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The latest season of S.N.L. kicked off, as one might expect, by covering the most important political news story of the week. But though the Brett Kavanaugh hearing cropped up both directly and indirectly throughout the night, it wasnt the real star of the show. The most attention was actually dedicated to cast member Pete Davidson and his fast-paced romance with singer Ariana Grande. The subject was raised repeatedly throughout the episode and we know the writers and producers wanted to lean into it even harder. Grande was originally slated to appear on the show as a musical guest before she was replaced by a very unstable Kanye West. Imagine what hay the show could have made with the two of them on stage together. But the real reason for the shows fascination with Davidson and Grandes high-profile relationship has as much to do with some problems at the core of S.N.L. as it does with some good-natured ribbing between cast mates.

Davidsons relationship which began in May right around last seasons finale was the central punchline of host Adam Drivers largely unexceptional opening monologue. (Driver himself is an exceptional host and disappears effortlessly into character work. This particular summer vacation monologue concept, however, did him no favors.)

The show then followed up with bits that ranged from the alienatingly insular—Kyle Mooneys pre-recorded sketch about feeling jealous of Davidsons rising star—to borderline creepy when Davidsons “Weekend Update” appearance included a joke about replacing Grandes birth control pills with Tic Tacs in order to lock her down as a partner. Part of this is just good business sense. Grande and Davidson were the toast of celebrity gossip this summer and other than the sketches on Kavanaugh, Davidsons “Update” appearance is currently the most popular YouTube video from the S.N.L. premiere.

And it should be said that other than the Tic Tac joke, Davidsons “Update” appearance was fairly charming and self-deprecating. Though hes never been a stand out in sketches, Davidson has always performed best when riffing on deeply personal issues like his [hard-won sobriety](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XB_0gVcLCJo and mental health.

But the real insight into the inner workings of S.N.L. these days can be found in the Mooney sketch. In the episodes most self-aware moment, Mooney is looked over by producer Lorne Michaels who showers Davidson with praise after his summer spent in the spotlight.

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Its a joke, of course. . .but is it? S.N.L. has in the past few years become increasingly celebrity-obsessed. Once upon a time, the show itself was a star-making machine. But that doesnt seem to be its focus anymore. With viewing audiences more fractured and distracted than ever, S.N.L. has been leaning more and more on outside talent in order to grab attention. Whether its hiring Matt Damon as Brett Kavanaugh, Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer, Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump, Ben Stiller as Michael Cohen, Scarlett Johansson (girlfriend to current head writer Colin Jost) as Ivanka Trump, or Robert De Niro as Robert Mueller, S.N.L. seems disinterested in allowing any cast member other than series star and Emmy winner Kate McKinnon the room to shine.

In fact, increasing dependence on political sketches has drastically reduced the number of recurring sketches and characters outside of cameos at the “Update” desk to almost nothing. Once, S.N.L. litigiously guarded against its sketches going up online. Now the show embraces its new identity as a collection of YouTube videos meant to be watched on Sunday morning by casual Web viewers who dont care about continuity.

Last season, only three cast members—the aforementioned Emmy winner McKinnon; the shows most reliable and longest-running player, Kenan Thompson; and Davidson—got to repeat non-“Update” characters within the season. For McKinnon and Thompson, the platform was their bonkers end-of-night bar hookup sketch, “Last Call,” which serves as a showcase for disgusting behavior from McKinnon and that weeks guest host. For Davidson, it was the abrasively dim “Chad,” whose defining characteristic is his lack of a personality, complete with a dull catchphrase: “O.K.!” Both of these premises are as much about shoring up the guest hosts as they are showing off the recurring cast.

Last year, the current cast also got to bring back a small handful of characters from previous seasons. Thompson revived his emcee duties for new “Black Jeopardy” and “Family Feud” sketches (which are also mainly showcases for the host), while McKinnon got Emmy winning guest host Tiffany Haddish to join her for another goofy end-of-night tradition: “Whiskers R We.” McKinnon and Strong revived their “Close Encounter” characters for host Ryan Goslings return. And thats . . . it. The show that once used familiarity to turn characters like Matt Foley, the Blues Brothers, the Church Lady, the Coneheads, Wayne Campbell, Roseanne Roseannadanna, the Ladies Man, MacGruber, and more into quotable pop-culture icons (not to mention feature-film stars) now has almost zero recognizable fixtures. Those S.N.L. staples made celebrities out of Chris Farley, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Dana Carvey, Jane Curtin, Mike Myers, Gilda Radner, etc. How are the incredibly talented Beck Bennett, Heidi Gardner, Aidy Bryant, Alex Moffat, Cecily Strong, Mikey Day, and more supposed to distinguish themselves in the same way?

The answer seems to be building celebrity outside the scope of the show. Davidsons episode screen time got a major bump after his summer of fame. Similarly Leslie Jones—who constantly flubs lines in every sketch she appears in—isnt going anywhere anytime soon thanks to the following shes built off her engaging and compelling social media presence as well as her intense Olympics and Game of Thrones super-fandom. So the truth is this summer Davidson and Grande succeeded in doing something S.N.L. no longer can: turn a sketch comedian into a star. Davidsons reward for the new shine on his star? Even more screen time than ever before.

Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Joanna RobinsonJoanna Robinson is a Hollywood writer covering TV and film for VanityFair.com.

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