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NBC's fourth SNL history lesson passes, yet fails

Saturday Night Live's greatest hits of "The Aughts" have included Tina Fey as Sarah Palin and Will Ferrell as George W. Bush.

NBC's fourth in a series of behind-the-scenes Saturday Night Live documentaries is the weakest link of the bunch.

Maybe it's just too soon for the two-hour Saturday Night Live in the 2000s: Time and Again, which premieres on Thursday, April 15th at 8 p.m. (central). The cast members aren't terribly revealing or reflective in their recollections of this recent history. Some are still with SNL and others only recently removed. So it just doesn't click in the manner of 2005's Live From New York: The First 5 Years of Saturday Night Live, which had a quarter century to marinate.

The two other SNL retrospectives, Saturday Night Live in the '80s: Lost and Found and Saturday Night Live in the '90s: Pop Culture Nation, also were directed and produced by Kenneth Bowser. His latest two-hour film is entertaining for the most part, but without much texture or insight. One major shortcoming: No time is spent at all on Fred Arnisen taking on the very difficult task -- comedic and otherwise -- of playing Barack Obama. But ample attention is paid to Tina Fey's sendup of Sarah Palin.

The most interesting segment of Time and Again relives the difficulties in re-mounting SNL in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The show's Sept. 29 return that year began with New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani surrounded by New York police officers and firefighters. Paul Simon's very memorable performance of "The Boxer" added to the overall somberness of the show's early minutes before Giuliani praised SNL as a national institution that both the country and New York couldn't live without. So on with the show, he said, before executive producer Lorne Michaels asked, "Can we be funny?"

"Why start now?" Giuliani deadpanned. That deftly broke the ice, although some will still cling to the hidebound view that SNL hasn't been funny since its groundbreaking early years.

That first post 9/11 show was hosted by Reese Witherspoon, who kept her commitment to the show.

"God bless Reese Witherspoon for not canceling," says former director Beth McCarthy.

Going unmentioned is the fact that the next week's long-scheduled host, New Yorker Ben Stiller, in fact did pull out abruptly and without any apology or explanation, according to the excellent 2002 oral history of the show, titled Live From New York. His publicist phoned to inform SNL of his decision.

Talent coordinator Marci Klein, who appears on Time and Again, says in the book that Stiller "never called Lorne, he never called me, he never wrote a letter to the show, nothing. Then, I turn on the (expletive) TV a couple of days later and who so I see but Ben Stiller. He's on The View, the Today show, he's on every show doing press for his movie . . . I just think it is so wrong what he did."

Why bring this up again? Because it's stuck with me ever since reading the book, and I've never looked at Stiller the same again. You definitely won't find his picture next to the words "Standup Guy."

Numerous cast members from "The Aughts" talk in snippets throughout Thursday's special. Kenan Thompson is really short-shrifted, though, both in his recollections and in clips from the shows. The rise of SNL's women cast members gets considerable attention, though, -- and rightly so. Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and Rachel Dratch combined to wrest the show from its longtime dominance by male cast members.

Guest hosts Alex Baldwin, Christopher Walken, John McCain and Justin Timberlake also do fresh interviews for Time and Again. Timberlake's famed Christmas season "Dick in the Box" film with Andy Samberg is re-examined at length. But NBC is still bleeping the word "dick."

Some of the funnier clips are when cast members crack up and fall out of character. Will Ferrell and Rachel Dratch in a hot tub remains high-larious. Funnier yet is Dratch's complete meltdown in a Debbie Downer sketch that also included the mess-around duo of Jimmy Fallon and Horatio Sanz.

It all ends weakly, though, with various current cast members testifying to the greatness of SNL and the ongoing thrill of being a part of it.

All well and good, but not for the purposes of this latest retrospective. Time and Again doesn't really tell us anything new about SNL. That's what these films are supposed to do -- and previously have.