Saturday Night Live opened its 48th season with its biggest cast changes in decades. With eight cast members departing at various stages of their SNL tenure, and a ninth missing in action but supposedly returning later (Cecily Strong is doing a play in Los Angeles, and — unlike past temporary absences — wasn’t shown in the opening credits), the show is close to peak overhaul level (11 cast members left between seasons 20 and 21).
The changeover was notable enough to warrant a cold-open sketch all about it, with Peyton Manning (host Miles Teller) and his brother Eli (Andrew Dismukes) offering live commentary on the season’s supposed kickoff: a self-consciously hacky sketch about Donald Trump (James Justin Johnson) and, well, whatever zany characters the writers decide to throw at him in an attempt to sum up the week’s current events.
Self-referential humor is no real novelty at SNL, but it’s still bracing to watch the show so fully take apart its worst tendencies, calling out this fake sketch as a parade of middling impressions, stunt-casting, and cornball trend-chasing, with the help of stunt-cast guest star Jon Hamm, offering a fan theory about the sketch’s mediocrity: “Maybe this is strategic, like when a sports team tanks to get a better draft pick next year.”
Of course, the rest of the premiere was not nearly so self-reflexive — and often looked pretty familiar. As different as the show is without Aidy Bryant, Kate McKinnon, Pete Davidson, or Chris Redd, among others, it’s neither especially pared down (16 cast members in the opening credits) — nor especially heavy on new faces (none of the 10 in non-“featured” main cast have been there fewer than two seasons, and most more than that). How much of a splash can four new cast members make when two of last year’s new additions are still jostling around in the Featured Players category with them?
For that matter, how quickly does SNL ever change? The show is certainly different now than when it was making similarly big cast shifts back in 1995 (!), but not because it’s undergone any radical format overhauls. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the Season 48 premiere: the good, the bad, and the stuff that kinda feels the same as always.
Editor’s Note: Kendrick Lamar served as the episode’s musical guest; watch the replay here.