Features

How the SNL Cast Fared in a Strange, Truncated Season 45

Who will stay and who will they go? Let the speculation begin.
  • An image from May's third and final SNL At Home. (NBC)
    An image from May's third and final SNL At Home. (NBC)

    Summertime in America means many things — baseball games, fireworks, and block parties, to name just a few. While continued social distancing is likely to put a damper on many of these, there's one summer activity we can all continue to partake in without guilt or fear: guessing who among this year's cast of Saturday Night Live will be invited back in September.

    Season 45 was a unique one, to say the least — one that will be remembered as the one with the At Home coronavirus episodes in the midst of a political scene that included a presidential impeachment and Democratic debates that seemed to go nowhere. Through all that mess, SNL carried on with its usual mix of pointed "Weekend Update" jabs, filmed musical pieces, and hit-or-miss sketches.

    The season had some very strong hosts including Jennifer Lopez, Adam Driver, RuPaul, John Mulaney, and the much-missed Eddie Murphy, but what stands out now is the jarring transition the show made in April, with performers filming their parts from home for a trio of At Home episodes that concluded Season 45. Suddenly, SNL featured house cats, children of cast members, Colin Jost's acoustic guitar, and Tom Hanks' kitchen as part of its decor, and a lot of the material began to look less like the live-from-New York we're used to, and more like YouTube audition videos.

    Without any major personnel shakeups last summer — the only cast member who didn't return this year was Leslie Jones — for better or for worse, the performers were able to keep settling into their various niches on the show. They had the added challenge of competing for screen time with some big name guest performers, including a who's who of talented SNL alumni who just kept on coming back.

    We don't yet know for whom this season will be end, and clearly there are various factors at work — some are already under contract for next season, and others will leave on their own. Still, with the past as prologue, it's the most under-utilized players who are often the first to go. With that in mind (and in alphabetical order), here's our take on how each member of the cast fared in Season 45:

    Beck Bennett

    Beefy Beck Bennett continues to grow into his role as a utility player who can always be counted on to play all-American dads, clueless CEOs, and stiff political figures including Mike Pence. His leading-man looks typically put him in straight-man roles or as the host of any game show sketches that Kenan Thompson isn't doing. In Season 45, he found more laughs in ensemble pieces than in lead performances, with the notable exception of his "Weekend Update" bits.

    Best recurring character: Jules Who Sees Things A Little Differently, which has gotten increasingly weirder each time it has returned.

    Best sketch: "Boop-It," in which Bennett perfectly channels bad-dad rage. We also consistently enjoy his weird filmed bits with Kyle Mooney, such as the At Home video "Whatcha' Cookin' On?." 

    Constructive criticism: This didn't feel like a breakout year for Bennett apart from his Jules segments on "Weekend Update," but that's not necessarily a bad thing. To be truly indispensible, he could use a few more recurring characters.

    Aidy Bryant

    Bryant is one of those cast members who seems poised to go off and have her own TV show -- except she's already done that, with two seasons of Hulu's Shrill released, and a third on the way. On SNL, her roles have expanded, allowing her to showcase her excellent character work. This was a really good season for Bryant.

    Best recurring character: 7th-grade travel expert Carrie Krum, always reliably funny and relatable to anyone who was a dorky 7th grader.

    Best sketch: "Salad."

    Constructive criticism: The show has found a dynamite pairing in Bryant and Kate McKinnon. Put them together with a good premise and it almost always works, whether they are playing office workers struggling with Zoom, or scheming sisters trying to land a suitor in an old-timey movie clip, they have incredibly infectious, loopy energy. With these, in addition to the solo sketches and musical numbers, Bryant helped anchor the season. She seems to be doing everything right.

    Michael Che and Colin Jost

    For the bro-queasy, "Weekend Update" only seemed to get meaner and more insular this season, with Michael Che publicly cementing his reputation as a guy with even less of a sense of humor in real life than on the show. Jost, catching a lot of attention on his own over his relationship with Scarlett Johansson, just seemed happy to be along for the ride, playing along with jabs that painted him as a racist pervert so many times that it stopped being surprising. The low point of the season was a disastrous first SNL at Home edition that included laughter from Zoom friends following each joke. Only the news that Che was paying rent for New York City tenants to honor his late grandmother, who died of COVID-19, softened what was otherwise feeling like an avalanche of bad PR for the duo this season.

    Best recurring character(s): N/A, although Jost did appear in a few debate sketches as mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg (none were particularly memorable).

    Best sketch: The last of the at-home "Weekend Update" editions was the best, probably because it was the one closest to the look and feel of what it's like in-studio.

