the fact that (as seen in the Parks And Recreation outtakes, for one), Pratt’s a nimble comic actor and improviser. And while Lorne’s kingdom brooks no improvisation, Pratt, starting in his Andy Dwyer-esque acoustic monologue song, exhibited the sort of genial, loose charisma he’s known for, gamely throwing himself into sketches with amiable charm. Maybe too amiable, as it turns out—Pratt ended up receding into the pack, even when donning a He-Man costume or an array of funny facial hair and wigs in the NFL introductions sketch. (Plus, his inappropriate raps were mixed too low in the otherwise funny courtship sketch opposite Aidy Bryant.) Striding into the show as the superstar that he is, Pratt’s desire to be one of the gang was endearing, if not especially memorable.

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Weekend Update update

The big, not-uncontroversial changeover, with Colin Jost staying, Cecily Strong heading back to sketch-work full time, and Michael Che returning from his brief Daily Show foray to become the first black Weekend Update anchor was cluttered and underwhelming. Anyone hoping for some resultant edge saw, instead, more of the mushy, bite-averse jokes typical of Jost’s tenure. Much gets made of SNL’s desire to “satirize both sides,” but, unlike The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, or Last Week Tonight With John Oliver—which are left-wing but sink gleeful fangs into hypocrisy and incompetence wherever they occur—Weekend Update remains complacently toothless. Jokes about Apple, U2’s unwanted free album—there’s a lot going on in the world, and this inaugural outing of the Jost/Che era did precious little with any of it. (Jost’s blank, sluggish delivery continues to enervate already limp punchlines.) Only the final bit, with Kenan Thompson crooning The Five Stairsteps’ “Ooh Child” (which plays a big part in Pratt’s Guardians Of The Galaxy) while the anchors chime in with ways Obama could spend his final few years in office has a little snap (Benghazi went from a president-shaking scandal to “John McCain’s safeword”), but the pacing is awkward (a problem in most of the episode) and the bit plays like an attempt to clone Seth Meyers’ “Really.”

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The guest correspondents fare better, with featured player and new guy Pete Davidson coming off best. The guy’s only 20 (the first cast member to be born in the 90s), but he’s got a confidence and an ability to stare down the camera, coupled with an Adam Sandler self-effacing shlubbiness that’s pretty endearing. His bit (about guys’ feigned unwillingness to perform hypothetical fellatio for a million dollars) is a straight-from-standup attempt to court the audience, but the kid sells it with a natural delivery. (“I would do it even if I were doing well. Like, even if I was on a boat and it was my boat. Boats need fuel—people don’t realize that.”) Cecily Strong comes back to the desk in the guise of her most famous correspondent, The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started A Conversation With At A Party, which would be akin to Bill Buckner coming back to Shea Stadium if everyone didn’t know she was the stronger link in last year’s Update team, and if she hadn’t been so gracious about leaving the gig in the interim. It’s a fun role, allowing for the sort of self-obsessed motormouth character Strong does so well. Like all recurring characters (except Stefon ), TGYWYHSACWAAP isn’t as fresh as she once was—there was a loony spontaneity in her initial appearances that comes off as more scripted now—but Strong’s stronger in character work, so it’s a welcome return. Writer Leslie Jones returned to the desk (after her controversial slavery bit last season) and delivered a broad but funny description of her woeful dating life. Maybe her comic lusting after pasty Jost is a bit much, but the details she gave of modern dating are great—watching perpetual Ghost Whisperer reruns on Ion and telling suitors that yes, that unborn baby he sired does count as having a child land hard. And her bit about women being unable to just shower a lover off like men do “because your spirits are in us!” is potent, as is her final primal scream to the camera.

Best/Worst sketch of the night

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The PR trainwreck that continues to be the NFL provided fodder for two solid sketches tonight. The second—admittedly a pale imitation of Key & Peele’s “East/West Game” lineups of funny hair and detail—saw the male cast proclaiming an escalating panoply of past offenses in an effort to prove the league’s new policy of transparency. (Such as: treason, being a Somali pirate, involuntary prostitution, “a whole bunch of stuff,” and being accused of sexual assault at “the Ohio State University.”) But the cold open, with Kenan’s stubbornly evasive Ray Lewis and Jay Pharoah’s increasingly horsey Shannon Sharpe dodging their own past offenses in order to maintain their commentator gigs, had more punch—and Pharoah’s lunatic silliness as Sharpe. The birthday party sketch, with Kyle Mooney’s lonely birthday boy wishing a dangerously clueless He-Man and Lion-O to life benefitted from Pratt and Taran Killam’s performances. Discovering the joys of cake, sisters, and genital bobbling, both brought a specificity to their awakening that was simultaneously insane and sort of affecting (“Why is cake, Danny?”)—too bad about the complete lack of an ending. The accumulating absurdity of the Marvel movies sketch built on its premise (“Marvel can’t fail!”) hilariously, with their next blockbusters based on: random words from the dictionary, five random people on a bus, several shopping carts, and Pam. But for the best of the night, it’s got to be the rap courtship sketch on the strength of Bryant’s commitment, and the way she and Pratt emerge from their smutty raps with abashed confusion. (“Did you just say, ‘plow through your panties like you’re running on diesel’?”)

