"Saturday Night Live" returned for an epochal 40th season to answer one (at least) pressing question: What does Darrell Hammond sound like when he sounds like Darrell Hammond not trying to channel Don Pardo?
It was a good opener, sporadically very good. Host Chris Pratt was exactly as you would expect him to be under any circumstance -- charming, funny, effortlessly so, and a surprisingly gifted singer.
There was one winning skit -- "Booty Rap" -- an interminable one ("Bad Boys") -- and a terrific digital video, the Marvel trailer one, which pretty much established that Marvel can slap its name on any ol' thang and get someone out there to pay good money to see it.
Plus new player, Pete Davidson -- how about Pete Davidson? His "Weekend Update" riff on -- to put this as delicately as possible -- on a certain type of sexual behavior, and the remuneration thereof (is that delicate enough) was funny, even if it did sound like some well-polished bit from one of his standup shows.
The "cold open" was merely OK, while some viewers were probably left to wonder: What did Shannon Sharpe -- Jay Pharoah -- do to deserve this? He, after all, was the "NFL Today" host who told Ray Lewis, in a pre-Super Bowl interview, that many, especially including the family of the victim, believed he had a role in the death that he had been implicated in 2000.
Then there was Michael Che: I like him in this role ("Weekend Update") and can see why "SNL" did: The cool, deadpan, detached, eye-roller (when rolled eyes are required --"The Girl You Wished You Hadn't Started a Conversation with at a Party.") He somehow makes Colin Jost funnier, or at least more tolerable.
You do -- or maybe I did -- wonder whether he is here in preparation for the eventual departure, probably by season's end, of Kenan Thompson. "SNL" will need another prominent cast-member of color when that happens and Lorne Michaels doesn't want to get caught in the crossfire he was caught in this time last year. It takes a year, minimum, to establish a new player: Che now has that, and last night indicates the move will succeed.
But what of Hammond? If that was Hammond -- and I think we can reasonably be certain it was, though any lingering doubt is understandable.
We got the smooth Hammond, the vanilla Hammond -- his voice without that quavering urgency (born perhaps of advanced years) that Pardo brought to the task. It didn't have any impact, any oomph. It was like the guy calling out your name at Olive Garden to tell you your table was ready. It was as if "SNL" -- in a rush -- grabbed some guy from the audience, or maybe a crew member, to read the cast names (". . .read them slowly, don't stumble. . .")
Where was the drama? Where was the power? Where was the glory? Nor was there was a Don Pardo tribute -- or none that I'm aware of. Not that "SNL" by habit or disposition is the sort of franchise given to fond remembrances (except of course during the "Best Of" editions), but still.
Hammond and "SNL" were probably thinking they needed to be respectful at this early juncture, and that's perfectly fine. Also, I'm told Hammond's recovering from a cold. Nevertheless, let's hope this isn't the future foretold. A way to address this? Let's see Hammond read the names, or have him onstage doing so. He's not in retirement in Arizona. He's in the prime of his career and Hammond back in some elemental way on "SNL," perhaps even beyond an announcing role, would be welcomed with arms so wide that "SNL" fans would pull a muscle in the process.
Plus . . . there's a political season coming up. How nice to have someone named Darrell Hammond in your corner for that.