"Saturday Night Live" returned for the start of its 10th season on NBC this weekend looking healthier, and funnier, than it probably has since the founding fathers and mothers split the premises five years ago. Saturday's premiere contained more Class-A sketches than clinkers, and the quality of writing was noticeably improved, to say the least.
New cast members introduced include Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, Martin Short, Rich Hall, Harry Shearer (who was a featured player years ago) and Pamela Stephenson. Unfortunately, they were encumbered with laggardly holdovers Jim Belushi, Gary Kroeger, Julia Louis-Dreyfus (who does get a few points for looks) and the inspidly amateurish Mary Gross, who for three years or so has defied all attempts to discover precisely the nature of her talent.
The 10th season "SNL" looked different -- in good and bad ways. For the good, the program seemed to be aiming at a slightly older demographic group than the kinetics-addicted baby-teens who have presumably drifted away to the clattering music video shows anyway. A welcome strain of tenderness was also evident in several of the sketches. On the bad side, even with the election a month away and the first presidential debate a night away, there was almost no political satire in the program. The cast continues to operate within a universe whose parameters are defined by show business. Of course, show business now includes politics, but you wouldn't know it from "Saturday Night Live." At times, this was a "Saturday Night Live" for young Republicans.
One other change: Many of the sketches, perhaps the majority of them, were either pretaped or contained pretaped or filmed elements, suggesting that the time may have come to rename the program "Saturday Night Nominally Live."
One sketch was a classic: Martin Short reviving his "SCTV" Ed Grimley character, the undauntably enthusiastic nerd in the Dairy Queen topknot and the high-water pants, in a sketch about Grimley's audition to be a contestant on "Wheel of Fortune." Christopher Guest played the suicidal contestant coordinator. Short had a nearly two-minute soliloquy in which he rhapsodized about his moment in the sun. "And to get to meet Pat Sajak, like I suppose you could do better than that? No way." The words poured out in an inspired manic rush -- as brilliantly sustained as Gilda Radner's long-ago "Judy" monologues -- and the sketch was so well formed it even had a diabolically funny ending.
Short and Harry Shearer were hilarious in a mini-documentary that spoofed the "sport" of synchronized swimming -- and mini-documentaries. Rich Hall, who emigrated from HBO's "Not Necessarily the News," brought his distinctive wry touch to a routine in which he followed Walter Mondale from one $500-a-plate dinner to another. When he asked for seconds at one, Hall was also asked for another $500 (this was as political as the show got; Reagan may not even have been mentioned). At one point Hall noted, "Luckily, public transportation is no problem in D.C. Anyone can hail a motorcade." And he did.
The best-written sketch was a "First Draft Theater" version of Raymond Chandler's "The Big Sleep." This not only presupposed a certain basic literacy on the part of the audience (or at least a movie literacy, which is one step up from TV literacy), but also a real zest for parody. In the first draft, Chandler's prose was woefully unvarnished and his similes on the prosaic side:
"Los Angeles -- how do you describe it? A big city with a Spanish name. It was a hot night, the kind of night where you sweat a lot, and your shirt sticks to you. You know the kind. It wasn't so much the heat, but the humidity . . ."
Crystal had a wonderful time playing Howard Cosell baby sitting his grandchildren on a Monday night and unable to resist watching, and loquaciously commenting upon, ABC's something's-missing football coverage. But the producers will have to be careful how they use Crystal. On Saturday it seemed he was merely adapting specialties from his act for sketches built around them. There's a grovelingly Las Vegassy side to Crystal -- at times he personifies precisely the kind of slick, facile comedy that the original "SNL" was designed to banish, at least for 90 minutes a week.
It's too early to proclaim, yet again, the rebirth of "Saturday Night Live," but not too early to say that the 10th season premiere was Gem City.