    Constructive criticism: None; there's no great way to fix "Update" without choosing new co-hosts. If Che and Jost stay next season, they should definitely lose the "contrived reason for Jost/Che to be forced to read a very offensive joke that was just emailed to them" recurring bit.

    Pete Davidson

    Well. Davidson had a pretty big year, and not just because he has a Judd Apatow movie on the way and released a (not very well received) Netflix stand-up special. Davidson always seems to be a magnet for bad publicity, and that continued this year, with the comic taking shots at his ex girlfriend and raising speculation that he was leaving the show after several absences in the first half of Season 45. On the show itself, Davidson seemed to have three modes: confessional and self-lacerating "Weekend Update" segments, filmed bits where his goofy, loner humor could shine (particularly in the At Home episodes), and awkward bit parts in live sketches, where he often seemed shoehorned in. The episodes where Davidson was absent made it clear the show would be fine (if a little less dangerous and unpredictable) if he weren't on SNL at all.

    Best recurring character: Chad, whose best appearance ever might have been his pairing with Jennifer Lopez.

    Best sketch: "Uncle Meme."

    Constructive criticism: The best thing that may have happened to Davidson all season was the blossoming of his friendship with John Mulaney, which yielded some funny sketches and (hopefully) some great career advice. Whatever Mulaney says to do, you do that, Pete Davidson. Mentors like Mulaney, and Adam Sandler, who appeared in one of Davidson's At Home songs, may help him keep his career on track.

    Mikey Day

    Perhaps the most unsung hero of the SNL cast, Day has become one of the best utility straight-man players on the show, absorbing ridicule and allowing other cast members to shine while he plays whiny losers and middle managers who've lost control of a given situation. Whether he's playing a deeply out-of-his-league husband with a smoking-hot wife, a soldier getting increasingly disturbing letters from home, or a dad with a kid who pranks him for YouTube, Day expertly plays put-upon victims when he's not trying to wrangle his brother Eric as Donald Trump, Jr.

    Best recurring character: Donald Trump, Jr..

    Best sketch: "The Karate Teen."

    Constructive criticism: Day always pulls his weight in ensemble sketches, but it would be nice to see him in more lead performances, like his excellent portrayal of a gamer who keeps getting killed on his own "Cam Playz Dat" Twitch stream.

    Heidi Gardner

    In her first season as a full cast member. Gardner kept developing a few key characters on "Update," but her niche was mostly, "Super annoying and very self-unaware white woman with a very strong Instagram presence." Her FaceTime chat with Paul Rudd as "Pretty Mandy" was a late-season highlight.

    Best recurring character: Teen movie critic and YouTube star Bailey Gismert.

    Best sketch: "Locker Room."

    Constructive criticism: She full commits to really dumb characters and doesn't fall back on celebrity impressions, which puts her in a good position to take on a lot more roles if Kate McKinnon leaves the show. She should keep biding her time and mining online subcultures for more off-putting, true-to-life characters.

    Kate McKinnon

    McKinnon is the cast member who can seemingly do no wrong, all you have to do is point a camera at her and let her riff for five minutes and more often than not, there's comedy gold in that pile of material, as nearly every solo At Home sketch proved. But as the season wore on and some of the nation's political narratives started to feel repetitive, her long-running take on Elizabeth Warren began to fizzle. Some of McKinnon's character tics, like spontaneous goofy dancing and whispered asides, began to bleed over from character to character. Her work with Aidy Bryant showed that sometimes it's better to pair McKinnon up with an equally talented comedic presence than to turn a sketch over wholesale to McKinnon's force-of-nature skills.

    Best recurring character: Rudy Giuliani.

    Best sketch: "A Conway Marriage Story."

    Constructive criticism: Ideally there wold be a little less returning to the same comedic well with characters such as Elizabeth Warren, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. McKinnon can seemingly spin gold from any thread of a new character or impression, so playing the hits so often feels unnecessary.

    Alex Moffat

    Casual viewers of SNL would probably have a hard time identifying which cast member is Mikey Day, which is Alex Moffat, and which is Kyle Mooney. That problem looms largest for Moffat, who hasn't showed Day's talent for desperately escalated characters or Mooney's talent for going off and creating his own digital shorts. Assuming he returns, Season 46 will be critical to his long-term survival on SNL.

    Best recurring character: Eric Trump.

    Best sketch: "Sports Report."

    Constructive criticism: The talent is there, but Moffat is one of the cast members alongside Kyle Mooney, who doesn't get much screen time. He needs to break out of his box of smug, entitled white guys and either take on some good celebrity or political impressions or add more unique "Weekend Update" characters to his repertoire.

