After taking Thanksgiving Weekend off, Saturday Night Live returned yesterday with host James Franco and musical guest Nicki Minaj. Franco is old hat by now—this was his third time hosting, in addition to several cameos—and was very comfortable fitting into the cast in an episode filled with good material. It wasn't quite as great as the Woody Harrelson episode, but this was yet another consistent SNL with signs that things will only continue getting better.
Best Sketch Of The Night: I've made no secret of the fact I think Mike O'Brien has been the brilliant mind behind the best sketches over the last three seasons. Even though he was moved from the stage to the writer's room this season, he still has had a few excellent digital sketches make it on air, all with his signature blend of surreal humor and deep-rooted sadness. Last night he unveiled his own well-deserved imprint ("A Mike O'Brien Picture") for Grow A Guy, which hit all those notes. We'd all be very lucky if we got one of these strange, melancholy, funny bits a week.
Best Sign That Things Are Finally Starting To Gel On Weekend Update: Colin Jost and Michael Che have had flickers of chemistry this season, but this week was the first time it felt like they really let loose. The material on the Eric Garner case was both filled with justified outrage and given a personal touch, breaking out of the staid one liner joke-for-joke delivery that they normally do. Between that intro and relationship expert Leslie Jones' flirting, this was certainly the most personality Jost has shown since he took the desk last season. Add in an appearance from Update stalwart Anthony Crispino and a solid Kim Kardashian impression from Nicki Minaj, and you have a jumbo-sized Weekend Update. Hopefully Jost and Che will continue warping the traditional set-up in coming weeks.
Best Political Cold Open Of The Season (And Maybe Of The Last Two Years): The toothless political cold opens have often been the worst parts of SNL in recent years, but for some reason, the stars seemed to align a bit last night. Maybe it was Kenan Thompson's Al Sharpton impression being utilized perfectly, maybe it was the stress and anger from the past week boiling over into some funny jabs, but either way, we didn't cringe for once before the opening credits. And that is progress.
Best Impression-Off Of The Night: There were three sketches that included a heavy dose of impressions (Jingle Ballerz, Overly Full Brain, Peter Pan Live!)—overall, we thought the hip-hop impressions in Jingle Ballerz won the night, especially Jay Pharoah as Kanye West as baby Jesus. And we can never say no to Kate McKinnon's Justin Bieber. But kudos to Franco for his almost subtle Christopher Walken impression in Peter Pan, which was less hammy than the real Walken is at this point.
Obligatory Reminder That We Will All Get Old Before We Know It: The Star Wars trailer parody was solid, though it didn't quite reach the heights of past trailer parodies like The Beygency or The Midnight Coterie Of Sinister Intruders. It was a series of loose scenes all revolving around classic Star Wars characters like Luke, Lea, Han and Lando, with the joke every time being, "...they're old now, get it?" But hey, we still chuckled at Franco's Luke Sky-Walker.
Memorial Bruno Mars Award: Two years ago, ambulatory white fedora Bruno Mars very unexpectedly pulled double-duty as host and musical guest. We expected it to be a disaster, but instead we got the sublime Sad Rat sketch and some weird eye patch humor. So we nominate Nicki Minaj to be the next musical host: she made three appearances in addition to performing music last night, including a knockout Beyonce impression, a fantasy version of herself in Overly Full Brain, and a dignified Kim Kardashian on Weekend Update. Even when she started to break during the Jingle Ballerz sketch, she collected herself and seemed completely in control. We would be shocked if it didn't happen next season.
Best Sketch That Isn't Currently Available Online, Possibly Because Of Savage Garden: The aforementioned Overly Full Brain was like an early 1970's Woody Allen sketch, the kind of thing that could have been on SNL anytime over the last 40 years. It was a fantastic idea that is built to be a recurring sketch in the future (and has room for improvement on the delivery). Unfortunately, it isn't available online, likely because of song rights. Was it because Taran Killam barked some classic Savage Garden lyrics? We're just asking questions.
Most Disappointing Sketch Of The Night: Everything seemed off about Troll Bridge, which seemed to think male-on-male making out would be enough of a climax to justify several minutes of disjointed line-readings. On the plus side, this was the only complete dud of the night, so that's progress!
Most Glaring Absences Of The Night: However, there were a lot of cast members who didn't have much to do last night: Kyle Mooney was nowhere to be found (and this was the first episode in a long time without any Mooney/Beck Bennet signature video), McKinnon didn't get much to do besides that Bieber impression, Sasheer Zamata didn't get much besides her Rihanna impression, and Vanessa Bayer seemed to only pop up in the 10-to-1 porn stars sketch.
Click through for all those sketches, plus semi-nude photos of Seth Rogan during the monologue and performances by Nicki Minaj. Beloved hobbit Martin Freeman will make his hosting debut next week, with musical guest Charli XCX—expectations seem somewhat low for Freeman, who despite The Hobbit fame probably is one of the less big stars they've had this season. But all of this makes us more excited for what SNL will be able to come up with him.