So putting my cards on the table up front: I didn’t particularly care for Jimmy Fallon during his run on “Saturday Night Live.” I thought his impressions were great, and his energy was always on point. But there was a sloppiness to his work that always irked me. Either he was busy butchering the English language on “Weekend Update” or overtly trying to make Horatio Sanz break on live television. Still, his late night show has turned around my impression of him entirely, and he’s truly grown into his own as a confident comic performer during his tenure in Conan O’Brien’s old slot. Will he excel tonight in his old stomping grounds, or will he revert to his previous ways? Will musical guest Michael Bublé stick to simply signing, or will Christmas come early and give us all “Hamm and Bublé II: Electric Pork-a-loo?”
 
Only one way to find out: onto tonight’s recap!
 
Sully and Denise: The parade of former “SNL” stars begins with the cold open, with Rachel Dratch returning as the pair recreates one of their seminal sketches. And lest the good times stop, Amy Poehler briefly stops by as well. I have a bad feeling about Jay Pharoah’s chance to get onscreen this week. It’s hard enough for him when it’s just a single guest host. Sully and Denise try to sneak in the back door at a high school dance to recreate their second date, but there’s too little about how this pair might have changed over the years and more about “SNL” trying to rehash old material. If this is a sign of the show to come, we’re in for a long show. (Also, the grainy VHS look just translated terribly on my HD screen, and distracted me the entire time.) [Grade: B-]
 
Monologue: Jimmy Fallon says being back at “SNL” is like coming home, and he’s got a guitar to help him prove it. He wanders the back halls, where Bublé is doing cocaine and the Jewish cast members demand their own verse in the re-working of “Baby, Please Come Home.” Eventually, he makes it back to the stage, where the whole cast joins him and generally acts like they have just inhaled their share of Bublé’s stash. High energy, high fun. There aren’t enough times in which the ensemble seems like it enjoys performing together. More, please. [Grade: B+]
 
Today with Kathie Lee and Hoda: Free Michaela Watkins! Oh wait, she hasn’t been on the show for years. Sometimes, Kristen Wiig’s Kathie Lee bugs the hell out of me. But the writing for her tonight is excellent, which makes Kathie Lee’s constant interruptions extremely welcome. However, once again, “SNL” doesn’t realize that Nasim Pedrad isn’t strong as the straight man in a sketch. Fallon eventually comes on as Regis Philbin, who is upset that his plan to recreate the plot of “Up” failed and subsequently takes over Hoda’s seat on the show. I wish they had introduced Philbin earlier, as having the pair gang up on Kotb for a longer period of time could have been a blast. Still, an atypically strong outing for a sketch that usually has me reaching for the “mute” button. [Grade: B+]
 
Michael Bublé Christmas Duets: At this point, I just have to accept that every episode of “SNL” will feature at least one sketch that is just the cast doing whatever impressions they do to entertain each other during the week. Luckily, this was one of the better ones this Fall, with Pedrad’s M.I.A. making do a literal spit take and Pharoah’s Kanye West nearly doing the same. Interspersed were some great takes by Fallon on Sting, Justin Bieber, and Russell Brand. Surprised that neither Bill Hader nor Andy Samberg ended up in this, but I’d prefer quality over quantity any day. [Grade: A-]
 
Mirror Sketch: Hey, it’s a repeat of the Mick Jagger/Jimmy Fallon sketch from ten years ago, now with Fallon on the other side of the mirror versus Samberg’s reflection. It starts off pretty slow, but gets going right around the time Fallon spit takes into Samberg’s face over news that Justin Timberlake won’t be appearing tonight. (Which means he’s here, right?) Top it off with a duet on “The Rainbow Connection,” plus Fallon breaking character before the show went to commercial, and you had a loose, fun sketch in which the participants’ joy didn’t feel exclusionary. Solid, solid show so far, with only the cold open being subpar so far. [Grade: A-]
 
1920s Party: Damnit, I need to stop praising a show when it’s on a hot streak, as the show always immediately commits entertainment suicide by crashing into a brick wall of suck. Adding Fallon’s dance-happy character to Wiig’s sing-crazy character just doubles down on awfulness. It’s the holiday season, so I won’t pile on this sketch as much as I normally would. But man: give this sketch some coal in its stocking, Santa. [Grade: D-]
 
Half Jewish, Half Italian, Completely Neurotic: Oh, it’s not bad enough “Weekend Update” occasionally subjects us to Nicholas Fehn. Now we get an entire sketch based on similarly poor performance art. It’s the kind of character Armisen loves to write/perform, but his approach is to isolate rather than engender audience sympathy. (This stands in contrast to the way that “Mirror Sketch” invited people to have fun with the performers just a few minutes ago.) It would be fine if the character was over the top funny, but since he’s not, it stressed me out as much as the fake critics in this pre-taped sketch. I am so, so sorry guys. Once again, this is all my fault. [Grade: D+]
 
Seasons Greetings From Saturday Night Live: The gang’s back, y’all. Sanz, Fallon, Chris Kattan, and Tracy Morgan are onstage, performing “I Wish It Was Christmas Today” in…well, pretty much the same way they used to do it. The only difference? Sanz has lost a ton of weight and Kattan is now working at a Dairy Queen. (I think. That’s not something I looked up or anything. But it FEELS right, no?) There’s nothing really to analyze: either this made you giggle uncontrollably, or it made you stare slack-jawed at the screen. I’m all for nostalgia, “SNL”: but how about some sketches that the audience, not the former stars of the show, enjoy? [Grade: C]
 
