Welcome back, “Saturday Night Live” fans. When last we met, the show had put forth a subpar effort involving Jonah Hill. If “SNL” couldn’t produce a funny program with Hill as the lead, then it was probably time to take a good, long break. And lo and behold, here we are nearly a month later with the first new show since that debacle. Sofia Vergara makes her debut hosting appearance tonight, and I’m sure not once will her ample…talents be the focus of most of the sketches. Nope. No way. Just like there’s no way “The Manuel Ortiz Show” won’t make an appearance tonight, either. What WILL make an appearance? Musical guest One Direction, Myles McNutt’s favorite band, and the reason I imagine 80% of you will be reading this recap in the first place.
 
Let’s see if the time off did the show any good. As always, I’ll be grading each sketch in real time. Let’s see how many fun ways my word-processing program can auto-correct “Vergara.” This should be fun. Onto the recap!
 
Road To The White House: Awesome, a Mitt Romney cold open. Way to use the three weeks wisely, guys. Romney tries to pander to various groups, all of which see through his phoniness. Things pick up once he starts getting into cockfighting (“Ann and I don’t get into nearly as many cockfights as we’d like!”) and role-playing games. But by the time we get to the piercing convention, it’s just about three variations too many. Given the show’s recent track record for political cold opens, this wasn’t awful. But it certainly doesn’t set the tone for awesomeness ahead, either. [Grade: B-]
 
Monologue: “This country welcomed me with open arms and pulled-down pants!” declares Vergara, who is wearing a dress that looks like a car tried to run her over and then imprint its tread upon her in an act of passion. Vergara makes everything sound sexy, even “gonorrhea” and “Rick Santorum.” This monologue is the equivalent of a low-risk dive in the Olympics. Sure, the degree of difficult isn’t that high. But Vergara more than acquitted herself, and also gave us permission to stare at her chest all night. We all win. God Bless America!   [Grade: B+]
 
Just Friends Booty Shorts: Gay panic is funny! Oh wait, not really. Basically, this is a live-action “Ambiguously Gay Duo” on a night where the first openly gay cast member in decades (Kate McKinnon) is premiering. Does her presence mean sketches like this can’t happen? Of course. Should they? Well, if they are funny, there’s a case for them. But considering “Schmitts Gay” debuted over 20 years ago, this feels slightly anachronistic at best, and fairly lazy at worst. [Grade: C-]
 
Bein’ Quirky With Zooey Deschanel: Abby Elliot in the post-monologue sketch? Wow. Up is down, left is right, etc. And holy crap, Kristen Wiig’s Drew Barrymore is incredible. The pair name fake babies while Taran Killam’s Michael Cera looks on in delight. (Too bad he’s like a sister to her!) Vergara appears as Fran Drescher, and nails the high-pitched wail that Drescher made famous. Unfortunately, said wail makes me break out into seizures. So for once, I don’t appreciate the veracity. There isn’t really a shape to this recurring sketch, which means things like Andy Samberg’s Mayim “Jewish Strawberry Shortcake” Bialik come out of absolutely nowhere. But there are usually more hits than misses in its non-sequitur approach. Plus? More Elliot is always welcome. [Grade: B+]
 
Almost Pizza: Wow, this might be the pre-taped bit of the year. Here’s a parody of those DiGiorno pizza commercials, only if the makers of DiGiorno Pizza were mad scientists. Or perhaps hell beasts from another dimension planning to enslave us. Wiig’s hesitation over telling husband Tom (Bill Hader) about the true nature of the food-like substance between them turns from normal to freakishly horrific in no time flat, but ramps up in an internally logic way. Soon, Tom isn’t curious about dinner so much as saving the life of his daughter, who nearly eats the strange substance (which gets hotter over time, turns to glass upon impact, and magically reforms like late-model Terminators). Perfect pace, perfect length, perfect production. That was tremendous. [Grade: A]
 
