We’re here at the end of another season of “Saturday Night Live,” and just like last season, there are changes afoot. This will be Bill Hader’s last show. Seth Meyers will leave the show at the end of the calendar year in order to take over the post-“The Tonight Show” slot. Both Fred Armisen and Jason Sudeikis are rumored to also be leaving? To which I say: awesome. That doesn’t take away anything from what these four have brought to the table. But change is the lifeblood of the show, and no single person is ever truly irreplaceable. In fact, having Meyers leave might be the shot in the arm this show really needs. While its easy to point to onscreen talent as the cause for any woes the show has had this season, it all boils down to the writing. If that’s not up to snuff, no amount of comedic talent in front of the camera can overcome that. If Meyers’ departure shakes up the writer’s room dynamic, and allows new voices to emerge, it might be just what the doctor ordered for the slightly ailing “SNL”.
 
And let’s be honest: it has been ailing, with only a few episodes this season being truly enjoyable and none reaching “all-time” status. But let’s be honest about something else: that really describes most seasons of the show. Every time you hear someone complain about “the seasons when the show was actually funny,” you’re really hearing someone with selective memory. So long as the show keeps its “old ways are best ways” mentality, there will never be another balls-to-the-wall strong season of the show again. You’ll get some great sketches, some decent shows, but mostly you’ll get retreads of established premises and failed attempts at introducing something new into the sketch comedy landscape. So long as the show keeps producing the show like the rules of it are fundamentally unalterable, this is how the show will always be.
 
The biggest upside to such a potential mass departure? An excuse to shake things up! Before last season, I offered up ten suggestions to improve the show. The one that’s easiest to implement in the face of such large turnover? Reinvent the way you think about the “cast” of the show. If everyone remaining came back next season, that’s still a great repertory from which to draw! But there’s a host of comedic talent in New York City that can be exploited depending on the needs of the show that particular week. They may not be as versatile as those on the show. But they are hungry, they have diverse perspectives, and they have diverse backgrounds as well. Think of the New York comedy scene the way England arranges its soccer leagues: “SNL” is the Premier League, and everything else is a feeder system. Is this system unwieldy? Heck yes. But it makes those repertory spots mean something, creates a new way of thinking about ensemble comedy, and keeps everyone involved hungry.
 
But enough about the future. Let’s focus on the present, with Ben Affleck joining the Five-Timers Club tonight with Kanye West returning as musical act. When Justin Timberlake joined the Five-Timers Club, there was a sketch featuring other members of the club that still might be going on. (MAN, that was long.) So look for lots of guest appearances tonight, not just because of Affleck’s ascendance but also because the season finale often features tons of surprise guests anyways.
 
Since this seems to confuse exactly one of you each week, let me once again explain: this will be a liveblog. I will recap each episode as they happen. The word “recap” appears above this because 1) as of 1:00 am tonight, that’s what this will be, and 2) that’s what every review of every episode on this site is. It’s kind of a HitFix thing. I’m not sure why this causes you so much turmoil every week, but I’m doing my best to ease your pain. (The rest of you? Feel free to hate on the grades in the comment as always. I spread that on my toast come Sunday morning.)
 
See you at 11:30 pm when the live blog commences!
 
Politics Nation With Al Sharpton: There are probably jokes to be made about the IRS scandal, but let’s just make fun of dudes named “Dana” instead, am I right? We haven’t had more than three minutes of serious political satire all season, so why start now? Luckily, things take a turn for the better when Sharpton points out the levels of harassment that the IRS has given Caucasians and African-American citizens, respectively. (“Is that a real chart?” “It should be!”) That last line doesn’t save the relatively tame sketch, but it’s a glimpse into what used to make “SNL” the sole place for the type of scathing humor it seems to have ceded to other outlets. [Grade: B-]
 
