Last Saturday's Andy Samberg-hosted celebration of cast-member recidivism marked the end of yet another season of Saturday Night Live. As we enter an offseason where critics and fans alike are anticipating cast changes and another such upheavals, your trusted SNL MVP voters have convened for an evaluation of the season as a whole.
Joe: As we've finally reached the end of what's been largely regarded as a transition season of Saturday Night Live, here's my first question to the group: whose era of SNL are we in right now? If we've exited the Poehler/Meyers/Hader/Sudekis/Wiig era, who are the standard bearers now? Did this season do a good job solidifying the class of this cast?
Connor: It's hard to deny Kate McKinnon and Cecily Strong as the standard bearers for the show right now, but the hierarchy gets murkier from there. Jay Pharaoh, Taran Killam ,and Aidy Bryant all did fine work this year but never really had the breakout moments that would allow them to claim the show as their own. Which is to say nothing of Kenan Thompson's work as a steady hand guiding the show through some of its rockier moments this season. I want more Vanessa Bayer, always and forever. Of all the current cast members I hope she gets a bigger shot next season (if she's back).
David: I don't know that our era has been fully solidified, but it's clear that favorites among the cast are starting to emerge. It's also clear that with such a large, unwieldy cast containing a lot of role players who do brilliant but specific work, this might be an even more democratic era than the last.
Joe: See, I feel like Taran Killam and Kenan Thompson are unquestionably the male leads (Kenan being a holdover from the previous era), while on any given week, the top female in the cast fluctuates wildly. Bayer, Strong, McKinnon, and Bryant all take their turns being dominant one week and absent the next.
David: A lot of people pegged Taran Killam as the obvious star of the new batch; he's definitely a key player, but he's hardly everywhere like Hader or even Sudeikis used to be. Cecily Strong is making time to be in sketches even as she hosts Update, but she doesn't have a ton of big memorable characters like Wiig did. Joe, you are right — people come in and out week by week. Bobby Moynihan will murder one show and take a light load in the next one, and honestly it doesn't feel like a big deal. Every interview you read with cast members saying how much the show doesn't resemble the rat race of the '80s and '90s; there's much less backbiting. Still, with 17 cast members, surely some people are going to get cut this summer, and that won't be easy for anyone.
Connor: Who do you feel has taken a step back this season? Moynihan seemed poised to breakout at the end of last year — his performances were so strong and he had the guest spot on Girls. It seemed like the show was going to work to make him the next great star. But more than anyone else it seems he has fallen by the wayside this year. Which was bound to happen to someone with a cast this large, but he was the last person I expected.
David: It's just the sheer numbers, I think. Moynihan is so established that he doesn't really need to do what he did in early seasons, and he's definitely relying less on his recurring characters (outside of Drunk Uncle). This season was a proving ground for new talent, and while we might disagree on who proved themselves the strongest, it's clear that everyone else knew they had to take a bit of a step back.
Joe: Speaking of Drunk Uncle ... do we want him back for another season's worth of Update rants? I say this after having endured an entire season of no Jean K. Jean in my life, so I know all too well that recurring characters are being retired for reasons other than cast member attrition. But if you each had to choose one recurring bit to retire forever after this season, which would it be?
David: Like every big-deal recurring character, Drunk Uncle definitely doesn't have the impact he used to, I agree. I'm definitely not sick of Killam's Jebidiah Atkinson yet, and now that Garth and Kat and "The Californians" are dead, there's no recurring segment that makes me groan with despair, but I don't think I need to see Jay Pharoah's beleaguered principal character again. And I'm not the biggest fan of "Girlfriends Talk Show" as you know, oh God please don't kill me.
Joe: Oh we'll kill you.
Connor: Yeah, I agree with David about everything except "Girlfriends Talk Show." How many times did Jebidiah Atkinson appear this year?
David: Three, I think.
Connor: It seemed like they kinda ran him into the ground, but I'm open to him coming around a bit more before casting him off forever. Bar Mitzvah Boy Jacob is still my favorite though.
Joe: I talk a bit game about wanting to retire recurring bits, but I'm always the first to forgive if it's a bit I've liked before. I wanted to retire the Saboski porn stars immediately so as to preserve their brilliance, but they've had some decent returns, including just last Saturday. But look at how underwhelming the return of Heshy was a couple weeks ago. I don't want that fate to ever befall my dear bar mitzvah boy. I'm happy Girl You Wish You Didn't Start a Conversation With is now preserved in amber, perfect forever. I actually think I would like them to pull the plug on Jebidiah Atkinson. I know they're desperate for him to be the new Stefon, but Bill Hader could get away with constantly breaking character in a way Killam can't.
