Justin Timberlake has helped “Saturday Night Live” produce two of its strongest episodes in recent years. Lady Gaga is as popular as popular music gets right now. Normally putting these two on the same episode of “SNL” would guarantee a classic night for the show. (The possibilities inherent in “Lonely Island + Timberlake + Gaga” boggle the mind. “Born this Way with a D#ck in a Box”, anyone?) But nothing’s so sure anymore for the sketch comedy institution. Will they pull out all the stops on this, the final episode of the year? Or have they already burned out, leaving us with a limp finish to the middling season?

Only one way to find out. As always, I’ll be grading each sketch as they air. Onto the final recap for the 2010-2011 season!

“Cold Open”: Wow, starting off with a little Monty Python-esque absurdism here, with two inmates of Dominique Strauss-Kahn waxing poetic about the state of the European economy. The crowd didn’t know exactly how to take this at first (or, more likely, didn’t get any of the references.) But by the time Kenan Thompson blurted out, “Bitch, you know I ain’t got no love for Portugal!” the live audience was fully into the proceedings. Topically relevant cold opens haven’t always faired well, but this one was more original and, by the end, far funnier than most this year. Which isn’t saying much, but credit where credit’s due. [Grade: B]

“Monologue”: That’s one rock star greeting for Mr. Timberlake, people. And he backed up with “I’m Not Gonna Sing,” a song all about how he’s not going to do…well, everything that he explains in the song. The highlight? Watching the female audience member to which he crooned lose her damn mind on live television. Who can blame her? Timberlake’s a great performer, and that was a crisply done number. There were a myriad of places this could have gone off the rails, and yet it never did. Solid start for the show so far. [Grade: A]

“Liquorville”: This sketch started off with a buzz in the crowd, since everyone knew what was coming. It’s like a band playing the opening chords to a popular hit in an arena. Having Timberlake always do this is getting a bit predictable, but it’s still funny, so why shouldn’t they keep trotting it out? What helped make this not a simple retread was 1) the inappropriate things that kept coming out of Kristen Wiig’s mouth (“Let me teabag you all day long!”), and Lady Gaga’s appearance as a human wine bottle brandishing two glasses that made Big Carl from “Cougar Town” look like a shot glass. Not every song really worked, but the energy was high, and all three looked like they were having an absolute blast. Given how frequently the performers/hosts have looked embarrassed this year to be doing certain sketches, it’s refreshing to see people having fun on this show. [Grade: A-]

“WXPD News”: Herb Welch back in the hizzouse! This sketch is growing on me, I have to say. The first time out, I sat stonefaced. The second time, I appreciated the way that Bill Hader committed to it. But this one had me laughing out loud multiple times, wringing laughter out of his current hatred for his coworkers (“Don’t write my copy, you lifeguard!”) and his lingering hate from his WWII tour (“Bonzai, huh! Remember me?”) Yet, they even managed to wring a drop of pathos for the man: “They burned my friend!” was funny yet weirdly moving. Either I’m extremely happy I’m about to reclaim my own Saturday nights, or this show is really funny tonight. Can’t decide which just yet. [Grade: A-]

 

"3-Way (The Golden Rule): It took cajones for everyone involved to try and recapture the magic of “D#ck in a Box” with “Motherlover.” This? Not as many cajones, and not as many laughs, either. As expected/predicted, Lady Gaga stepped in to the scene, as the meat in the Timberlake/Samberg sandwich. The song was perfectly catchy, but took about half of its length to explain the premise before truly taking off. Once in Gaga’s apartment, the lyrics, music, and editing finally all came together. I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone that immediately picks this as his/her favorite of the trilogy. But the three videos were all produced at such a high level that expressing disappointment with this one seems silly. That it’s the weakest of the three says more about the quality of the other two than the quality of this one. [Grade: B+]

Lady Gaga hits the stage, along at the piano playing “The Edge of Glory.” It’s easy to forget, but girl’s got PIPES. Also, girl’s got a freaky mirrored hat. Both are semi-mesmerizing. Aaaand that’s over: montage time! Looks like, as with Kanye West, Gaga’s redone the stage to her own taste: gold and black stripes adorn the scene, with ladders going up to heaven on all sides. “Judas” is busier and yet less impressive, not the least of which because Gaga gets a little swallowed up by the proceedings around her. It doesn’t help that it’s not as instantly catchy as a “Bad Romance” or “Let’s Dance” or the other forty-seven Gaga songs that “Glee” has covered this year. There was more drama when it was just her and a piano. Oh well. [Grade: B]

“Weekend Update”: A fairly short one this week, with the normal topical humor punctuated by a Schwarzenegger-inspired “Really??? With Seth” and “Get in the Cage” with Bradley Cooper. At this point, Cooper seems to be slowly morphing into the guy he plays in the “Hangover” movies. He undid a decently funny line about Cage as a “dangerous Eugene Levy” by mugging to the crowd afterwards to gain laughs. But Samberg’s Cage is reliably funny, especially with a purple prose description of the history of his hairline, along with the battle cry: “Prepare to die from human bites!” The segment ended with Meyers going on summer vacation with Stefon, which oddly gives this year’s “Update” segments something approaching continuity. Huh. [Grade: B+]

