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'Saturday Night Live' returns and shows that a lot of rebuilding is underway

Musical guest Kendrick Lamar, host Miles Teller, and Bowen Yang recording a promo for Saturday Night Live's 48th season opening episode.
Will Heath/NBC
Musical guest Kendrick Lamar, host Miles Teller, and Bowen Yang recording a promo for Saturday Night Live's 48th season opening episode.

In the sports world, when a team is rebuilding, they aren't expected to notch many wins.

And judging by the relentlessly average, borderline uninspired season opening episode delivered by Saturday Night Live last night, this 48th season of the venerated sketch comedy show is going to feature a whole lot of rebuilding.

This wasn't much of a surprise. The show has undergone one of its biggest cast shakeups ever, with eight performers leaving from last season: Aidy Bryant, Kyle Mooney, Chris Redd, Kate McKinnon, Pete Davidson, Alex Moffat, Melissa Villaseñor and Aristotle Athari. And one longtime ace performer who is still in the cast, Cecily Strong, didn't appear in the season opener because she's starring in a play in Los Angeles.

Which meant last night's show was going to face a bucketload of scrutiny. Who will be the new stars? Will any of the new hires — Molly Kearney, Marcello Hernandez, Michael Longfellow or Devon Walker — show early promise? Can the tenor of the show shift to match the talents of a fresh combination of performers?

The show itself tried to lampoon all of these expectations from its first lines, giving host Miles Teller his best moment in the program's cold open. Teller offered a note-perfect Peyton Manning alongside Andrew Dismukes' Eli Manning, recreating the NFL superstar siblings' Monday Night Football "ManningCast" show as a critique of the opening sketch while it was unfolding.

It was an inspired idea, allowing the "Mannings" to float all the snarky comments critics like me were probably going to write the next day — pointing out the impressions the show can't do because McKinnon is gone and roping in Jon Hamm (who probably would have been a better host for this crucial show IMHO) to critique a Donald Trump-centered documents sketch lazily pulled from the headlines.

But, for concept to work, the sketch it was critiquing had to be bad, which meant there wasn't much humor left after the bit got going. This moment also showcased the further ascension of relative newbie James Austin Johnson, who wound up playing Trump, Mitch McConnell and Armie Hammer last night. With so many of the show's best mimics out the door, Johnson's role will become more vital as the season progresses.

Sadly, last night's show rarely met even the lowered expectations of the cold open. I kept thinking of longtime executive producer/guru Lorne Michael's legendary quote, as reported by Tina Fey: "The show doesn't go on because it's ready; it goes on because it's 11:30."

The roster of stinkers piled up: A sketch about the Charmin bears family centered on poop jokes; another sketch about two overconfident guys getting weirdly awkward when they have to talk to women in a bar; the excellent Chloe Fineman offering an amazing Nicole Kidman impression to service a nonsensical parody of Kidman's commercials for the AMC theater chain (at the end of that one, when Kenan Thompson's character shouted, "what the f--- just happened?" I felt like he was reading my mind.)

When you spend more time scratching your head about a sketch than laughing, that's usually a bad sign.

Longfellow got the best showcase among the new cast members, appearing during Weekend Update to joke about the burden of having conservative, Trump-loving, antivaccine parents. Those desk bits can be a make-or-break moment; much of the success Davidson and Leslie Jones had on the show could be traced to attention-getting appearances there.

But the key to making that stuff work is to deliver the material like you're playing a person, not like it's a bit ripped from an old standup routine. Funny as some of Longfellow's stuff was, it also felt a lot like they might have cribbed the best parts of his audition to prop up Weekend Update this week.

On that note: shout out to the costume designer who whipped up Bowen Yang's spectacular outfit as a spotted lantern fly — he played the insect during a Weekend Update segment like a hopped-up guest on Maury or The Steve Wilkos Show. My fave line from Yang, pushing back on public advisories to step on the colorful, invasive bugs to curb their spread: "They hating. I'm mating."

Teller, who co-stars in the wildly popular Top Gun: Maverick, was one of those hosts who tried to make up for a lack of comedic instinct with a game attitude and lots of energy. Which means he wasn't much help in rescuing an episode filled with an unusual number of mediocre bits.

When musical guest inside an eerily-lit white box — Kendrick Lamar, who performed songs like Father Time, Rich Spirit and N95 — is more compelling than most of the comedy sketches, that's kind of a problem.

It's counter-intuitive, but the first Saturday Night Live episodes after long breaks are often inconsistent. In the end, last night's episode felt like a throat-clearing — a way to reassess the cast's capabilities with a bunch of sketches that weren't particularly inspired. Here's hoping they find their mojo and get the rebuilding done before too many more episodes pass.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.