★ ★ ★

Live From New York! is exactly what you’d expect from an 84-minute documentary that tries to run through 40 years of Saturday Night Live: There’s so much ground to cover that it’s never boring, but it also doesn’t have the time to go in-depth with anything. If there’s an overarching theme here, it’s the way the film traces SNL’s slow, inevitable decline from taboo-shattering, countercultural upstart to “important” institution that’s now too big and too profitable to really surprise. But even there, this documentary is long on reverence toward the former position and mentions the latter only in passing.

In fact, director Bao Nguyen keeps pulling this trick throughout: Every time the talking heads bring up one of SNL’s persistent shortcomings, he’ll pivot to counterexamples that make everything okay (and he typically spends more time on the flattery than the criticism). Julia Louis-Dreyfus and other female former castmates state that the show was a boy’s club that didn’t give them enough to do… but then Tina Fey and Amy Poehler insist they made sure that wasn’t the case while they were there. Everyone agrees SNL hasn’t hired nearly enough nonwhite performers over the years... but Leslie Jones told a killer joke on Weekend Update one time about what her dating life would have been like as a slave, despite unspecific people on Twitter thinking it was too edgy. (This segment also contains clips of a sketch that calls out the fact that, with no black women in the regular cast at the time, guest host Kerry Washington was forced to play both Michelle Obama and Oprah in the same scene. It’s a clever bit, yet it says a lot that the harshest critique about SNL’s track record on diversity comes from an attempt to turn that failure into laughs.) To be fair, Jones’ monologue was funny and Tina and Amy are national treasures, but this feels like a cheap way of shutting down even the mildest of criticism.

By far the strongest part of the documentary is the segment that examines SNL’s political material and the degree to which it’s shaped the public images of various authority figures. As Jimmy Fallon points out, George H.W. Bush’s immortal catchphrase “Not gonna do it” was never said by the president himself, but by Dana Carvey while impersonating him (similarly, Gerald Ford’s reputation as a total klutz comes mostly from Chevy Chase’s decision to play him as an accident-prone buffoon after a single incident in which Ford tripped while disembarking from Air Force One). The doc can’t help but lean toward overkill here, too; its tendency to depict SNL as a show that didn’t just perfectly mirror American culture but actually helped shape it reaches its zenith when several interviewees float the idea that its portrayals of George W. Bush as a loveable idiot and Al Gore as a humorless killjoy helped Dubya win the 2000 election (Al Franken, formerly an SNL writer and now a senator from Minnesota, is sure they torpedoed Gore’s chances). That might be a stretch (although really, we’ll never know for certain), yet it’s tough to argue with SNL’s still peerless ability to distill the personalities of politicians into iconic caricatures. It’s one aspect of the show that has remained an essential part of pop culture over the years, and maybe Nguyen should have focused on just that.

The rest of the film uses exactly the moments you’d expect to argue for the show’s edginess (Sinead O’Connor tearing up a photo of Pope John Paul II) and cultural importance (was there ever any doubt that the doc’s climax would involve clips from the post-9/11 episode in which Rudy Giuliani and members of the FDNY appeared onstage?). Amid all of this endless praise, there are a few moments of levity: Amy Poehler cracks that “Saturday Night Live is a show your parents used to have sex to that now you watch from your computer during the day.” You wish the film had dug a little deeper into that sentiment and really explored the fact that Saturday Night Live has become one of the institutions of mainstream comedy that it had initially rebelled against. Live From New York! is briskly entertaining, but it’s ultimately too shallow to serve as anything more than a cursory introduction to a landmark TV show.