Channel 5 Action News Team Promo: Well, way to kill the mood, “SNL.” An entire sketch built around Fred Armisen’s stupid newsman unable to turn on cue? I’m at a loss. This doesn’t even deserve a rant. Terrible. Awful. Aside from Vergara’s angry, “He needs to turn!”, there was nothing of value here at all. Why put this so early in the show? There’s no way the show thought this was the second-best post-monologue sketch, right? Someone say “yes” so I don’t start drinking. [Grade: D-]
 
It’s Gilly: Vergara is a sex-ed teacher, who wants to draw a realistic picture of her “vajija.” Give Vergara’s talent at losing her mind on “Modern Family,” she might be a good foil for what I’ll admit is not one of my favorite Wiig characters. Halfway through, there’s a pre-taped dream sequence of Gilly dying, and I’m wondering if I took a bunch of drugs without knowing it. The whole thing ends with Gilly taking her retorts up a notch to the blue language scale. And while I’m sure I could transcribe them under journalistic pretenses, who cares? This boiled down to the writers thinking Wiig vs. Vergara would produce some interesting tension, and then never developed a sketch based around that premise. There might have been a lot more mileage in building this around Vergara as a sex-ed teacher without bringing Gilly into this. [Grade: D+]
 
One Direction takes to the stage to perform “What Makes You Beautiful.” So, they just rewrote “Summer Nights” and added more hair product, right? I don’t know a darn thing about this band, so I don’t want to say these vocals are lip-synched. If not, they are perfectly solid harmonies. If not…well, who cares? This isn’t about veracity. It’s about a pre-packaged group selling a dream to girls who take Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” waaay too close to heart. I sort of like that they don’t dance, but rather amble around the stage as if they were too busy not combing their hair to actually rehearse. Better than then five dudes dancing like Finn on “Glee,” no? How to grade this? Hard to say. How does one grade the Backstreet Boys by way of “Downton Abbey?” [Grade: B, for Bates/Barrow, depending on how you felt]
 
Weekend Update: Drunk Uncle appears to give tips on dealing with the family at Easter. This is one of Bobby Moynihan’sbestcharacters, somehow straddling the line between offensive and empathetic, nostalgic for old times that probably never existed in the first place. (He wore a tux for a week around Easter as a child, supposedly.) It’s a looong segment, so long that it’s actually the only one of the entire “Update.” I think that’s the second time this year this has happened, which also makes it the second time since I’ve seriously started paying attention to the show again in recent years. A little Drunk Uncle goes a long way, so having it out for that long actually hurt the bit. Oh well. [Grade: B]
 
The Manuel Ortiz Show: Sigh. Knew it. I’m not saying this sketch should be taken out behind the shed and shot in the head. But if someone actually did that, I might offer to put his or her children through college at my expense. I knew the show wouldn’t resist letting Vergara show off her assets in this sketch, but I sort of wish they had resisted going to the most obvious well possible. Here’s the thing: having the almost all-white cast portray Latin character isn’t offensive. But it takes on a new meaning when a woman of Colombian blood is onstage with them. This isn’t about “SNL” being racist, in the least. It’s about having an on-screen reminder of just how non-diverse the cast really is. Speaking of non-diverse, where the hell is Kate McKinnon? Tonight doesn’t count as an audition for her if she actually doesn’t appear. Also, NOW we know why One Direction didn’t dance in their song! Glad we settled that. [Grade: C-]
 
Lil’ Poundcake: This is the third time this season “SNL” has aired this. The third. The first: during the Melissa McCarthy show. The second: during the Charlie Day installment. I mentioned they had three weeks off between shows, right? Just checking. [Grade: N/A, since I don’t grade repeat airings of preproduced material]
 
Watch What Happens Live: Taran Killam portrays Andy Cohen, who assures us that, “Anything can happen…but nothing actually will!” On the show? Two of the stars of “The Shahs of Sunset” and…Desmond Tutu. I’ll leave it to those who actually watch this show to attest to this parody’s veracity, but I love the idea that you can submit questions to the show via a website I dare not print here lest HitFix’s SEO results go haywire. Cohen’s ego serves as the punch line for nearly every joke in the sketch (except when the sound of ladies being naughty at brunch marks the start of a new segment). McKinnon makes her first appearance as Tabatha Coffey, mocking two pre-teen girls running a lemonade stand. Killam’s energy is commendable, but Lord this sketch is approximately 37 minutes long. Still, compared to the other stink bombs tonight, this was almost downright refreshing. Come back, “Almost Pizza”! I miss you! [Grade: B-]
 
