Critic’s Notebook: Big ‘Saturday Night Live’ Departures Will Test the Show’s Depth

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Like the number of justices in the Supreme Court, the exact size of the Saturday Night Live ensemble is not written in the Constitution.

The earliest seasons had only six or seven cast regulars, and the concept of “featured players” only started a few seasons in.

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The number of regulars has steadily increased for a variety of reasons, including in-season cast changes, the emergence of Weekend Update hosting as a gig for non-sketch performers and the steady drumbeat for cast inclusivity. More than anything, though, the reason for a bigger cast has been tied to the changes in the TV landscape and to executive producer Lorne Michaels’ increased flexibility with letting his stars take weeks off to shoot outside jobs and then return.

In this, the show’s 47th season, a pinnacle was reached with a whopping 16 cast regulars and five featured players. At any given time, four or five of them could be away shooting an Apple TV+ limited series, a DC movie or who-knows-what. Even then, though, whole weeks would go by where a familiar and often beloved performer would appear in the background of one sketch and never be spotted again.

Saturday Night Live was designed, or at least evolved, to be like a snake, constantly shedding layers of skin, or like a child’s mouth, with teeth falling out as new ones crack the surface of the gums. That has ceased to be the case in recent years because the standard exodus hasn’t been required for stars to stretch their creative limbs. It’s become possible to have Saturday Night Live as a home base and still do a sitcom or a movie.

That’s a long way of saying that even if you don’t think the season 47 cast was the best in the show’s history — it’s a really good cast, better than the writing always showcased — it’s unquestionably the deepest, and if ever there were a time for a major cast exodus to occur without the losses being catastrophic, it’s now.

Directly or indirectly, Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant, castmembers since 2012, and Pete Davidson, castmember since 2014, announced their departures in the season finale. There have been reports that Kyle Mooney, castmember since 2013, is leaving as well, though I’m not sure “Gray Adult Pigtails” was necessarily a sketch designed to announce that fact. Part of why this year’s cast is so big is that departures for the past handful of years have been so rare — Beck Bennett last year, Leslie Jones a year or two before that, but mostly just the occasional underused featured player. This is four core players exiting, and it’s completely possible that there could be more.

My saying that mass evacuations are an accepted part of the Saturday Night Live ecosystem doesn’t mean that these aren’t serious losses for the show.

McKinnon, in particular, is entirely irreplaceable. She’s been everything you could want out of an SNL castmember, delivering indelible impressions (Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Rudy Giuliani are only the tip of the iceberg), recurring “Weekend Update” characters (I hope Olya Povlatsky is OK in today’s Russia) and several regular characters, though perhaps not quite as many as you might think. I’m not sure why she came back for that last “Gray Adult Pigtails” sketch, because McKinnon had the perfect sendoff in the cold open as Colleen Rafferty, a perpetual UFO abductee whose coarse experiences never failed to crack up guest hosts.

Though I know she isn’t everybody’s comedic flavor, Bryant is close to McKinnon’s equal on the irreplaceability scale. She’s deceptively versatile with her impressions, including her weirdly expert take on Ted Cruz. She’s a good and ego-free sketch performer, capable of wacky stuff and straight-woman material. Oh, and she was the stealth MVP of season 45’s Saturday Night Live at Home COVID run, which gave an indication of what she looked like generating her own material. Shrill proved she can carry a show, and I’ll be curious to see what’s next for her.

Speaking of not being everybody’s flavor, Mooney specialized in weird and off-putting “Weekend Update” characters and post-12:30-type sketches. And guess what? The Saturday Night Live format requires a few of those bizarre acquired tastes. Mooney’s material often delivered. He was one of the first SNL regulars to come out of a YouTube producer background and that sensibility was clear in much of what he did and in outside projects like Brigsby Bear and Netflix’s Saturday Morning All Star Hits! He also did straight-man work more frequently than I think many people realized. That’s what his Baby Yoda was, right?

Realistically, the performer who will be “missed” the least in a weekly context is the one whose egress drew the most headlines. I find Davidson extremely funny, and projects like Big Time Adolescence and The King of Staten Island have proved that at least within certain parameters he’s a very good actor. But on Saturday Night Live, Davidson has been best used mostly for direct-to-camera monologues, usually autobiographical in nature, and filmed pieces, usually music videos. He’s actually gotten much better as a sketch performer, and he even added some impressions — kinda — to his repertoire, but he’s more of an exceptional individual than a part of the troupe.

Realistically, the show needs both the Groundlings/Second City/UCB types and the YouTube/TikTok types. McKinnon, Bryant, Mooney and Davidson will all be missed and not by the same audiences, which is perfect.

So where does that leave Saturday Night Live?

Just fine, thanks!

Assuming Kenan Thompson and Cecily Strong, whom most observers had out the door after last season’s remarkable finale, are both returning — that’s a superb foundation of veterans who contribute on every level of the show. If you just distribute the departing screen time to already breaking-out veterans like Bowen Yang, Ego Nwodim, Heidi Gardner and Chloe Fineman, that’s a good core right there.

Alex Moffat does a lot of things well and it felt like he was a little forgotten this year, perhaps because the show has started to over-rely on Mikey Day as the “guy who gets increasingly impatient” in scripts built around some outsize character or another. The show requires performers of the Moffat/Day type, and they’re both decent examples. And it’s well past time for SNL to get more use out of Chris Redd and especially Melissa Villaseñor, who have both shown flashes of brilliance.

That’s without getting to the featured players, where both master impressionist James Austin Johnson and delightfully weird Sarah Sherman made themselves instantly integral in their first seasons. Andrew Dismukes seems ready for a bump-up to a regular platform, and Punkie Johnson is great whenever somebody gives her anything at all to do. Even Aristotle Athri, too frequently the show’s missing man this season, had bursts of potential. And I’d be fine with seeing more of the Please Don’t Destroy guys in some capacity.

There are so many good pieces presumably returning that it would be surprising if Michaels felt that he needed more than one or two new faces. Somebody from a filmed short background to replace one or two of the Mooney/Davidson segments? Sure. Nothing else jumps out as necessary, not that there aren’t established “types” from the show’s past that could use current representation.

As is so frequently the case, the next generation of Saturday Night Live is set to rise or fall on the tightness of the writing, and this season was typically erratic, capable of rising to the level of a good host or, in the case of the finale with Natasha Lyonne, running out of ideas before the first music break.

For all of this week’s big losses, though, I think Saturday Night Live is in a position to maintain its balance of devoted fans and detractors who insist the show hasn’t been funny since they were 15, since the show got so darned political or since Chevy Chase left.

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