Tonight marks the third time that Charles Barkley has hosted “Saturday Night Live.” I completely forgot that he initially hosted the show in 1993 until doing a little digging in preparation for tonight’s recap. I remember his 2010 appearance well, albeit unkindly. So I’m slightly dreading his presence tonight in this, the first “SNL” of 2012. It doesn’t help my confidence that he spent seemingly half of today inside NBC’s “Football Night in America” studio plugging his appearance rather than working on his sketches. He’s a larger-than-life personality outside of this show, but seems to shrink in this particular spotlight. Oh well. If nothing else, the original “American Idol” herself Kelly Clarkson may brighten tonight’s proceedings.
 
As per usual, only one way to find out. I grade each sketch, you get mad, and then we all move on with our lives. Deal? Deal.
 
A Message From Rick Santorum: We’re starting twenty minutes late, thanks to the aforementioned football coverage. RYAN CRANKY. Andy Samberg has to be delighted that his Santorum actually gets a cold open, since when the show last aired, it was unclear that Santorum would even be in the race at this point. (This probably explains why his impression is basically a toned down version of Samberg’s Nicolas Cage. Why work on an impression you think you’ll never have to perform for any significant length?) He pledges to visit every county in every state during his Presidential candidate, and there are times in which this sketch feels as long as that potential journey. There are some fun detours into surrealism (“If the lesbians don’t get me, the Mormon death squads probably will!”), but mostly this is an unfunny monologue that has middling jokes drawn out over overly long sentences. It’s bad that I’m actively wishing for Barkley already, right? [Grade: C-]
 
Monologue: Wow, Michael Jordan must have really stuck it to Barkley recently, as the host is firing round after round at Jordan in this monologue. (The line about his engagement seemed unplanned, and particularly cutting.) The rest of this was basically a commercial for Weight Watchers. The monologue’s biggest asset: it was nice and short, which didn’t give Barkley a lot of time to trip over the cue cards. Not a lot of “there” there, but at least they didn’t try to put him into a huge dance number. [Grade: C+]
 
Chantix: It’s “Happy Fun Ball”, but about a pill to help you quit smoking! It’s basically an excuse for Kristen Wiig to make the silly faces she does in other sketches as an unseen announcer reads increasingly dire warnings. Plus? I’m pretty sure Gilly never gave us “Robert De Niro Face,” so this pre-produced commercial brought something new to the table. [Grade: B]
 
Inside The NBA: Is Kenan Thompson’s Barkley impression always this good? Because it’s ON tonight. Even more surprising? Barkley’s low-key impression of Shaq isn’t exactly accurate, and he looks more like Uncle Phil from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” than the NBA superstar. But the deadpan attitude works within the context of the sketch. Even MORE surprising? Jay Pharoah gets a high-profile part this early in the show! Surprises abounding here. Mostly things went on at a steady if unremarkable clip, until Bill Hader punctuated the sketch by declaring, “We’re all black friends!” which sent everyone else onstage into near convulsions. For the second time, I can’t tell if that was planned or not. But it certainly made for interesting television. [Grade: B+]
 
White People Problems: Once a hashtag, NOW A SKETCH! Seats on airplanes, free-range chickens, vacation homes…all awkward situations. “Awkward is a word that white people can use in every situation!” Barkley helpfully reminds us. Damnit. Now I have fallen into his trap! But know what else is awkward? SNL’s cast demographic complete limits the scope of this sketch. Once Thompson and Pharoah appear again, the show is completely devoid of African-American talent. “White People Problems” would have been a recurring sketch on a modern-day version of “In Living Color,” but won’t appear on “SNL” again for the foreseeable future. It’s always weird when the show airs sketches that overtly points out its own limitations, and let’s be frank, anachronisms. It may have been decently funny, but it was also plenty problematic. [Grade: B]
 
ESPN Bowl Madness: We get it! There are a lot of bowls! There's no need to shame us into watching three dogs versus 100 bats in the Skechers Shape-Ups How I Met Your Mother Trojan Minis Bowl! Not even Sarah McLachlan would put us through that kind of canine terror! [Grade: C-]
 
Joanne: Barkley appears as Joanne, a woman that comes out as a lesbian to her shocked friends before breaking up with her boyfriend. Said boyfriend is played by Paul Brittain, who is a freakin’ Hobbit compared to Charles Barkley. It’s Lord Wyndemere of the Rings! I’m not sure there’s really a comedic premise here, other than the visual of Barkley in a dress. Joanne’s friends seem awfully willing to stand facing away from her for long periods of time, but there’s little context to the proceedings that suggest a longer history between these people. That might sound like a silly complaint, but “SNL” packs in dense history into its best sketches all the time, even stand-alone ones. Also? I’m grading on a curve here, but Barkley has been perfectly fine thus far post-monologue. [Grade: B-]
 