One Direction returns to the stage to perform “One Thing.” They are all fiddling with their earpieces, which means that either the sound production is terrible in-house or they are doing a fantastic job selling that these vocals are produced live. The solo voices certainly sound legit, but those choruses sound so sweetened I’m worried that I’ll contract diabetes. (But hey, as Mitt Romney said in the cold open, maybe that wouldn’t be so bad!) At one point, they all assault downstage right, and I honestly feared for my life. But then I remembered they were teenage boys on my television, and not “Doctor Who” cosplayers trying to eat my soul. But seriously: this is perfectly fine, disposable pop. It’s essentially “I Want It That Way” with different lyrics. But I like that song! So taking this for what it is, I kinda liked it. No hatin’, McNutt. [Grade: B]
 
Pantene Commercial: Sofia Vergara plays herself against McKinnon’s Penelope Cruz. Cruz has to enunciate lots of complicated ingredients, whereas Vergara just has to say words like “hair.” It shouldn’t work, but the soft-focus camera, cheesy music, and nearly soft-core interactions between the pair somehow sells the silliness. Pronouncing “photymorphogenesis” as “refrigerator” is stupid on paper, but McKinnon sells it. (The “Jeff Bridges” follow-up made me snort my soda.) I’m a bit queasy that her second appearance reinforces the show’s ethnic demographic issues, above and beyond the fact that even in a wig she looks absolutely NOTHING like Cruz whatsoever. (More on this in the bullets at the end of the recap.) But McKinnon acquits herself well in her first big sketch, and overall this was one of the stronger ones of the night. That’s faint praise, but praise all the same. [Grade: B+]
 
74th Annual Hunger Games: “BOOOM! HUNGER GAMES!” Ah, there’s Gloria in all her…glory. Vergara’s in-arena announcer reveals the location of the various players, all while pimping product placement. Also, I’m really mad I didn’t come up with “Hunger Games Puppy Bowl” first. (I knew something was missing from my Twitter feed. And there it is.) This was an odd choice for the 12:55 sketch. For one thing, this is usually the timeslot for the “odd” sketch of the night. Secondly, one would think “SNL” would capitalize on “The Hunger Games” earlier in the show. Then again, given the bite-sized way in which people consume the show after the fact, it airing at all is what’s important in the long run. This was short, but perfectly fine. After a really sup-par middle hour, the show caught a bit of wind in the final few sketches. [Grade: B]
 
Best Sketch: “Almost Pizza”
 
Worst Sketch: Channel 5 Action News Team Promo
 
Show MVP: Taran Killam.
 
Show AWOL: Jay Pharoah, who might have appeared but I honestly don’t remember seeing him at all.
 
The Verdict on Vergara: She didn’t take anything away from the table, but rarely added anything to it. The show seemed confused about whether or not to play up her sexuality or tone it down, often leaving things in an awkward middle ground. She seemed most alive in the finale two sketches, when she was 1) able to mock herself, or 2) let herself really turn the volume up to 11. So I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and say her middle-of-the-road performance had more to do with the material than the host.
 
The McKinnon Report: Only two sketches, one of which amounted to a cameo. Should we make a big deal out of her status as a lesbian? Why did I harp on her appearance as Cruz? I could go into detail…except I already have. Check out this back-and-forth I did on The Huffington Post with Mike Ryan, in which we discuss the show’s current status at length. McKinnon comes up a lot there, and instead of repeating myself here, I’ll just link and let you check it out yourself.
 
 
What did you think of the show’s return? Did Vergara impress you or bore you? Did you leave the show a One Direction groupie? Did McKinnon make an impression? And given all the swirling news about potential cast departures, around which current cast member do you think the future of “SNL” should be built? Sound off below!