Monologue: Having seen the Timberlake episode, Affleck is excited to see who will show up to support him. Sadly, it’s only Bobby Moynihan in a “5” shirt. After that, he pivots to his Oscars speech about marriage being “work”, cuing Jennifer Garner to appear to “defend” him. Let’s get HER hosting next year, although maybe without Affleck since this is as much PR as comedy. Also? While it's smart to downplay the number of stars appearing tonight, it IS weird to make a big deal out of some Five-Timers and not others, no?  [Grade: B]
 
Bengo F#ck Yourself: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad isn’t happy about “Argo,” and thus funds his own film to show the “real” story of how Affleck got the movie made. He also plays Affleck in the film, starting each line with “Park the car in Harvard Yard!” in order to find the proper accent. To make things even weirder, Affleck himself appears as a grip on a film about himself. Affleck is both self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing here, something I didn’t think could be simultaneously accomplished. So that’s something! It’s surprisingly short given the concept, but that length works in its favor. [Grade: B+]
 
Xanax For Gay Summer Weddings: Afraid of not measuring up to all the perfect weddings you’ll be invited to attend this summer? No worries, you nervous breeders. This drug has you covered. I’ve always wanted two tickets to Italy as well as $40,000, so I don’t need this drug myself. But if you gave Cheez-Its as wedding favors, maybe you do. The idea here is great, and the specifics are top-notch as well. (The choreographed routine to an unreleased Beyonce song? Perfect.) Overall, we have a strong start to tonight’s show. [Grade: A-]
 
Prima Donna: Well, here’s a good way to cut the momentum short. Ben Affleck apparently told someone he could do a Jimmy Stewart impression. He forgot to ask them to write a good sketch for it. Ninety percent of this is a lame back-and-forth between Affleck’s businessman and Bill Hader’s down-on-his-luck schmoe. The former tries to be charitable and give the latter a job, but it turns out Hader’s character isn’t aspirational but just a petty crook. The only time I laughed? When Kate McKinnon’s innocent-looking girl says, “I’m forty!” McKinnon’s gift for physical comedy has been on prime display over the last two weeks. Too bad this time around it was in a dud of a sketch. [Grade: C-]
 
New Beginnings: Affleck’s character is here to “cure” the kids who have come to the camp, but naturally he’s in denial himself that such a program can work. His church-going girlfriend agrees, it seems. His near kiss with Taran Killam’s arts’ instructor is a little too “hey, how shocking is it for two heterosexual men to almost smooch”, but it’s still some fun staging all the same. Rather than have a conversation with the children in attendance, the sketch basically just has Affleck monologuing for the majority of it. It’s fine, but feels like a wasted opportunity for a dialogue. It would also make the kids seem less like stereotypes. (Sure, Moynihan’s character has a dramatic hand wave. But that’s it? That’s almost more offensive than anything else in the sketch.) [Grade: B-]
 
Kanye West takes the stage, once again making it his own visual playground. Apparently Kayne West is really into both Warhol and mid-era Lou Reed now, with the visuals coming from the former and the music coming from “Metal Machine Music.” I almost want to applaud him for writing an incredibly radio-unfriendly tune. But I also feel like I’m being yelled at! Why is Kanye so mad at me? As music, this isn’t much to praise. But as theatre? This is pretty awesome. I’ll be honest and state I don’t know what this song is called, but hopefully I’ll find out soon. (Late update: I'm seeing it's called "Black Skinhead".) [Grade: B]
 
Weekend Update: Amy Poehler in the house, y’all! She’s back for “Really?? With Seth And Amy” to discuss the IRS debacle. Unfortunately, the jokes in the segment itself don’t really land, even if both are clearly excited to be doing this again. Luckily, she’s staying around for all of “Update”, so maybe things will look up. (Also? “SNL”? Two-person “Update” next year, please. Can I suggest Vanessa Bayer and John Mulaney? The latter is suddenly VERY free now.) And since it HAD to happen, it’s the very last Stefon. The actual segment itself might be the worst one they’ve ever done, but the payoff to Stefon leaving–his impending marriage to Anderson Cooper–is pretty freaking outstanding. Seemingly dozens of past characters from Stefon segments appear, as does Affleck himself, who appeared in the very first Stefon sketch as his brother. On top of that, more than a half-dozen recurring “Update” characters get on the set to toss rice to the new couple. That…that’s how you do it, folks. That's how you honor the history of a character. And if Stefon ever appears anywhere in the next five years, I'm coming back and giving this sketch a "D". But for now? I'm feeling great. [Grade: A]
 