    Kyle Mooney

    Mooney seemed like the cast member who would stand to benefit the most from a shift in production forcing cast members to shoot low-fi sketches on their own. Surprisingly, that honor instead went to Davidson, who kept knocking out catchy coronavirus-themed songs week after week. Mooney makes a lot of digital shorts but they often come across as weird-for-the-sake-of-weird. "What's My Name," which featured Mooney in multiple roles, was just baffling, not the showstopping showcase it could have been. It's starting to feel like Mooney's humor belongs somewhere else, like Adult Swim rather than SNL.

    Best recurring character: That would have to be "Kyle Mooney, SNL cast member," for lack of other options.

    Best sketch: "Kyle's Transformation."

    Constructive criticism: Mooney can actually be very good in live sketches, such as the repetitively-hilarious "Del Taco Shoot." Assuming production returns to Studio 8H next season, Mooney might benefit from focusing a little less on Digital Shorts and more on writing and getting cast in live sketches, in which his geeky energy would be a good contrast to performers such as Cecily Strong and Beck Bennett.

    Chris Redd

    A very talented cast member who doesn't seem to get much to do outside of celebrity impressions (Kanye West) and the show's many rap parodies like "On The Couch." He's great at playing heavies like the gangster in "That's The Game."

    Best recurring character: Sadly, I can't think of any.

    Best sketch: "Funeral DJs."

    Constructive criticism: He's only spent one season as a full cast member, but Redd really needs to build a stable of strong recurring characters next season.

    Cecily Strong

    Strong has always come across as someone who could be an incredibly good dramatic actress if she wasn't playing (allegedly) boozy Fox News commentators or horrible drunks on "Update." And she's a very good singer.

    Best recurring character: Jeanine Pirro.

    Best sketch: "Rolf and Liesl."

    Constructive criticism: Strong has a knack for impressions and she's really good at the "Weekend Update" desk, but she can probably retire "Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With" by this point. Audiences still seem to love it, but the premise has been delivering diminishing returns.

    Kenan Thompson

    The show's longest-running cast member ever (since 2003!), Thompson doesn't give off the vibe that he's over it or past his prime. In fact, there were several episodes in Season 45 where Thompson dominated, whether he was the driving force of a sketch or just dropping a few funny lines with some extra oomph in the line readings ("Reese De'WHAT!"). If he's bored at this point, it definitely doesn't show.

    Best recurring character: Big Papi.

    Best sketch: "What Up With That: At Home," which against all odds was even loonier than it ever was in the studio.

    Constructive criticism: There's long been speculation that outside projects (including next season's The Kenan Show) might lead him to exit the show, but he doesn't seem to be any rush to leave, and continues to deliver the goods.

    Melissa Villaseñor

    She's evolved from primarily an impressionist to a unique performer who does weird-nerdy-homebody-lady-with-a-dark-side better than anyone in the cast. She had a very good breakout moment this season with her Oscar preview song, "White Male Rage."

    Best recurring character: Herself.

    Best sketch: "White Male Rage."

    Constructive criticism: Keep embracing wild swings like the late-season John Mulaney impression and the pretend-date sketch and find more avenues for Villaseñor's excellent singing voice.

    Featured players Chloe Fineman, Ego Nwodim, and Bowen Yang

    Most seasons you can usually count on at least one featured player completely disappearing from the lineup (and often the show itself) by failing to make a mark. But this was a very good season for all three, particularly Yang, who again and again carved out high-energy parts with lots of appearances on "Weekend Update" and standout turns in small parts such as SoulCycle instructor Flint ("Like the water"). As Melissa Villaseñor expanded beyond celebrity impressions, Fineman filled the void with lots of late-season impressions, including a strong series of "MasterClass" sketches that parodied Britney Spears, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and Timothée Chalamet, among others. Ego Nwodim didn't have as many spotlight moments, but when she did, they popped, including her "Quarantine QT" sketch on At Home and her great Dr. Angie Hynes monologue for Black History Month on "Update." All three performers did enough good work this season that it would be surprising if they're not back next year.

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    Omar L. Gallaga is a longtime technology and culture writer with bylines in The Wall Street Journal, NPR's All Tech Considered blog, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, CNN and the beloved TV websites Television Without Pity and Previously.tv. He's a former newspaper journalist who now lives in New Braunfels, Texas. You can find him on Twitter @OmarG. 

    TOPICS: Saturday Night Live, Aidy Bryant, Alex Moffat, Beck Bennett, Bowen Yang, Cecily Strong, Chloe Fineman, Chris Redd, Colin Jost, Ego Nwodim, Heidi Gardner , Kate McKinnon, Kenan Thompson, Kyle Mooney, Melissa Villasenor, Michael Che, Mikey Day, Pete Davidson