'SNL' in rebuilding mode for season 39

Tina Fey and Kenan Thompson ahead of the

Tina Fey and Kenan Thompson ahead of the "SNL" season premiere. (NBC/Screenshot)

Steve Tilley, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:32 PM ET

Live from New York, it's ... an inescapable sense of déjà vu.

As Saturday Night Live kicks off its 39th season this weekend, all eyes are on NBC's stalwart sketch comedy show to see if it can recover from the departure of some key cast members, bring its rookie talent up to speed and remain, well, if not exactly relevant, then at least somewhat entertaining.

Wait, this sounds awfully familiar. Why? Because we ask these same questions literally every single year. I have a template in my Word folder called "SNL_DEBUT.doc" and I'm just filling in the blanks here.

OK, it's not quite that bad. But sometimes I feel like we, the semi-regular SNL viewers ("fans" might be a generous word), are like the fearful tribes of ancient times, wondering each night of that big fiery ball in the sky that disappeared below the horizon will ever come back up again on the other side. Yet sure enough, it always does.

Make no mistake, SNL is definitely facing a tougher than average season this year, with the departure of Jason Sudeikis, Bill Hader and Fred Armisen blowing three gaping holes - or perhaps two gaping holes and one smaller hole - in the middle of the ensemble.

(A quick aside here: I used to bag on Fred Armisen as the weak link among the SNL veterans. Then I got into Portlandia, and now the man can do no wrong. He is a comedy demigod. Just not so much on SNL.)

But Canadian-born SNL creator Lorne Michaels is wise to have tapped alumnus Tina Fey as the host for the season premiere. As if to say, "Look, just because some people leave doesn't mean they're gone for good! Tina's back, again! And when she hosts, it's always great! Pay no attention to those recently cleaned-out lockers!"

Another canny move: hiring Montreal's Arcade Fire as the musical guest, a band that hits that perfect mix of indie cred and mainstream accessibility, even if Twitter exploded in a "WTF, ARCADE WHO?" crapstorm when they won album of the year at the 2011 Grammys.

As the old go out - likely to be joined next year by Seth Meyers, as he takes over Late Night from Jimmy Fallon - the new come in. Six freshman players join the SNL team this season: Beck Bennett, John Milhiser, Mike O'Brien, Kyle Mooney, Brooks Wheelan and Noel Wells. Unless you're a connoisseur of YouTube comedy, you've probably never heard of any of them.

But that's OK. Once upon a time nobody knew who Will Ferrell was. Or Kristen Wiig. Or Mike Myers or Adam Sandler or Eddie Murphy or any of the literally dozens of comedy icons who have come and gone through Studio 8H at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

With such a slew of new voices, it will take SNL a few episodes to find its feet and its direction this season, for sure. But if nothing else, the show should look and sound very different. And maybe next year we'll actually be looking forward to SNL's return, rather than once again fretting about its fate.

steve.tilley@sunmedia.ca

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