“What’s That Name?”: Looks like Gaga’s essentially co-hosting the show at this point, people. Nothing particularly wrong with that, and it’s much less awkward than when Tom Hanks showed up to cover up for Elton John’s lack of thespian skills a few weeks back. This is another returning sketch (only the cold open has been original thus far), but using Gaga as counterpoint to Timberlake’s a-holish memory loss was a fantastic choice. I laughed hard at Taran Killam’s Chris Kirkpatrick walking out onstage, but then felt bad as I realized I didn’t know his name either. (Thought for certain it was “Fitzpatrick” until Google spanked me, not unlike Hader’s host.) Also, any sketch that frees Abby Elliot from the dungeon in which “SNL” keeps her the majority of the time is a winner in my books. [Grade: A-]

“Love Tunnel”: OK, I guess the season finale is an unofficial “This Was Your Year!” episode. Here’s ANOTHER repeat sketch, but it’s one of the creepier ones they’ve ever done, so I am OK with another go around. (I’m now openly lobbying for that awesome French sketch to make a third appearance before the episode ends.) Unfortunately, this one didn’t quite capture the “WTF” vibe of the original. This iteration is less “actual robots come to life” and more like “the female character going along with things despite all evidence these were a bunch of dudes taking advantage of her naiveté”. By the time Jason Sudeikis was, um, getting comforted by the last remaining guy, I realized the show wasn’t going to throw the “SNL” equivalent of a complete game tonight. Oh well. [Grade: B-]

“Secret Word”: Here’s how you know the material was strong this week: “Secret Word” usually gets the post-monologue slot, but here it is in the final thirty minutes of the show. It is terrible in that slot, and it is terrible here. Kristen Wiig has publicly said she’s retired Gilly and Penelope: can she retire this character as well? To make matters worse, Timberlake’s mugging can’t make up for the fact that his magician is a poorly conceived character. Where’s Lady Gaga when you need her? [Grade: C-]

There Gaga is, right on cue, back onstage to perform “Born This Way.” A lot of people knock this song for being a rip off of Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” but I have a bigger problem with the song just…not being very good. This would be THE song for a one-hit wonder, but it’s not even in the top 5 best songs that Gaga’s released in the last 12 months. Halfway through the performance, she straps on a fake pregnancy belly, and then the stirrups come out, and I’m honestly terrifying that we’re about to recreate the famous scene from “Alien” at this point, only the alien will be gay and Gaga will make out with it. But no, it’s just yellow glitter. At least I hope that’s glitter. Yea, I’m going to just not think about this anymore. [Grade: B-]

“The Barry Gibb Talk Show”: We haven’t had a lot of special guests tonight, but I figured we’d see Jimmy Fallon at some point to break out this sketch. For those that say the “What Up With That” song is too long, good Lord: this one’s even longer. Fallon seems sharper thanks to his time over his own talk show under his belt. Usually this sketch features Fallon/Timberlake each trying to not crack up, but this version didn’t descend into its usual anarchy. And we got our very first Rapture joke of the night, to boot! No one but Fallon/Timberlake got to really say anything. But people want to see Robin revive Barry with gold medallion defibrillators, not Elliot’s Rachel Maddow impression. Of all the returning Timberlake-specific sketches, this is the one that needs to be retired the most. [Grade: B-]

 

Best Sketch: “What’s That Name?”

Worst Sketch: “Secret Word”

 

Biggest Takeaway: That was an often effective, but always safe, ninety minutes of sketch comedy. There was only one original sketch concept, and that was in the cold open. You can be generous and say the show was taking a victory lap of sorts, a “Greatest Hits” episode for both Timberlake and the 2010-2011 season as a whole. Or, you can be ungenerous and say that they completely ran out of new ideas and just started rehashing old ones. I’ll leave that up to you.

Bold predictions: You saw three cast members for the last time tonight. Based on their use this season, I’d say Bobby Moynihan, Abby Elliot, and Paul Brittain would be the likeliest candidates. I LIKE a lot of what they do, and don’t want to seem like I’m advocating for anyone to lose their gigs. But the show doesn’t seem to know how to use those three, or simply doesn’t believe in them. It’s unclear. Of all the new cast members this year, Taran Killam seems poised to jump up the ladder first next year. Vannesa Bayer didn’t do a lot in her initial season, but she’s worth at least five Miley Cyrus appearances next year. Jay Pharaoh is probably safe, even though the show often forgot he was on the roster.

Biggest Piece of Advice: Hire more females. Quickly. There’s a lot of great chemistry between the male members of the cast now, and nearly none between the women. I realize that trying to simply cast females that are the level of those in the recent past is a tall order, but “SNL” can’t truly succeed if Kristen Wiig does 50% of the female lifting on the show. Still, I’m not really talking about finding the next Amy Poehler: I’m talking about finding someone that will help foster a repertory-type atmosphere that is balanced along the gender lines. It may take only one additional female to make the whole puzzle fit. But the puzzle is definitely incomplete at this point.

What did you think of the season finale? Best of the year, or same level of inconsistency as the rest? Did you see the recurring sketches as homages or just reruns? And what advice would you give to the show to help improve it over the summer months? Sound off below!