It’s a new year for everyone, including “Saturday Night Live.” But with Jim Carrey as its first host, perhaps that new year is 1997 for the show. Do two pop culture institutions both accused of having their best years behind them equal success for tonight’s episode? Quite possibly. “SNL” is never quite as dead as people like to proclaim, and Carrey’s recent work in “I Love You Philip Morris” received critical accolades if not box office gold. Throw in musical guests The Black Keys, and you have the makings of what could be a strong first episode of 2011.

(Can you tell one of my New Year’s Resolutions was “Treat ‘SNL’ kinder than I did last Fall?” I’m trying, everyone. I’m trying.)

Onto the show, starting here on the East Coast late after Nick Folk right foot just turned into Rex Ryan’s second favorite one on the planet…

“A Message from Michael Bloomberg”: As a Bostonian, I remember snickering at overwrought New Yorkers acting like they’d never seen snow before in the days just after Christmas. But seeing SNL poke fun at its own citizens’ outrage is surprising yet welcome, mostly because any cold open that doesn’t involved Fred Armisen’s Obama is a winner in my books. The sketch lost energy as it moved past absurd questions about cold precipitation and turned into a polemic about NYC public workers, but still proved a solid opening sketch. [Grade: B]

“Monologue”: Good thing I don’t own a 3D TV, because the sweat pouring from Carrey’s effort would douse me. Every line of his monologue features the same cadence that he used in “The Mask,” only now it induces sleep rather than laughter. But Carrey’s comedy generally lies in playing off people, as evidenced by things picking up with a faux proposal to a plant in the front row. Not a barometer by judge what’s to come by any means, but it’s “SNL,” so a monologue’s just part of the deal. Given how few actually succeed, maybe they should rethink that approach once in a while. [Grade: C]

“Bosley Hair Restoration”: Apparently no one could come up with a new fake commercial during the Christmas break. I think this is the 3rd time they’ve aired “Bosley” this year. Awful. [Grade: Ridiculously Redundant]

“Black Swan”: For anyone that misses Vera de Milo from “In Living Color,” this sketch is manna from heaven. Not sure if SNL is just digging into the well or Carrey wants to prove he’s still as elastic two decades later, but either way, we get a fistful (literally) of old-school Carrey in this one. Yet oddly, I am far more amused by Bill Hader’s Vincent Cassell impression. Probably because this will be the one and only time I will ever, ever see that. We’re in for an hour and a half of Jim Carrey trying waaaay too hard, aren’t we? Sigh. [Grade: C+]

“Finding Your Power”: Who knew that self-delusional people that create imaginary confrontations in order to make it through another day of their pitiful lives could be SO FUNNY? Oh wait. It’s not, but that didn’t stop this sketch from giving us three barely different variations on pain and depression. Once you saw Samberg’s version, you knew you were in for two more just like it. Then again, me confronting the show in recap form isn’t much better, so let’s grade this stinker and move on. [Grade: D]

“Grady Wilson’s Tantric ‘n Tasty”: Normally I’m a fan of this silly recurring sketch, but it rises and falls on the moves that Grady creates, not Grady himself. Other than mistaking the word “namaste” for “nasty” (thank God Grady wasn’t on Oceanic 815, eh?), very little in this edition landed other than “The Sneaky Baboon.”  This show is testing my New Year’s resolutions at this point. I’m trying to be strong, but it’s difficult with material like this. [Grade: C-]

“The Worst of Soul Train”: OK, this is more like it. Anytime the show gets most of the its cast in under the umbrella of either 1) a compilation album or 2) movie outtakes, the results are usually pretty solid. This one didn’t disappoint, especially Samberg’s horrific ballad and Carrey’s excellently crude homage to DeBarge. (Also, we’re nearly 35 minutes into the show and Kristen Wiig has only had two short, wordless appearances at this point. Is that even legal? My worldview’s getting rocked here.) [Grade: B+]

The Black Keys take the stage, performing “Howlin’ For You.” It’s fuzzy, it’s retro, it’s totally solid. I even can’t take points away from the fact that drummer Patrick Carney looks like Artie from “Glee.” They come off like a more fully fleshed out version of The White Stripes, not in terms of musicality but simple acoustic dynamics due to the extra members onstage. Great, great song and a performance that should definitely move units next week. [Grade: A]

“Weekend Update”: If you thought Nancy Pelosi would try and make John Boehner cry, well, then you thought the same thing as everyone else in America. But hey, I cry at those Folgers’ commercials too, so I can’t hate on that. Anthony Crispino brought the second-hand news, which afforded me an excellent excuse to go water my lawn ornaments. Cameron the Red-Winged Blackbird continued Samberg’s trend of dressing up like a bird on “Weekend Update,” and that’s a trend I welcome. And as my compatriots at HitFix might attest, Oprah Winfrey might have started the end of days with her lengthy TCA monologue this past week. “Weekend Update” might have done some real reporting in this case. [Grade: B-]


“Merry-Go-Coaster”: Taran Killam’s been getting a lot of onscreen time this week. Makes sense, given that there are some similar comedic sensibilities between himself and Carrey. This sketch used those similarities to the max, producing a fantastically creepy sketch involving an “It’s a Small World”-esque ride that turns into a nightmare for one unlucky rider. Sketches like “Finding Your Power” simply provide variations on the same joke. Sketches like this take a type of joke but add a new layer each time. Since it was a pretty funny joke to start (thanks to some fantastic physical comedy by Killam/Carrey), things only got better as they went along. Only a few unfortunate camera mistakes kept this from getting a perfect score. [Grade: A-]

“Celebrity Impressionist Psychic”: That’s not the official name of the sketch, but sums up the pitch pretty succinctly. Still, Jason Sudeikis’ enthusiasm for the impressions plus Carrey busting out ALAN THICKE of all people kept this from being just a series of stock impressions in search of a sketch. (I came close to saying something akin to “No one does a Thicke!” just before Sudeikis said it.) Normally “SNL” goes down in quality post “Update,” but has been far better since in this case. [Grade: B]

The Black Keys are back, this time with “Tighten Up.” Hey, not a bad way to describe the last 30 minutes of this episode. A lot of musical acts this year have tried to dress up the stage into something visually arresting. That worked in some cases (such as Kanye West’s performance) but often times tried to hide the fact that the music itself wasn’t all that good. Just a bare stage in this case, which is all that’s needed when the music is this good. [Grade: A-]

“A Taste of New York”: Nice to know Jim Carrey kept his outfit from the 1999 MTV Movie Awards for this sketch about an “authentic” band that depresses tourists visiting New York. They have a question for the audience, and no, it’s got nothing to do with a bottle of sparkling apple juice. Color me depressed. But I guess that’s the point of the song, right? What a weird, somber way to end the show. But hey, it’s the 12:55 am sketch, so all bets are off. (OK, this week it’s the 1:10 am sketch. But you get the idea.) [Grade: B-]

 

In summary…

Best Sketch: “Merry-Go-Coaster”

Worst Sketch: “Finding Your Power”

Cast MVP: Taran Killam

Next week: Gwyneth Paltrow and Cee-Lo Green in an epic “F#$k You” sing off to the death!

What did you make of Jim Carrey’s return to “Saturday Night Live”? Good to see him back in sketch comedy, or just too little, too late for this point in his career? And given how many cast members were barely used tonight, do you think the cast needs to be reduced? If so, who should stay and who should go?