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'SNL' season premiere recap: The new kids goof on themselves

For all the satire-worthy things on screens this week — a government shutdown threat, a thaw with Iran, the gayness of your pasta — they decided at “Saturday Night Live” that nothing could compete with what they saw in the mirror.

The show has never been more self-aware than it was on its 39th season premiere Saturday, an episode that not only welcomed six new featured players, it doted over them.

In her opening monologue, host Tina Fey avenged the dance routines she had to perform in the past (shown in clips) by bringing out the all-white newbies and forcing them to gyrate behind her in shimmering gold jackets and shorts. “Remember,” she taunted, “it was your dream to work here!”

And later, a whole sketch was built around the anonymous faces, a Kenan Thompson-hosted game show where Fey had to guess whether a person was a new featured player or a member of Arcade Fire, the night’s musical guest. When young Noel Wells began sputtering her admiration of Fey, Thompson barked, “No lines! That’s something you’ve got to earn!”

But in reality, most of the rookies had moments of airtime in roles a step beyond the usual expository waiter:

  • In the fake Obama speech about health care at the show open, New Trier grad and droll AT&T pitchman Beck Bennett showed up as a moronic slacker sponging off his dad’s coverage.
  • Second City and iO veteran Michael O’Brien, elevated from the “SNL” writing room to an on-air position, fronted the first used car commercial in history, a black-and-white spot pushing Model T’s and nothing else. The hawker’s faux insanity was no match for the genuine melancholy of his lobotomized wife (Fey), who intoned, “I think I killed that Navajo girl.”
  • Kyle Mooney, Bennett’s castmate in the sketch group Good Neighbor, played a burned-out comic bringing “Weekend Update” down with his tired jokes about New York and L.A.
  • Noel Wells, who made her name with impersonations online, played Lena Dunham in a “Girls” parody in which the self-absorbed New Yorkers met a grim Albanian (Fey) whose problems actually matter.
  • In a fake ad for meth available e-cig style, real-life stand-up Brooks Wheelan enjoyed further humiliation as a user crashing a stranger’s home while naked from the nipples down. He also fleetingly appeared with newcomer John Milhiser as son and father in an airline boarding sketch.
  • Meanwhile, Chicago-trained Cecily Strong made her debut as “Update” co-anchor, delivering the jokes with aplomb but blunting their impact a bit by mugging post-punchline. Strong and fellow ex-local Aidy Bryant are newly promoted to the show’s repertory cast, just one year after their hiring as featured players.

The altogether satisfying episode also celebrated the weekend’s pop-culture holiday, “Breaking Bad” Eve, with multiple cameos by the show’s Aaron Paul. And after Fey said her goodnights, she again introduced Arcade Fire, whose performance segued into an esoteric, multi-song concert video – Here Comes the Night Time – which featured three new songs from the band’s upcoming album and a cavalcade of cameos: James Franco, Bono, Ben Stiller, Aziz Ansari, Eric Wareheim, Bill Hader, Zach Galifianakis and Rainn Wilson.

Here’s the entire episode: