After a one-week hiatus, “Saturday Night Live” is back for the first of three consecutive episodes to end 2011. Kicking things off tonight: Steve Buscemi and The Black Keys. Given Buscemi’s cinematic track record, I wonder if Adam Sandler might pop by tonight. After all, Buscemi seems to appear in nearly every Sandler big-screen jam. Will Sandler appear tonight? Unlikely, but color me curious all the same. Also, color me curious if “SNL” will attempt any “Boardwalk Empire”-related sketches tonight. Bill Hader as Richard Harrow? Sign me up for THAT, please.
 
Guess we’ll have to break down each sketch as they air to find out. Onto the recap!
 
Presidential Address: Hey, it’s the first Obama sighting all season! Fred Armisen has eschewed any attempts at actual impression here. I wish he eschewed any attempts at actually portraying the President, but I’m not that lucky. Instead of mannerisms, we have a pull chart repurposed from old “Wayne’s World” sketches. The theme of this sketch is Obama’s inability to get anything done in Washington, or America itself. (Oprah, the NFL, and Mark Zuckerberg rank higher than he does in “America’s Most Powerful.”) This Obama bears absolutely no relation to any that have come before. But it’s been so long since his last appearance, it doesn’t matter that the new version is a joke machine devoid of almost any sociopolitical context. Sadly, this version isn’t much better than the last one, making Armisen’s continued portrayal a Hotel California unto itself. [Grade: B-]
 
Monologue: Buscemi is excited about his leap from character actor to lead actor, and other character actors spring up from the crowd to learn how to make that leap themselves. It’s the usual “give every actor 30 seconds to shine” bit, but most of them are pretty great. (Andy Samberg’s “Hey Bro” guy was my favorite, along with Wiig’s horror cliché character.) Normally such a dispersal of attention away from the host would signal a lack of faith on the part of the show, but Lord knows Buscemi has the chops. Also? Apparently I and everyone else in American have been pronouncing “Buscemi” wrong all these years, if the announcer’s take is actually the correct one. [Grade: B+]
 
Frozen Mexican Dinner: Ah, poop jokes. Lovely. I was happy to see Paul Brittain as the centerpiece of this commercial, since he tends to have some Will Forte-esque oddness to his characters. But this wasn’t anything beyond a cheap constipation gag. The pre-taped bit didn’t wear out its welcome, but provided no comic relief. Just intestinal relief, apparently. [Grade: C-]
 
The Miley Cyrus Show: Just like with Obama, I think this the first appearance of Cyrus this Fall. After her Cyrus’ real-life snafus in the press this week, Miley returns with a bag of Doritos and a dude she met at Burning Man. The two air a video they made for “Dancin’ With Dogs,” which looks like “Groove Is In The Heart”, only with furries. Yikes. Billy Ray Cyrus then welcomes Whitney Houston to the show, which means Mya Rudolph is back in the house. (NBC: Have you decided to spin her character off of “Up All Night” yet? Do I have to do ALL your work for you?) Rudolph owns this character, and her attempts to pronounce “Bobby Brown” had me on the floor. All of this is great, but isn’t Buscemi the host? He disappeared unceremoniously halfway through the sketch! Free Buscemi! [Grade: B+]
 
The Dark Knight Sneaks Up on Gordon: Well, you could see that coming from the first iteration of the joke. At this point, Christian Bale should trademark his Batman growl: he’d be the richest person on the planet. This digital short was well-edited, to be sure. And editing is half the comedic battle here. But this short didn’t have enough variations in the single joke to really make it soar. The one exception? The creepy Pantless Justice League meeting in Gordon’s shower. Hardly the worst Digital Short all season, but still far from their former peaks. [Grade: B-]
 
The Mystery of the Chopped-Up Guy: I love Bill Hader, but Keith Morrison has to be at the bottom of his overall repertoire. Every sketch involving Morrison is exactly…the…same. Someone says something awful, Morrison has a verbal orgasm. Then Morrison insists he’s not happy. And this goes on for five minutes. Or three hours. It’s hard to tell sometimes. Had it only been Hader and Buscemi having an “ooooh” off, maybe at least we could have enjoyed some bizarre pre-lingual showdown. On the bright side, this version was slightly educational: I didn’t know “Dateline” only uses one photo per episode. The more you know! [Grade: C-]
 