Michael Bublé is here to warm my sad, cynical, Grinch-ian heart with “A Holly, Jolly Christmas.” This is so classy I feel bad that I’m writing about it in pajamas while mainlining Coke Zero on the couch in my man cave. I feel like Bublé is judging me. Luckily, I am judging him right back. And this was a great performance of a holiday classic. So back off, Bublé. [Grade: A-]
 
Weekend Update: Jude Law gets “In the Cage”, promoting the new “Sherlock Holmes” film. Law plays the straight man to Samberg’s unhinged Cage, a “psychotic Ryan Gosling” who apparently doesn’t read his own scripts and is using the segment for a film opening in Japan tomorrow. Great stuff here. Afterwards, it’s ANCHOR-POLOOZA, as we get a “Weekend Update Joke Off” between Meyers, Fallon, Poehler, and Tina Fey. Better than the jokes themselves (only half of which were actually funny) are the increasingly odd noises the four make to “ring in”. That wasn’t exactly the Mt. Rushmore of “Update” hosts (without Norm McDonald there, it’s always going to be incomplete), but that was a blast all the same. [Grade: A-]
 
Beethoven’s 9th Symphony: What if a famous composer introduced his orchestra in the way that a funk singer might introduce his band? You’d have this sketch. But I’m not sure any funk act working today has an ancestor of Hitler among its musicians. Somehow, this feels more like a post-monologue sketch on Fallon’s late-night show than something on “SNL.” Given how much I have harped on the show burying its leads in 2011, it might sound weird to now punish a sketch for over-emphasizing its host in this instance. But the best sketches find balance between the performers, and here it was weighed far too heavily towards Fallon. Everything about this was crisp and well-produced, but it went on far too long for what was essentially a one-note monologue. [Grade: B-]
 
Regional Production of “War Horse”: This is one hell of a New York-centric sketch. How many people watching this understand what “War Horse” is supposed to actually look like onstage? This feels like a 12:55 sketch that somehow got a budget and an earlier time slot. But inverting the traditional structure of puppet and human sends the sketch to some odd yet inventively funny places. What seemed at first like a “Monty Python and The Holy Grail” rip-off never truly took off, but it definitely avoided the crash-and-burn I feared at the start. [Grade: B]
 
Michael Bublé is back, this time singing Metallica’s “Wherever I May Roam.” I kid! It’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” But come on: now you want to see the other song, don’t you? I put on a coat and tie for this performance, lest Bublé once again pierce my soul with judgment emanating from his pretty eyes. No chance I am giving this a bad grade, lest Todd VanDerWerff sense its presence, not unlike the way Obi-Wan Kenobi sensed the destruction of Alderaan, and come after me. [Grade: A-]
 
Tebow and Jesus: Jesus stops by to ask the team to meet him halfway in order to help the Broncos win on a weekly basis. “Tim’s doing his best, Dad bless ‘em,” he says. Taran Killam’s Tebow is fantastic, but that shouldn’t be surprising. What is surprising? Fallon’s not even in this sketch! Did he get kidnapped during the Bublé performance? Luckily, I don’t miss him here, as Jason Sudeikis’ Jesus is unsurprisingly fantastic, even if He insulted the coach of my beloved New England Patriots. Then again, Bill pretty much had it coming. We got almost no Sudeikis tonight, so it’s good to get some here at the end. [Grade: B]
 
Final Credits: Normally I don’t mention these, but having them on the ice at Rockefeller Center was a nice touch for those at home. (Though I imagine those in-studio must have felt unloved.) I suppose it takes time to get into a bee costume and ice skates, which explains Fallon’s absence from the Tebow sketch.
 
With 2011 ending, I thought I’d share my ten favorite “SNL” segments of the year. This isn’t a list of the best sketches of the year. These are just ten that stood out as I reviewed all my recaps here for HitFix this calendar year. Feel free to share your own in the comments. Here they are, in chronological order.
 
TCM Essentials: Bride of Blackenstein (Jesse Eisenberg, 1/29/11)
Les Juenes de Paris (Miley Cyrus, 3/5/11)
The Best of Both Worlds with Hugh Jackman (Helen Mirren, 4/9/11)
Captain Jack Sparrow (Tina Fey, 5/7/11)
"What's That Name?" (Justin Timberlake, 5/21/11)
"Who's On Top?" (Alec Baldwin, 9/24/11)
Tell Him (Anna Farris, 10/15/11)
Someone Like You (Emma Stone, 11/12/11)
The Blue Jean Committee (Jason Segel, 11/19/11)
Central Cougars (Steve Buscemi, 12/3/11)
 
As for tonight…
 
Best Sketch: “Mirror Sketch”
 
Worst Sketch: “1920’s Party.”
 
Biggest Surprise: That Timberlake didn’t show up. I would have put a non-small amount of cash on that. 
 
Least Surprising: The sheer number of past talent that cropped up this week to inevitably overshadow the current cast. I like that the show continually makes connections between the present and the past. But often tonight it felt like the adults getting onstage at the school play and keeping the kids in the wings.
 
What did you think of Jimmy Fallon’s job as host? Did the show cater to his skills, or not push him far enough? Did the steady stream of past stars delight or overwhelm? And which cast member do you think is poised for a breakout year in 2012? Sound off below!