'Saturday Night Live' is Getting Better, Thanks to the Ladies

The fact that Saturday Night Live was not a hot flaming mess of a TV show when its 39th season premiered Saturday — regardless of whether you loved it or not — is a great thing. Sure, there are plenty of reasons and examples one can give to prove how terrible, no good, and very bad it was: the overuse of Aaron Paul (I still love you though bb don't worry), the beat-into-the-groundness of the Saboski Girls sketch. That cold open. But! By not being awful-terrible-no-good-very-bad, it was still a success. And that's mostly thanks to the upped lady ante on the show.

Now, I know what you're thinking — ladies? Ha, that show is basically a sausagefest for twentysomething nerdy white dudes. To which we say: Yes, yes, it is. But we already knew that! And it's a groan-worthy song-and-dance not in need of yet another dead horse-beating. But the great thing about the 39th season opener of SNL was not that it was hosted by the indomitable Tina Fey, or that there's a whole new vat of fresh meat to sink our ever-critical teeth into. It's that it seems as though Lorne Michaels and co., have finally figured out what to do with women.

The show could have had about 87 billion things go wrong. A nearly all-new cast, a host who could've single-handedly dominated the entire show, a quirky band at their most quirkiest, and the anticipation that a "rebuilding year" was really just code for a "sucking year." So with Fey in the compassionate-but-tough driver's seat, we were off. Was the first show of the series — with its monologue and Arcade Fire sketch that acknowledged the new cast — all a bit too self-conscious and self-aware? Of course. But it came across as endearingly so, when you consider everything the show is up against.

Saturday Night Live is hardly an inclusive, socially representative show of America right now, but it's trying. It is ever the people-pleaser, trying and wanting to do well. To win your affections. It almost felt as if Aaron Sorkin wrote the whole thing up in a Studio 60-induced fever dream. Only instead of Sorkin's vision of women, we got tough, varied, real, funny women. All the better!

The women on this show this year are all individuals. They're not like a lot of the girls in the past that have slipped through the casting cracks — for every Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, or Kristen Wiig, there are plenty of Victoria Jackson, Melanie Hutsell, and Ellen Cleghorne types, to say nothing of the myriad of featured players who don't even make it as far as those three did. Treating women as individuals on SNL has taken a long time, probably because it's taken the sketch comedy series (and the rest of America/the world, cough cough) to understand that being female (or black, gay, fat, etc... ) is not a novelty. And it's not a selling point. It's a point of view, and through that, tons of humor can be found, to be sure, but comedy done well does more than just point and laugh at otherness.

Take a look at the women on season 39: Vanessa Bayer, Aidy Bryant, Kate McKinnon, Nasim Pedrad, Cecily Strong, and newcomer Noël Wells (who killed at Hannah Horvath in the Girls video sketch). Sure, a 10 guys to five girl ratio isn't great, but there are plenty of ratios on SNL that aren't great, either. What is great is how clearly powerful these five women are, and how they're all fully realized performers — something that's clearly visible in each of them. Like with so many of the standout men who've appeared on the show, these women have a clear point-of-view in their comedy, and interesting handle on what that means to them, which is the ultimate key to succeeding on this show. It's something that the men have always had (Bill Hader, Eddie Murphy, Will Ferrell, Mike Myers), but so many of the women weren't given the opportunity to express in SNL's well-documented misogynist past. Or maybe just didn't have at all: TV is a visual medium and in the battle of looks versus talent, sometimes talent loses. Just sayin'.

But that's not to say all the women who've grace the SNL stage and "failed" are lacking. I mean, just look at the many female alums who have truly shined since leaving the series: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Joan Cusack, Janeane Garofalo, Christine Ebersole, Jenny Slate, and Casey Wilson. On the sketch comedy series, all of these women barely made an impression, but all have managed to establish themselves as their own brands of comedic juggernaut since leaving those hallowed halls. Seems to me that maybe Lorne Michaels has finally figured out how to handle the talent that he finds (and he is very good at finding it). Or maybe the writers figured out that playing to the existing cast members' strengths contributes to a strong SNL.

Whatever the case, I can't help but think that it's working. Baby steps, you guys.