Connor: We're all such cowardly executioners, which is probably for the best? It means we have souls. Should we move on to the cast? A quick prediction: 17 people will not return next year.
Joe: Well that certainly covers your bases. The general assumption is that this year's freshman class gets cut by about half. Do we agree?
David: If you're going by impact, I think it's sadly obvious who is at risk, and who is on firmer ground.
Connor: Zamata, Bennet and Mooney are locks
David: Agreed. Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney are somewhat divisive but get a fair amount of screen time every week, and Zamata's hiring was too high-profile to cut so short.
Joe: My hope is that John Milhiser finds something else that fits his talents and he succeeds beyond all these other fools.
David: Brooks Wheelan, John Milhiser and Noel Wells have all had a lot more trouble making their presence known, although it would not be unheard of for any of them to get bumped back to writing, as happened to Tim Robinson last year.
Joe: Milhiser, Wheelan, and Wells are all far too good looking to be stuck behind a camera for their whole lives.Not for them, the life of the trollish workaday stiff.
David: Well it's worth noting that Whelan was hired as a writer, and was only bumped to cast member last September.
Connor: The best part about Tim Robinson going back behind the camera is that he's been responsible for some of the year's best sketches, notably "Bird Bible" and the Chicago cop. (The Tim Robinson fan club is small but always open to new members.)
David: Robinson has thrived off-camera, I agree. I also agree with Joe that Milhiser in particular has obvious talent, but like Jay Pharoah, he's come off a little nervous in some of his sketches. That can be part of the SNL experience, of course, and with a smaller cast he'd probably break through faster, but there's a lot of people to cut by. Wells has not been terrible and has probably gotten more screentime, but I can't point to one thing she was in that I found memorable. Mike O'Brien is the biggest wildcard; I've loved it when he's gotten the chance to cut loose and create big, realized characters, and I think he'll probably stick around because he's a show veteran when you include his years on the writing staff.
Joe: My sense is that they like O'Brien's weird little universes enough that they'll keep him around as a featured performer for another year.It's much easier to defend another white guy in the cast when his comic sensibility is that unique.
Connor: Wheelan, Mihliser, and Wells are obviously skilled performers, but they may need a little more time to cook before they can really deliver. They have rough edges that the three obvious choices don't. I hope they're allowed a second year as featured player to work through their individual struggles, but that's almost certainly not what will happen. Who of the starting rotation moves on this year? Bobby Moynihan keeps finding success outside of SNL — three movies in post production this year and voice work on FX's Chozen — so I get the sense he might move on. Nasim has Mulaney, which Fox really wants to convince the world is the new Seinfeld, so she might leave too.
David: Nasim is for sure leaving, isn't she? I know nothing's been made official, but Mulaney has a 16-episode order already, and they are not going to shoot all of those in the summer. Bobby, I feel, won't be going anywhere for another year or two yet, but he's about to hit that magic seven-year mark where returning to the show is no longer Lorne's decision but his own.
Joe: Which brings us to Kenan, who seems to be kind of over it, but that could just be my impression. He still pretty much always brings it in sketches, and he doesn't have anything next-level to move on to, but he could just decide to call it a day when it comes to his life at 30 Rock. (If you can call it living when there's no Jean K. Jean or "What Up With That?") What about the Update desk? Colin Jost has been underwhelming, but we're still only judging him based on a handful of episodes. Does Lorne shake things up between seasons, or will Colin and Cecily get at least the early part of the new season to figure it out?
David: I'd be surprised if Colin and Cecily went anywhere. It seems the show is very high on Cecily in particular (and she's definitely begun to feel familiar behind the desk) and Jost will certainly remain head writer, which should give him the latitude to try and build his own identity on Update. The other thing is, there's no obvious replacement for them anyway, even if you are underwhelmed. Most of the cast members you'd think of work so well as in-character panelists, I'm not sure it'd be worth losing them (I know Cecily Strong had the girl at the party, but that's a character I do not miss at all).
Joe: WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM, SIMS???
David: I am so generally resistant to recurring characters, except when they hit with me, like Jebidiah. (I also love Jacob.) But after the reign of Wiig, I'm scared of them.