Funeral of Greg Pulino: Hmmm…I’m still riding the contact high from Stefon, but this sketch is doing its best to kill that buzz. A man who faked his own death in order to avoid paying debts returns to his own funeral to hear his former friends and family praise him. Affleck is in this sketch to win it. His energy is top-notch. But this is the type of sketch that relies on surprising guests to arrive at the funeral to mock him, and the parade of people just isn’t terribly interesting. There’s a good sketch idea at work here, but it didn’t have time to develop before it aired. [Grade: C+]
 
Hermes Handbags: They’re back! Oh happy day! Here’s the thing: all three variations of this sketch, including this one, are exactly the same template. But it’s a great template, so I’m not sick of it. I’ll pretty much laugh at any joke involving the injuries these women have sustained in their past careers, even if those jobs somehow involve being expelled from heaven by horny angels. For this sketch to have legs heading into next season, they’ll need to switch things up, if for no other reason that they are going to lose the shock factor sooner rather than later. But for now? It’s still one of their strongest (and most surprising) recurring sketches. [Grade: A-]
 
Kanye West returns to the stage, with his screensaver from the first number also back as well. “New Slaves” is sparses and more melodic than his first tune. Again, the theatrics are top notch. But I can’t imagine how this will play on the radio or in an arena filled with 20,000 fans. Maybe awesome? It also could be a serious Spinal Tap situation. Luckily, I don’t have to worry about that. I just have to worry about this, and this is pretty hypnotic. [Grade: B+]

 

Engagement Picnic: Might this be Hader’s last sketch? If so, it’s one based around cops unable to express their emotions except through guttural noises. The crowd is eating this UP, but I’m sitting here stonefaced. This has been a good show overall, but when it’s bad, it really goes for the gold in terms of terribleness. If this is a way for certain people in the scene to say an emotional goodbye…it’s not working. Sorry. I’ll be over here in the corner with a heart of coal. [Grade: D]
 

 

The Bizarros: Last year, Kristen Wiig got Mick Jagger to sing her off into the future. Tonight, Hader, Armisen, and Sudeikis get to play themselves off. (Killam’s there as well, but I don’t think he’s going anywhere. He was just in the original pre-produced short featuring this band.) They perform “It’s a Lovely Day,” along with Carrie Brownstein, Steve Jones, and a host of other musicians from the New York punk and post-punk scene. With all the other musicians joining them, now I’m actually slightly worried about Killam’s place on there. “It’s been alright/I’ve had a lovely night with you,” warbles Armisen, and it’s a lovely, honest moment. (To be sure, we only learned Armisen is 100% leaving from this sketch. I should make that clear through all the feels I’m having right now.) I don’t think this had quite the emotional punch of Wiig’s departure, but Armisen went out in the best way he could have considering his output on the show and his general persona. [Grade: A]
 
The Goodbyes: Normally I don’t cover these, but since it seems to prove that only Hader and Armisen are leaving, I wanted to include that here.
 
Best Sketch: “Weekend Update”
 
Worst Sketch: “Engagement Picnic”
 
Biggest Takeaway: The ratio of “new pieces” to “recurring sketches” was refreshing, yielding the best show of this final three-week stretch of the season. Having two emotional goodbye sketches helped. But there were highlights strewn throughout the show as well.
 
What did you think of the season finale? Which “goodbye” sketch worked better for you? With all the changes on the horizon for the show, what advice would you give them as they look to cast the show this summer?