"As it turns out, Season 46 SNL looks a whole lot like Season 45 SNL," says Dennis Perkins of Saturday Night Live's first in-studio show since the coronavirus shutdown. Sure, there were some signs of the pandemic, but SNL was mostly the same. "It’s a different world even than the one the show confronted back in March, when SNL wisely fled Studio 8H for hand-drawn backdrops and Zoom sketches, and we all hoped that this 46th season would see the show—and the world—creeping back toward something like normal. Whatever that could possibly mean," says Perkins. "But the comedy cruise ship that is Saturday Night Live doesn’t change course much these, well, decades, and this first episode delivered exactly the sort of down-the-middle lounge act it’s settled into in recent memory. A cameo-happy bid for isolated YouTube views and Sunday morning roundtable show references, a ludicrously underserved and over-full cast rushing through some indifferent sketches, a few standout performance pops—in a TV world (and, you know, world) calling out for innovative ways of making comedy out of chaos, pain, and a democracy at a perilous tipping point, Saturday Night Live was, in its first outing, satisfied to steam ahead as if self-satisfied mediocrity were enough. It is—and I cannot state this forcefully enough—not." As for the debate cold open, Perkins says: "While Carrey’s Biden was a more restrained and lived-in character performance than I was expecting (mid-debate bit with Biden chasing Trump’s laser pointer aside), the whole show-topping spectacle lived down to SNL’s standards when it comes to direct Trump depictions. Carrey (wig, makeup, teeth, and nicely tuned hoarseness all in place) turns out to be in things for the long haul, acting-wise. He could have come out matching Baldwin’s simultaneously hammy and sluggish Trump (sort of an impressive combination, in truth), but, instead, gave us a Biden the show can grow into. (Which, again, here’s hoping.) From the jump, this premiere’s technical jitters and growing (or shrinking, crew-wise) pains were in enervating evidence, with repeated dead spots in the actors’ transitions and deliveries, and the camera movements. Still, Carrey’s impersonation/performance was intriguing, playing up the expected traits (age, the tendency to ramble), while laying the groundwork for a simmering rage that the always-grinning Biden is going to work overtime to tamp down."
SNL misunderstands its role right now -- amid extraordinary national uncertainty, the season premiere offered up normalcy: Michael Che "inadvertently underlined SNL’s lack of nimbleness in the face of a constantly changing election story," says David Sims. "The show will have a five-week run straight through to the November election, but all that hard work won’t mean much if the best it can offer is the kind of genial, lightweight winks to the audience that filled the opening debate sketch. The rest of the show’s pandemic humor felt warmed-over. A sketch about the NBA bubble in which teams drafted women to stay with them in quarantine was baffling and offensive in equal measure, oddly mocking the permeability of a system that actually proved to work over the summer. A faux news report about a super-spreader event was simply a vehicle for a procession of characters with silly double-entendre names. A pretaped sketch, titled 'Stunt Performers,' had a premise so convoluted, it would take me an entire paragraph to explain it, but it was largely lacking in actual jokes. Saturday Night Live is often rickety in its first week back, as writers settle into the strange rhythms of producing such an elaborate show. The transition must have been stranger than ever this year because of COVID-19; that the show can be produced at all feels miraculous and tenuous, down to the socially distanced, masked audience (which, for the premiere, was made up of first responders). The circumstances of Trump’s hospitalization surely only made the execution of this week’s episode that much harder. But the biggest problem I had with SNL’s return was how normal everything felt despite all the chaos. I understand the desire for comfort television right now, but this is not the time for SNL to feel safe."