Charles Barkley’s Post Game Translator: Here’s an app that lets you cut through the mumbo-jumbo of press conferences. It’s clear which lines here came from Barkley’s own feelings and which were lines handed to him to recite. The former ones totally connect. The latter ones feel like they were written by people that don’t actually watch sports. Short and semi-sweet. It’s been a fairly consistent, if unspectacular, show since that wretched cold open. [Grade: B-]
 
Oh, hi Kelly Clarkson! You and your bangs are here to sing “What Doesn’t Kill You”, the latest attempt to recreate the magic of “Since U Been Gone.” It’s one of her better latter-day variations on the same theme, possibly because it involves a freakin’ keytar! There are a LOT of people onstage with her, perhaps to make up for the fact that Clarkson isn’t the most dynamic live performer. She sounds great, but other than getting the audience to clap along, she doesn’t have much in the way of stage presence in this particular performance. Maybe bigger stages yield bigger energy, but this performance is fairly perfunctory. [Grade: B-]
 
Weekend Update: Michele Bachmann comes on to discuss her failed campaign and announce her return to blinking. She sings Montell Jordan jams in celebration of the experience, but brings little else to the proceedings. Next, because I’m a bad person that apparently needs to be punished for my sins, Nicholas Fehn returns to read the headlines. I know many of you love Fred Armisen’s knowing send-ups of NYC performers, but I find them almost invariably smug to the point of offensiveness. After that, Bobby Moynihan makes his 2012 debut as Drunk Uncle. He’s there to make some resolutions, but instead rants about the need for women to wear hats in church instead of “Kindling their boyfriends.” Drunk Uncle is on the opposite end of the Moynihan Spectrum from Anthony Crispino. Crispino has me frantically searching for the “Mute” button, but I’d be perfectly happy to have Drunk Uncle appear with Stefon-like frequency. He saved this “Update” from being utterly forgettable. [Grade: C+]
 
Lord Wyndemere: God help me, I love Wyndemere as much as Jason Sudeikis’ character does.And Barkley, as his friend, gets in on the act, as enthralled by the Lord as we all should be. “I wanna hold him!” he cries out, desperately trying not to giggle on live television. This wasn’t as explosively funny as the first iteration of this sketch, which was all about the girlfriend’s father falling under Wyndemere’s spell. But I’m never going to complain about his eternal search for sweets. [Grade: B+]
 
The 17th Annual Adult Video Awards: We witness an “In Memorium” tribute, which is essentially a retread of the “Underground Festival” comedic technique of “let’s just throw three hundred jokes at the screen and hope most of them land.” The adult movie stars themselves were mostly amusing for their punny names, but seeing the dorky screenwriter and the put-upon cleaning man were truly funny touches. The most notable aspect of this? Our first Nasim Pedrad sighting all night! The saddest part of this? Someone had to build that live set for 18 seconds of use. [Grade: C]
 
Convoluted Jerry: This might be the latest that a Digital Short has aired in-show since “Lazy Sunday” took off. (Don’t quote me on that. But anecdotally, that feels right.) Even when they are awful, “Digital Shorts” tend to have a signature style to them. Other than Samberg hamming it up, this could have been one of the show’s more traditional pre-produced bits. It’s been a pretty rough season for The Lonely Island on “SNL”. One might say brutal. And 2012 is starting off horrifically for them. [Grade: D-]
 
Kelly Clarkson is back, this time with “Mr. Know It All.” Confession: I may or may not sing along to this song in the car when it’s on. What can I say? I have a soft spot for Ms. Clarkson and her brand of inoffensive but completely catchy pop. I’m not sure she needs four back-up singers to help her along, but hey, I’m no expert. Maybe she appreciates the aide. The fact that she’s still popular this long after her “Idol” win is pretty incredible, given the fickle nature of the pop music world. If she needs a full chorus to keep her career going, so be bit. [Grade: B+]
 
Mayan Calendar: Look, I’ll be honest: it’s 1:15 am, and while this is only a quarter-hour longer than the show airs, I’m loopy. And seeing Fred Armisen wear his modern-day glasses in an ancient sketch is damaging by calm. AND NOW THE CALENDAR IS TALKING TO ME. I want my Mommy. Or, preferably, a sketch about the end of the world that didn’t hit every predictable beat possible. [Grade: C]
 
Best Sketch: Inside The NBA
 
Worst Sketch: Convoluted Jerry
 
Biggest Surprise: Barkley acquitted himself quite well in his third appearance. To use a sports analogy, it would be like a coach giving a limited player only a few things to focus on in order to maximize output.
 
Biggest Surprise, Part 2: Pretty big weeks for both Jay Pharoah and Paul Brittain, while Taran Killam and Nasim Pedrad were essentially AWOL all week.
 
What did you think of Barkley’s performance? Did the show use him to the best of his abilities, or were you just mad that they dipped into an unfunny well for the third time? Did the early sketches call attention to the cast demographics in a negative way for you? And might it be time for “Digital Shorts” to go the way of the dodo in 2012? Sound off below!