— Less than two weeks after the writers strike ended, "Saturday Night Live" became the first non-talk-show program to return to the airwaves, and the comeback came with heightened expectations.
The show not only had the pressure of being the first scripted series out of the gate, it had to make up for lost time. Even though "SNL" is still under constant scrutiny from fans and subject to criticism for no longer being relevant after 33 seasons, it was especially missed during the most heated moments of the current presidential campaign.
There's no doubt that "SNL" is still a lightning rod for political satire, pop culture spoofs and general silliness. But the real question regarding its relevance and necessity, especially during this election season, is whether "SNL" is the Hillary Clinton to "The Daily Show's" Barack Obama.
Ultimately, they're both from the same party. They generally agree on most of the issues. And to deny "SNL's" influence on "The Daily Show," like that of the Clinton legacy on Obama, would be extremely shortsighted.
But as one watched "SNL's" comeback episode on Saturday night, the familiar refrains of "experience" versus "hope," the entrenched veteran versus the upstart outsider, the ultimately stodgy establishment choice versus the "edgy" and "hip" alternative became evident.
The big return episode gave "SNL" a chance to come back and prove to everyone what the TV landscape was missing during its 12-week absence. What viewers saw was an amusing and mostly predictable 90 minutes of impressions of politicians, fart jokes and mild pop-culture criticism. In other words, exactly what they were expecting.
Ace in the hole
Nonetheless, from the start, "SNL" sought to lay claim to its vast background and experience in the TV comedy world, bringing back the venerable Steve Martin during the opening monologue, mostly to prove that it could. Martin's cameo was bookended by an homage and birthday cake for 90-year-old Don Pardo, the trademark voice of "Saturday Night Live" who has worked at NBC since 1944. Enough said about the show's "experience."
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"SNL" also brought back its ace in the hole — former head writer Tina Fey, who now runs and stars in the hilarious "30 Rock" — to host, and displayed its political clout by booking Mike Huckabee for a very funny "Weekend Update" appearance in which he poked fun at himself for overstaying his welcome in the presidential primary by overstaying his welcome at the "Update" desk.
The show looked to quickly jump back into the political realm, hitting on the media's obsession with Obama in an opening spoof of a CNN/Univision debate between Obama and Clinton.
CNN anchor Campbell Brown (played by Kristen Wiig) confessed she was clinically diagnosed as an "Obamaniac," and explained that her colleague, CNN White House correspondent John King, "just last week suffered his third 'Barack attack.'" Will Forte played Univision news anchor Jorge Ramos, who, the joke was, has an unhealthy obsession with Obama that includes duct taping notes to Obama's door.
Fred Armisen, the late pick this week to portray Obama, came through with a plausible impersonation, and Amy Poehler nailed her rendition of Clinton (as usual), but the joke ran a little stale after a few minutes.
It served as a reminder that "SNL" has never really been about true political commentary — it's been about reflecting ideas that the audience already knows and believes, and delivering them with a twist of humor through absurdity. "SNL" was long viewed as edgy political satire mostly because there was nothing else like it on television.
Audacity of hope
Over the past decade on "The Daily Show," Jon Stewart and his team have created a place for searing political commentary. It's a show that challenges its viewers to think a little more, and a watchdog that fans know will not allow politicians, the media and even its own guests to slide by on their shenanigans.
Stewart and friends have the audacity of hope, if you will, that political satire on television can be more than impressions of presidents and the punch line du jour.
That's why when the writers strike ended two weeks ago, it was almost cruel of Stewart to give fans just two new episodes with his writing staff in place before going into repeats for the week leading up to his Oscars hosting gig. But it makes Monday night's return of "The Daily Show" that much more compelling.
It's impossible to say there is only room for either "SNL" or "The Daily Show" on television, and it's wholly unfair to judge "SNL" entirely on its first episode back after a 12-week hiatus. Fortunately, viewers don't have to make that choice.
There's a certain sense of comfort and familiarity that goes along with tuning in at 11:30 p.m. on a Saturday and anticipating how the week's events will be re-imagined on "SNL." The show is still relevant and necessary, just not as relevant or necessary as it used to be.
It's taken on the quaintness of Johnny Carson's "Carnac the Magnificent" and David Letterman's "Top 10 List," especially in light of alternative voices such as "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report."
And there's nothing wrong with that.
Victor Balta lives in Philadelphia and is a regular contributor to msnbc.com.