The season premiere was toothless as SNL struggled to keep up with the dizzying news cycle: "Why bother carefully crafting a debate sketch when five days later, we barely even remember why we were so worked up about the debate? Just go broad and lazy, says I!" says Daniel Fienberg. "Why bother crafting an approach to either Donald Trump or Joe Biden when you can just fall back on, 'They're both old and unfit to lead...' and know that that level of satire is going to be evergreen for at least the next few weeks? Sigh. It's hard to exactly pinpoint the targets of the season-opening debate sketch, which introduced Jim Carrey playing Joe Biden as if he were Joe Biden from 2008 (or maybe 1988) or possibly just Fire Marshal Bill after skin grafts and a hair piece. The bizarre thing is that Joe Biden is a tough figure to lampoon — at this point he's almost self-lampooned in the same way that nobody can make a bigger caricature of Donald Trump than Donald Trump — but SNL has done reasonably well with him in the very recent past as played by either Jason Sudeikis or Woody Harrelson. Jim Carrey brought a wiry energy to his impersonation, an energy that has absolutely no connection to the guy running for president currently. The idea that Joe Biden spent Tuesday's debate at perpetual war with himself trying to keep from attacking Trump is projection and little more, completely unconnected to what audiences watched Biden doing. I guess 'half-addled/half-enraged' is an interpretation for Biden and remains more than the autopilot that Alec Baldwin has been on for several years now...The softness of the show's political prism — Michael Che and Colin Jost, able to concentrate exclusively on Trump's COVID diagnosis, were actually much sharper on 'Weekend Update' — was exposed by musical guest Megan Thee Stallion transitioning from a rousing performance of 'Savage' to harsh condemnation of Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron. She had a sense of the stakes."
It's unfair to judge SNL after a chaotic week, but the show stumbled: "After its COVID sheltering from home and a summer hiatus, Saturday Night Live tried to tackle the impossible in Saturday’s season premiere," says Karen Valby. "Blessings and fruit baskets to the writer’s room for the number of jokes they must have scrapped and rewritten with each of the past 48 hours’ ground-shifting news development. Our president is at Walter Reade; Alec Baldwin is back in Studio 8H. Live from New York, it’s Saturday night." Valby adds: "Host Chris Rock is forever a welcome presence, in both tense situations and ridiculous ones. But the power of his SNL monologue was undercut by the magnitude of his task: how to get laughs out of an absurdly chaotic, ever-changing moment. 'President Trump is in the hospital from COVID, and I just want to say my heart goes out to COVID,' Rock said in his strongest line. He riffed about there being more rules to being on a game show than apparently are to being President, and the bonkers truth that one gets a guaranteed four years to do the most important job in the world badly. But for the most part, his words lacked sting or gravitas. It was too brutal a weekend for a comedian to kill—though damn, one hopes the blessed first responders who made up the studio audience had the f*cking night of their lives."
Ranking SNL's Joe Bidens: Jim Carrey is the show's second-worst Biden after Kevin Nealon (Woody Harrelson was the best): "So far, Jim Carrey’s Biden is not an impression of Joe Biden, it’s a reminder that Jim Carrey’s rubber-faced mugging is funniest when the sole point of the joke is 'Jim Carrey’s rubber-faced mugging,'" says Matthew Dessem. "To be fair to Carrey, it’s not clear how anyone could have pulled comedy out of the horror show that was this week’s presidential debate, especially in light of subsequent COVID-19 diagnoses, but this was nearly unwatchable. Carrey slightly redeemed himself toward the end, presiding over what is probably the first time SNL has invited its audience to fantasize about the death (or at least the serious illness) of a sitting president. That’s just enough edge to edge out Kevin Nealon, but not enough to make it out of the bottom tier of Saturday Night Live Bidens. Fortunately, Carrey will have the chance to improve, since he’ll be playing the role all season."
Where was "Creepy Uncle Joe"?: "What happened to the Joe who mixes up words like a Shakespearean clown?" says Johnny Oleksinski. "Carrey wore Top Gun sunglasses and tried to make the guy as cool as Danny Zuko. Huh? We know SNL wants Biden to win, but that doesn’t mean his lines can’t still be biting and hilarious."
"Weekend Update" did absolutely nothing with the bounty of news it was handed: "Out of all the headline figures they could have used for Update guests – Melania Trump, Chris Christie, Amy Coney Barrett – they instead fall back on rote regulars Chen Biao (Bowne Yang), the sassy Chinese Trade Minister, and Carrie Crumb (Aidy Bryant), the bubbly tween travel expert," says Zach Vasquez. "Anyone hoping for a final appearance of Kate McKinnon’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg will have to settle for a short and wordless cut away to her sitting in the audience, before a quick title card the reads: Rest in Power. At least we’re spared another cringeworthy rendition of 'Hallelujah.'"