Connor: That's reasonable
Joe: Something tells me we're gonna get David Sims' Two Best Friends on Update the next time Fred Armisen is back.
Connor: I agree that Jost has underwhelmed, but I can't imagine them pulling him now. Those two will get another full season at least before Lorne tinkers with the formula again.
Joe: Clearly, Sasheer Zamata will be back next year, which makes me happy. I feel like she was really showing me something in those last few episodes. It would surprise me greatly if the show didn't further beef up its diversity in the offseason, lest it open itself up to charges of tokenism. Is it naive to trust the show to do right by its cast in this way, or will it take continued pressure, as was the case with Zamata's hiring?
David: Put it this way: if the show does hire anyone in the off-season and it's not a person of color, I'd expect another backlash. That's mostly because the show has so many people on staff right now that it'd be tough to justify any more cast members unless there's a significant culling on the horizon. But I think that Zamata's impact on the material this show can cover has been noticeable, even though she's still a young featured player who's finding her feet.
Joe: Can you imagine just straight-up not being able to address Solange, as they did in this week's cold open?
David: And they still needed to bring in Maya Rudolph to play Beyonce.
Connor: Yeah, Zamata comes on full time next year. I'm absolutely certain of that. She's been good-to-great from the get-go, and like David said, her presence has let the show cover a whole new swatch of material. (Plus, a lot of that new material has been great.) And Lorne's too smart to bring another flock of white guys next year. He doesn't often repeat major mistakes twice.
Joe: Okay, so before we put this season to bed with a sprinkle of fairy dust from ol' Tonkerbell, I'm curious as to what your favorite episode(s) of the season were.
David: Weirdly, the Josh Hutcherson episode from early in the season was one of my biggest faves, which had a strong "Girlfriends Talk Show," the first appearance of Baby Boss, and Mike O'Brien's standout sketch of the year, "Winston Sam Bass: Investigative Reporter." Pretty much every sketch that night worked for me. Melissa McCarthy's showcase was another favorite, as was Louis C.K.'s (an improvement on his first go-around, I felt), and Drake's.
Joe: The ones I find myself going back to, just in terms of volume of sketches, are the Edward Norton episode ("The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders"; Summer's Eve pumpkin-spice douche; that insane and wonderful 12:50 sketch about weirdo Norton going through his Halloween candy) and Drake ("Hip Hop Before They Were Stars," Kate McKinnon as Bieber; "Mornin' Miami"; all that Aubrey awkward-dad-ness).
But easily my favorite episode of the season was the Kerry Washington-hosted one, which came at such a politically fraught time for the show. This was where the diversity controversy was at its hottest, and ironically the success of the episode only further damned the show for not having a black woman in the cast (including some smart self-criticism in that cold open where Washington had to play all the black women). So many great sketches, though, including the first (and best) Heshy, the MTV dating-show parody, and my eternally beloved Duane the faithless husband. It even gave us the most I've liked the Principal Frye sketch maybe ever, mostly thanks to Washington ("LEARN YA HISTORY").
Connor: It's hard to cover favorite-episode territory when you guys already nailed the most obvious ones — David even loved my boy J-Hutch! But upon looking back, Jonah Hill's episode really stood out. "Inside SoCal" was probably my favorite of the Kyle Mooney/Beck Bennet showcases; we got Olya and the Cop who arrested Justin Bieber on Weekend Update; and for some reason I loved that Benihana sketch more than I ever wanted to admit. Hill is a rare recurring host with enough comedic talent that he doesn't chew scenes and instead can elevate his fellow performers. Hopefully they bring him back more often.
Starting with November 16th's Lady Gaga-hosted episode, we've voted on an MVP for each show. After compiling vote totals from each week's episode, we are no prepared to recognize the MVP of the entire 39th season of Saturday Night Live. (Though the fact that voting didn't start until episode six probably hamstrung a few cast members. Sorry, Aidy!)
But first! The rookies. None of the first-year cast members cracked the top of the MVP voting, but it's worth noting the order that they finished in the full standings: Mike O'Brien topped Kyle Mooney by one vote, followed somewhat distantly by Joe and Connor's Best Friend Brooks Wheelan, and Sasheer Zamata.
And now, the MVP ...
Honorable mentions: Vanessa Bayer, Kenan Thompson, Jay Pharoah
2nd runner-up (tie): Cecily Strong and Aidy Bryant
1st runner-up: Taran Killam
Your Season 39 MVP: Kate McKinnon