We’re nearing the end of this season of “Saturday Night Live.” I know it seems like a long time to wait for that bottle of sparkling apple juice to arrive at your house, but we’re in the home stretch here, people. Tonight’s host? Ed Helms, marking his debut on the show. Tonight’s musical guest? Paul Simon, making his very not-debut appearance on the show. Will any of the other members of The Wolf Pack show up tonight to help Helms push “The Hangover Part II”? Will Simon once again don a turkey costume? Anything is possible. Except a strong top-to-bottom episode of “SNL.” Let’s be realistic, people.

Onto this week’s recap!

“The Situation Room”: Oh joy, an Obama cold open. These never fail to put people to sleep. Obama’s El Paso speech on immigration reform turns into a victory speech for the President, who restarts his smoking habit, drops his first name, and starts ripping off Jeff Foxworthy’s stand-up material. “SNL” must have known this wouldn’t play well, which explains the droning crowd noise pumped in throughout his segments. The best part of “The Situation Room” was downplayed until the final joke: the increasingly garbled speech of Jason Sudeikis’ Wolf Blizter. Onwards and upwards, let’s hope. [Grade: C+]

“Monologue”: Hey, it’s that guy that might take over as boss on “The Office”! There are certain guests that, upon hearing they will host the show, one thinks, “That person will kill/bomb in the monologue.” I figured Helms would kill it, but a overlong, unfunny speech about his initial foray into showbiz via baton twirling didn’t justify the admittedly amusing sight of him in a spandex unitard. I guess he’s just funnier in talking head segments in Scraton. Not a strong start here in the penultimate edition of the season. [Grade: C]

“Corn Syrup Producers of America”: This while "let's air pre-produced material already shown this season" trend HAS TO STOP. We already saw this commercial during Zach Galifianakis’ episode this year, and I’m sticking with my trend of not giving a grade to anything already aired. [Grade: N/A]

“What Up With That?”: Paul Simon, Chris Colfer, and of course, Lindsey Buckingham! I want to hire Sudeikis for my next party to just do the running man in the corner all night. That would be tremendous. Captain Sexy Banjo was just fine, but having the real deal Lindsey Buckingham come on to play an acoustic version of “Big Love” halfway through the sketch sealed the deal. Too bad he kept his guitar in front of his face for the segment afterwards. It’s bizarre to think that this sketch actually has more internal continuity than the show that made Colfer famous. Not the strongest edition of “What Up”, but it’s always welcome as far as I’m concerned. [Grade: A-]

“The Ambiguously Gay Duo”: Whoa, I’m not sure “SNL” has shown this in a while. (According to Wikipedia, this is the first one since 2007.) For the first 90 seconds, I kept asking myself, “Why now?” And then the whole world went from cartoon to real world and it made sense. On one hand, it’s fairly amusing to see this much effort go into recreating it in flesh and blood: Steve Carell’s makeup alone was worth seeing. On the other hand, stuff like the eel bit at the end looks just that much dumber when not filtered through the lens of animation. Jon Hamm and Jimmy Fallon were great choices as the real life Ace and Gary, and seeing Steven Colbert in there was great too. But I can’t help feeling like people were laughing at the IDEA of this sketch as opposed to anything content-wise. Still, an interesting experiment, and probably will be the segment that everyone talks about tomorrow. [Grade: B]

Paul Simon comes on to play “Rewrite” off his new album, “So Beautiful or So What.” It’s a deceptively complex song, musically: it has a lot of layers adding just a hint to the overall composition, so you’re never quite sure where each part is coming from upon first listen. In the middle of all this deft playing, along comes an Eddie van Halen-esque solo, if Eddie Van Halen ever played “Unplugged.” Lyrically, it’s classic Simon, a slice-of-life song story that captures something specific while applying it universally. After all, how many of us have parts of our lives we wish we could do over?  Great stuff. [Grade: A-]

