Midterm Report Card: How Are SNL's Freshman Cast Members Holding Up?

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This weekend’s Saturday Night Live featured the prodigious talents of Helen Mirren, and, after last week’s silly turn with Elton John, turned out to be yet another enjoyable show. So there you have it: More saucy old British hosts, please!

And once again, the SNL vets shined. Bill Hader's James Carville on "Weekend Update" was hilarious, as was Kristen Wiig (or should I say, "wig") as a rattled flight attendant and Jason Sudeikis as a strip-club DJ on his last night. But what about the newer—or "featured"—cast members. How did they fare? And how do their prospects look at this point in the season?

It’s interesting to watch how the featured players have emerged from the wings to begin to make their mark on the show. For example, Nasim Pedrad—who joined in the 2009-2010 season along with the since-departed Jenny Slate (they in turn were replacing Casey Wilson and Michaela Watkins)—has become such a fixture in sketches that it’s surprising to learn she’s not a full cast member yet. That Pedrad spent an entire sketch with her hands on Dame Helen’s breasts suggests a certain level of job security. Similarly, Vanessa Bayer, who came aboard just this season, already feels like she’s found her place. Her goofy grin and blank, trusting eyes belie a very shrewd performer, and she puts them to use playing an array of overly confident characters with zero self-awareness. It’s a formula that made Will Ferrell a huge star.

As for the guys, Taran Killam, who has already been a MADtv cast member, is a gifted impressionist and actor who simply has yet to demonstrate that he is operating on the same level as Bill Hader or Jason Sudeikis. Paul Brittain, however, is having a harder time making an impression. And quite literally, sometimes: His James Franco and Johnny Depp—both of which popped up in the celebrity accountant sketch this week—are barely there at all. Kick it up a notch, Paul. Make Franco five times as stoned! (Maybe Andy Samberg, who is not a gifted actor but is a gifted comedian, could give him some pointers.)

But it’s Jay Pharoah’s future that seems most in-jeopardy. Where Paul at least appears in sketches with some regularity, Jay’s screen time seems to be dwindling. This week, he popped up to do one short impression of Will Smith, then again for a line in the Juggalos sketch. I find Pharoah’s SNL journey kind of interesting, in that he is clearly standing in the giant shadow of Eddie Murphy. He looks like Murphy, he sounds like Murphy (especially when he imitates him) … but he ain’t Murphy. His one skill is doing impressions of male African-American celebrities. It’s the kind of thing you didn't know you wanted until you got it, and then you were like—“Ha ha! That IS like Denzel Washington!”—and now you're kind of over it? But those impressions were Pharoah's stand-up act before SNL, and presumably they're what got him the gig. Is it really fair for the show to then turn on the guy and say, “Is that all you got?” Then again, is there any fairness in SNL? No, there isn’t. Just ask Jenny Slate, who found out one F-bomb too late.

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