"Saturday Night Live in the '80s," which airs Sunday night on NBC, continues the story begun in February's "The First Five Years," suffering, as did the series itself, somewhat in the comparison.
It's not so much a lack of available material -- it would be a sad story indeed if, from a decade of shows, the producers could not cull enough good sketches to fill two hours (you could do that and more with Eddie Murphy or Jon Lovitz or Phil Hartman alone) -- as that the story of how something new and brilliant is created is inherently more engaging than the story of how it lurches along afterward, looking to get brilliant again.
Like the first installment, "SNL in the '80s" is unusually journalistic, honest and forthcoming, even self-critical for what is, on a functional level, a sweeps-month clip show. But having so much more ground to cover -- twice as many years, with a constantly rotating cast -- it inevitably gives its subject a shorter shrift, to the extent that someone not familiar with the series might have trouble understanding what the fuss is.
The show is not uninteresting or dull. (And Murphy's James Brown parody, "Hot Tub," is here, which is reason enough to hang out.) But though it charts the twists and turns, the comings and goings, pays respects to the major moments, characters and catch phrases, it never really communicates what made the show, the process or the product special.
The story this time is one of confusion, institutional and creative, marked by flashes of brilliance. The question raised by the 1980 departure of producer Lorne Michaels and the whole of the remaining original company -- Belushi, Aykroyd, Radner, Murray, et al. -- with its inimitable rock-group glamour, was whether "Saturday Night Live" was its cast and crew or its concept? The answer ultimately is "both," but it took years and Michaels' eventual return to make this clear.
At the time, says second-phase cast member Gilbert Gottfried (appearing with a bird on his shoulder), describing the initial public reaction, "This was an outrage. This would be like telling people that in the middle of Beatlemania you were going to remove the Beatles and have a whole new group of Beatles."
Press was bad, the audience alienated. "I thought the show was a sinking ship," says Mary Gross. There were draconian remakes: the year of the actors (Randy Quaid, Robert Downey Jr., Joan Cusack, Anthony Michael Hall), the year of the older, already established comedy talent (Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, Martin Short). In the final sketch of the 1985-86 season, much of the cast was set on fire, spirited away to a waiting car and told not to ask questions.
Lovitz and fellow survivors Dennis Miller and Nora Dunn became the basis of a new cast -- along with Phil Hartman, Dana Carvey, Kevin Nealon, Jan Hooks and Victoria Jackson -- that had something of the camaraderie and spirit and cultural relevance of the original.
Says Michaels, "We came back to feeling what we were doing was the show again." And so the special ends on a happy note and manages a kind of dramatic arc. And there are still Mike Myers, David Spade, Adam Sandler, Molly Shannon, Will Ferrell and Jimmy Fallon to come.
'Saturday Night Live in the '80s: Lost and Found'
When: 9 to 11 p.m. Sunday
Ratings: TV-14LD (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for strong coarse language and suggestive dialogue)
Producer, writer and director: Kenneth Bowser.