“Weekend Update”: Anthony Crispino comes on with the second hand news, because apparently Bobby Moynihan didn’t get anything else approved during this week’s writing sessions. (Let’s be thankful Buckingham didn’t come back on to play Fleetwood Mac’s “Second Hand News” here. I have too much love for “Rumours” to have it sullied by Crispino.) Will Smith comes on to answer complaints about his trailer during the filming of “Men in Black III.” Sadly, recent lack of use of Jay Pharoah on “SNL” rendered this segment rather stilted. Finally, Garth and Kat come out to round out “Update” with their improvised musical stylings. Here’s the weird thing: Fred Armisen and Kristen Wiig are so good at reading each other at this point that the entire gag (that the two are mostly out of sync) has gone away. That changes the point of the sketch from laughing at the way Wiig tries to keep up into marveling at the ESP of it all. I’d rather laugh than marvel this late at night. [Grade: C]

“Poker Night”: It’s 12:30 am as this sketch starts, meaning we had two sketches total in the first hour. Wow. The song time out for this recurring sketch: Cat Stevens’ “Wild World,” as four guys sit around and tell increasingly odd stories in between choruses. Like Garth and Kat, this one’s about execution more than actual content, with the trick in writing setups just long enough to deliver the punch line on time. Unfortunately, while some of the jokes land solidly, the repeated singing segments kept stopping comic momentum cold. But hey, none of the other iterations of this sketch had a “Human Centipede” reference, so, um, that’s something? [Grade: B-]

“Murder on the 23rd Floor”: Hoo boy. That was the opposite of good. “One Take” Tony Taluca can’t actually do anything in one take back in Ye Olde 1941 Hollywood. Funny, right? Wrong. The less said about this, the better. When a hat-wearing dog is the highlight of the sketch, you know you have problems. [Grade: D]

 

Paul Simon returns with the title track of his album, a New Orleans-tinged tune that wouldn’t be terribly out of place if covered over on “Treme.” There’s a real musical bite to the verses that gives way to a more ethereal chorus, which reflects the two sides of the title “So Beautiful or So What”. Bob Dylan saw a creative and critical resurgence in the latter half of his career: could Simon be on the same path? Hard to say, but his performances tonight certainly haven’t hurt his chances. [Grade: A-]

“Ann-Margaret Tries To Throw Away a Wad of Paper Into a Trashcan”: The title sounds like a companion piece to Pearl Jam’s “Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town.” This felt like a piece that Wiig did in 30 Rockefeller late at night after her fourth Red Bull, and someone said, “Let’s built a set for this!” So slight a sketch that a stiff breeze could have blown it away, but it also had an effervescence that the rest of the show essentially lacked. For a 12:55 am sketch, this is just right. [Grade: B+]

“Generic Republican Advertisement”: Helms plays one of the many Republican candidates currently in play but still largely unknown in the general population as one Voltron-esque candidate. And in the time it took me to write that, the sketch is over. Guess “SNL” didn’t want to bust out two recycled commercials in one episode. [Grade: D-]

 

Best Sketch: “What Up With That?”

Worst Sketch: “Generic Republican Advertisement”

Biggest Takeaway: The show clearly had a tough time figuring out its ninety minutes this week, with only two sketches in the first hour yet four in the final thirty minutes. One could argue that Wiig’s time pushing “Bridesmaids” might have hurt them this week. But with no Abby Elliot at all, and an almost complete lack of Nasim Pedrad and Vanessa Bayer, one could also argue that this might have been the weakest episode in terms of female representation all season. “SNL” needs to figure out how to better use them, or, if they don’t have confidence in these women, fire them and get new blood into the mix. I’d argue the former is the solution, but I’m not in the writers’ room all week, so I can’t rule out the latter.

 

What did you think of tonight’s episode? Did the pacing of the show seem off, or did the show wisely hold its weaker material back as far as possible? Does “SNL” unfairly underutilize its female members, or does Wiig deserve the lion’s share of air time? Sound off below!