Central Cougars: Wow, what a turnaround. We’ve suddenly transitioned from a meandering first half hour into this, one of the more topical, biting, and downright funny sketches of the Fall. Tackling the recent Penn State/Syracuse scandals was not something I expected, especially after Jason Sudeikis’ segment on “Weekend Update” a few weeks back. But lo, here it was, and it was GOOD. Just a savage piece of humor, built around a strong premise played out to its logical extremes. Throw in a fascinating backstory for the accused coach (ie, everything related to “The Burt Man”), and you had all the ingredients for a classic sketch. This will be the one everyone talks about tomorrow. [Grade: A]
 
The Black Keys take the stage to play “Lonely Boy.” Sadly, the performer in the video for this song isn’t on stage with them. That guy rules. Luckily, so does this song as well, another slice of groove-based, bluesy rock with a fantastically fuzzed-out chorus. Plus, how can you not love a band with a drummer that looks like Artie from “Glee” after a few cycles of steroid use? You can’t, people! [Grade: A-]
 
Weekend Update: Herman Cain appears to discuss today’s press conference, railing against PC culture and asking women in the audience to jump on “The Cain Train.” Kenan Thompson’s Cain worked better in the debates as a series of quick hits than it did tonight as a sustained onscreen presence. After that,Bobby Moynihan debuts his Drunk Uncle character to dispense holiday advice. Some of that advice entails asking Baby Jesus to do Pilates, which is pretty stellar as far as advice goes. What’s great about Drunk Uncle is his non-sequitur nature, which plays against Seth Meyers’ inquiries and goes off instead on random tangents. I’ll take ten more Drunk Uncles if it means I don’t ever have to see Anthony Crispino again. [Grade: B]
 
 
Playskool Surprise: Kristen Wiig must lose five pounds each time she breaks out Sue, given her manic energy levels in these recurring sketches. Too bad it’s all in the name of a character that isn’t actually funny. Sue doesn’t serve the sketch so much as dominate it, which can be fine if it’s a comic creation of great significance or unassailable humor. But since Sue is neither, it makes each version unbalanced, with everyone else on stage subservient to that character’s whims and actions. Seeing Sue ride into the break room powered by a fire extinguisher was a funny visual, but hardly enough to justify all that came before it. [Grade: C-]
 
Ed Vincent’s Sex Symposium: Remember earlier when I talked about Brittain’s dark characters? This is what I meant, as “Sex” Ed returns to “SNL” to grace us with his Sex Coupons and “The Reagan.” I’m not sure how the hell the cantaloupe/hotdog visual actually made it to air, but I guess we’ve all collectively recovered from Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl appearance at this point. Altogether now: USA! USA! Half of what makes “Sex” Ed funny is Brittain, and the other half goes to the spot-on production design and post-production editing to make this look and feel appropriately grimy. [Grade: A-]
 
The Black Keys return, this time playing “Gold On The Ceiling.” A keyboard-heavy chorus gives way to some tasty guitar work in between verses. Here’s the thing about The Black Keys: a little bit of them goes a long way for me. Each song is great, but they all tend to bleed into each other upon initial listen. That’s not to say that “Lonely Boy” and “Gold On The Ceiling” are interchangeable, but having a well-established sonic identity such as theirs can sometimes work against the band. I can usually pick out a Black Keys song on the radio. Figuring out which one it is can be a slightly more difficult task. [Grade: B]
 
Happy Holidays From Sheila and Sheila: God bless you, 12:55 am sketches. You are so often weird and delightful. This feels like one written for Christopher Walken years ago, not for Buscemi this week. But it still works wonderfully well, because of the disconnect between Buscemi’s tone and the actual words he says. Throw in a potentially stoned (or maybe just stone-dead stupid) female companion in the form of Kristen Wiig, and you have a superbly strange final sketch that is actually one of tonight’s highlights. Why is this man talking to us? Why did he not know about Christmas until 2008? If he doesn’t own a house, whose house is he actually in? Why do they both have the same name? Who cares? [Grade: A-]
 
Best Sketch: Central Cougars
Worst Sketch: Playskool Surprise
Biggest Surprise: The show pushed Buscemi off to the side, letting him play second or third fiddle to the repertory until the final sketch of the night. After a monologue touting him as a lead actor, the show barely let him be even a character actor in most sketches.
Biggest Non-Surprise: Unsafe, edgy sketches played the best. “Central Cougars,” “Ed Vincent,” and even “Sheila and Sheila” refused to play it safe, and got the best results for that effort.
 
What did you think of Steve Buscemi’s performance? Did the show push him too far off to the side, or did his supporting roles serve the show better? What sketches were the strongest/weakest for you? Sound off below!