On the other side, while there weren’t any disasters, I’d say Pratt’s monologue wasn’t especially strong (I’m gonna go ahead and continue to suggest a two-year moratorium on the musical monologue. Just to try it out.) The vet sketch, too—meh.

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“What do you call that act?” “The Californians!”—Recurring sketch report.

Complaining about SNL recycling characters is pointless on several levels. For one—some of the recurring sketches are the best things in the show’s history. (I wouldn’t want to live in a world with only one “Celebrity Jeopardy.”) For another, it’s really boring to do—SNL is a character factory and it’s always going to be one. That being said, the reappearance of the incompetent veterinarian nurse sketch—after an entire summer of no-doubt constant pitching—was a surprise, especially since, like several sketches tonight, it petered out gracelessly, without even a nod to an ending (see: “Birthday Party,” “Puzzle World 6”). We’ve covered TGYWYHSACWAAP already.

I am hip to the musics of today.

Former Nickelodeon child actress Arianna Grande looks like a tiny, CGI de-aged Jennifer Lopez and sings overproduced, prepackaged pseudo-soul pop of variable provenance. As a season-opening mission statement, it was listenable and irrelevant, especially in light of the policy of airing classic episodes at 10PM. While it’s not fair to compare Ms. Grande to the inimitable musical adventurousness of Gil Scott-Heron in tonight’s 1975 Richard Pryor episode (update: performance was promised but not delivered as it turns out), her appearance also points to what a perfunctory, market-driven nothing the musical guest segments of SNL continue to be. (Pryor insisted on Scott-Heron, but early SNL took pride in introducing unique acts to an unsuspecting public.) Grande, I’m told, has a great vocal range, highlighted, apparently, by her ability to produce studio-quality singing throughout her carefully energetic choreography. Plus—kitty ears!

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(Here’s Scott-Heron’s “Johannesburg,” which he performed on the Pryor episode:)

Most/Least Valuable (Not Ready For Prime Time) Player

Surprisingly, no one made the jump from featured player to the main cast. (I thought Beck Bennett showed enough Swiss Army utility last year to graduate, while I hoped Kyle Mooney’s unique territory on the show might do the same for him.) Of the JV here, I’d give the edge to Davidson who, in addition to his Update showcase, brought some individuality to small parts in the Football Introduction and Puzzle World 6 sketches. Of the featured players, Sasheer Zamata had the least to do, while, oddly, last year’s breakout star Kate McKinnon didn’t get much chance to strut her stuff either.

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Aidy Bryant, a number of blown lines notwithstanding, gets MV(NRFPT)P this week, with her typically go-for-broke performance in the rap courtship sketch—and repeated, lusty callbacks to her “big, fat ass”—vying with her cold open Candy Crowley impression, randy birthday mom, and “Cialis Turnt” wife for supremacy.

“What the hell is that thing?”—The Ten-To-Oneland Report

When all the bills have been paid, the ratings are nailed down, and the celebrity impressions have been dutifully deployed, the last sketch of any SNL is often the home for something conceptual, weird, and memorable. And while I like the “Puzzle World 6” concept of a video game’s cutscenes devolving into a lurid melodrama, tonight Ten-To-Oneland truly resided a little earlier, when Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett were, once again, given a few minutes to exercise their talents for oddball, deadpan absurdity. Tonight it was Pratt’s roommate being seduced into mischief by an underage gang in an afterschool special parody that was home to deliberately misplaced musical cues, strange line readings, and unnecessary proclamations (“This is a fight”). Again, SNL benefits from letting Mooney and Bennett do what they want once an episode.

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Stray observations:

  • We’re trying something new for the SNL reviews this year. Give vent to your opinions in the comments, and remember—it’s Erik’s fault if you hate it and mine if you think it’s brilliant.
  • Darrell Hammond returns to take over announcing duties for the late Don Pardo and, while he’s subbed for an ailing Pardo in the past, Hammond doesn’t do his Pardo impression.
  • Liked Jost’s line about how we’ll forgive any ex-president who bombed “every country with sand in it” as long as he “paints an all-right picture of a dog.”
  • “Let me mansplain this to you in terms you can manderstand.”
  • “Michael, Can I get a selfie with you? Thanks—my dad’s really gonna hate that.”
  • “If you’d just sign here—it just says your guinea pig died and that you know that.”
  • “I called the park. They’ve been closed for two hours.”
  • “I read Nora Roberts while a crack team of Korean ladies rehabilitate my feet.”
  • “School buses are yellow, sometimes orange.”
  • “If you’re turnt for more than six hours, congratulations, you’re officially Lil Wayne.”
  • “He also mentioned asses! You have one of those.”
  • That classic Pryor episode, questionable editing and all (dump Scott-Heron and keep the Muppets?), is easily the edgiest thing we’ll see from SNL all season.

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