10. SNL has always had a lot of filler
I'm sorry that the first reason here is more of an excuse than a positive affirmation of the show's qualities, but it needs to be said: even the best years of SNL have had a lot of mediocre/lame/outright stupid sketches. The recent release of the first few seasons on DVD has particularly shown that even in its lauded first couple years, there was still realiably a good 30 minutes worth of the 90 minute show that nobody could possibly care to ever see again. Which is probably why SNL is almost always rerun as an hour-long show instead of a 90-min. And that is probably part of why you remember what was good from then, and not what was filler. Yep, it has filler today, too, but no more filler than it ever did, and the strong stuff is quite strong. Okay, that out of the way, the rest of these will be positive.
9. They're doing good parodies of classic cultural pieces
Something that SNL has sometimes avoided is doing cultural parody of classic culture rather than current pop culture. Yes, you risk alienating a young audience that might not be extremely familiar with Of Mice and Men or Mary Poppins when you do stuff like this:
but the learning curve to figure it out isn't too hard, and for those who know the material well (read: most mildly-educated people), these are both pretty smart and funny sketches. I'm glad they're doing this more this season.
8. Some of their newer writers are fantastic and heroes of mine in other endeavors
Now, I know that the fact that the writers are funny outside the show doesn't necessarily mean that in the show they're great, but two young writers who have been added in the last year--Simon Rich and John Mulaney--are both guys that I'm huge fans of outside of SNL, and I'm sure they've made great contributions to the recent improvement of the show's writing. Simon Rich, former editor-in-chief of the Harvard Lampoon, has written two collections of short humor pieces and publiched several of them The New Yorker, such as this:
which is very funny. On the other side of the coin, John Mulaney is hands-down one of the funniest stand-up comedians I have ever seen or heard, and I listen to and watch kind of a lot of stand-up (for some reason I can't embed this):
Rich is now in his second year as a writer on SNL, and Mulaney is in his first.
7. They're being adventurous in their choice of hosts
Who is Jon Hamm? I don't know, I've never seen Mad Men either. But in any case, Lorne Michaels (or somebody else) managed to use some sixth sense to peg him as a great sketch actor even if he isn't an A-list modern cultural figure (yet), and got him on the show. And oh, man, he was great:
Other similarly impressive choies, though none that wowed me as much as Hamm: Josh Brolin, Paul Rudd, and last night's John Malkovich.
6. They're doing good topical stuff that isn't just impression-based
Saturday Night Live has always been pretty good at nailing the humanity of of political figures, or topical stuff in general when they have a specific personality to engage with. But they tend to be a little weaker when it comes to a conceptually smart take on a current event, which is why I've been quite impressed so far this season:
And, on the more political/topical side, one that contains some impressions but is more about the smart, aggressive angle:
5. Along those lines, the political stuff that is impression-based has, obviously, been great
This is the stuff that you've admitted to your friends is good even if you haven't seen a whole episode yet. Fred Armisen's Barack Obama is better than most people have given him credit for--I'm sure people will start realizing that it's a very good impression once the writing finds a more aggressive angle on him. And Hammond's McCain has been solid, too. But of course, the scene-stealer has been Fey's Palin. This one was, I think, the best of hers:
4. They're not afraid to go "out there"
There's been a good amount of pretty adventurous, weird stuff on SNL this year. It doesn't always work, but when it does...
3. Their pop cultural parody is spot-on
As much as I can talk about the satirical topicality or classic cultural parody that SNL is doing right now, their bread and butter are two things: first, pop cultural parody. Which isn't necssarily my favorite kind of sketch, but God, when it's done right...
2. Their character-based sketches are solidly above-average
This is the other part of the bread-and-butter SNL, the sketches built around a specific actor's character. Which is why this season of Saturday Night Live is being ruled by Kristen Wiig:
1. The cast is almost across-the-board fantastic
I think that Wiig is pr0bably my favorite cast member right now, though Will Forte, Bill Hader, and Jason Sudeikis all impress me and vie for that spot on a very regular basis. (Amy Poehler is great too, but she'll be gone soon.) Bobby Moynihan has been good in what he's done so far, Fred Armisen has done some really fantastic stuff, Darrel Hammond has never been bad in all his million years on the show, and Kenan Thompson sometimes underwhelms me but was so good in that View sketch that I think show is starting to know how to use him right. I haven't been impressed by any of the new girls yet, but I'm giving them time, because current Saturday Night Live is WORTH IT.