The good news? There’s little place for “Saturday Night Live” to go but up after last week’s Daniel Craig-hosted debacle. The fault lay not with Craig but the way the show used him. Rather than using his stoic persona to comic ends, the show bent over backwards to portray him as a wacky guy. It didn’t work, and the show (as well as its audience) suffered as a result. Hopefully, “SNL” has more of an idea what to do with tonight’s host, Christina Applegate. A gifted comic actress, Applegate last hosted the show in 1993 during the middle of her run on “Married…With Children”. Since then, she’s dealt with a dead babysitter, Ron Burgundy’s jazz flute, and countless other fictional conundrums. Along for the ride with her tonight is musical guest Passion Pit.
 
As always, I’ll be grading each sketch in real time. As always, you shouldn’t worry too much about the grades. As always, most of you will violently overreact. It’s just a thing that happens round these parts each Saturday night. And I wouldn’t have it any other way!
 
Vice Presidential Debate: Kate McKinnon serves as moderator Martha RaddatztoJason Sudeikis’ Joe Biden and Taran Killam’s Paul Ryan. Biden’s laughing from minute one, but Raddatz drops an “F” bomb to calm down both participants before they get out of control. I worry about Killam for the rest of the show, as he’s gulping down a gallon of water during each one of Sudeikis’ answers. If he leaves any sketch mid-scene, we can assume he’s off for a bathroom break. As limp as last week’s presidential debate sketch was, this one is sharp and on point. Part of it has to do with Sudeikis’ inspired performance, but it also has a lot to do with Killam’s spot-on vocal impersonation and bordering-on-creepy toothless smile. McKinnon doesn’t have a lot to do here, but draws huge laughs from a question that starts off referencing the baseball playoffs and then takes a sharp turn towards abortion. An appearance by Usain Bolt is too left field (and too outdated), but overall it’s strong cold open and one of the best political sketches this season. (It’s neck and neck with “Fox and Friends” from the first Thursday special.) This is the “SNL” of old when it comes to politics. Welcome to the 2012 Election, guys. We’ve been waiting for you. [Grade: A-]
 
Monologue: Applegate says that this favorite time of year, because the holiday season hasn’t truly kicked in. (Tell Dunkin Donuts, which seemingly went all in on pumpkin-related products right after Labor Day.) A musical number about the non-holiday season features “The Fruppets”, which features knock-offs such as Kirby The Toad and Fuzzy The Badger. (The Fruppets’ version of The Swedish Chef? Dane Cook.) It’s a smartly-produced number, with simple but well-executed choreography and a hummable tune to boot. So far, so great tonight. [Grade: A-]
 
Gillette Pro-Glider: OK, I’m torn. On one hand, seeing a spot-on recreation of this commercial is funny in and of itself, especially Jay Pharaoh’s André 3000. But why is Jerry Sandusky here, especially if there’s no pay off other than simply inserting him into the commercial? It’s certainly surprising to see Sandusky, but the commercial doesn’t use him for anything more than initial shock value. I kept waiting for a punch line that never actually came. That doesn’t make this a bad parody, but it does make for a slightly curious one. There’s a kernel of an idea here, but it never reaches fruition. All I can do now is hope Taran Killam gets a shot at mocking Adrian Brody’s horrific Heineken ad at some point this season. [Grade: B-]
 
The Californians: THIS SKETCH, you guys. The only joy here is watching Bill Hader’s lower lip for signs of him cracking up mid-scene. Look, there are plenty of sketches that the writing staff falls in love with that simply don’t do it for me. And that’s fine. “The Californians” doesn’t bother me on the same atomic level that “The Manuel Ortiz Show” or “Secret Word” does, but it definitely feels like it’s working on a frequency I simply can’t hear. Each iteration follows the same script: “people talking funny while giving explicit driving directions before staring into a mirror”. Roger. Got it loud and clear. Don’t have to hear it again. Ever. The cast commits fully to the proceedings, and they clearly relish performing it. But energy alone can’t make this sketch sing. [Grade: C-]
 
Tech Talk: Applegate plays the host of a talk show discussing problems with the iPhone 5. What initially seems like “SNL” mocking tech bloggers turns into a forum for the Chinese peasant laborers that made the phone to confront their critics. Of course, for this sketch to really work as a piece of satire, it might not suck for the show to have Asian actors in its repertory. I know. It’s a wacky idea, but it just might work. What should be a great comeuppance for people who complain too much about miracle technology instead has me cringing over Cecily Strong’s Chinese accent. That isn’t Strong’s fault. She didn’t make the show put her in that position. And I realize I’m a potential outlier on this, judging by the laughter in the crowd. “SNL” doesn’t need to hire more actors of Asian heritage for the sole purpose of placing them in sketches like this. That’s not the point. What is the point is that time after time, the show writes sketches that would be better served both comedically and culturally with a more diverse cast. Strong, Fred Armisen, and Nasim Pedrad all do the best they can (Pedrad’s sarcastic dance a true highlight, and Armisen’s line about diabetes is truly devastating), but it’s 2012. It’s ridiculous that I have to keep ranting about this. [Grade: C]
 
Give Us All Our Daughters Back: Well, that’s one way to wipe the sour taste out of my mouth. Here’s an archetypal “let’s have a bunch of cast members do a bunch of impressions”, but with a solid hook, great production, and enough variation to keep it feeling like repetition of a single comic idea. Highlights include Denzel Washington’s bizarre “this or that” interrogation style, Uma Therman’s cell-phone service issues, and Steven Seagal’s way of paying for delivery pizza. “SNL” feels a bit ahead of the curve here, as it’s only a matter of time before “Taken”-esque knockoffs turn into the new “Paranormal Activity” rip-offs at the box office. [Grade: A-]
 
If I told you Passion Pit led off with “Take A Walk”, how surprised would you be? Completely unsurprised, of course. I have to give props to the band for looking EXACTLY how I imagined a band that wrote this song would look. It’s almost eerie. What seems like a cheerful, upbeat alternative-pop song is lyrically quite dense, with an intricate story about one immigrant’s experience trying to achieve the American Dream in the 21st-century. So, good luck dancing to THIS at Bonnaroo, y’all. Still, danceability isn’t the only criteria that makes a song great. It’s over-earnest by half, but I dig the Elvis Costello-esque organs and soaring chorus all the same. [Grade: B]
 
Weekend Update: Arianna Huffington , calling Seth Meyers “the cabana boy I never had”, arrives to talk politics. Pedrad’s pronunciation of “penis” alone justifies her presence here on “Update”, although I’m also of the opinion that there’s no such thing as “too much Pedrad”. Huffington states that if abortion rights concerned men as directly as women, morning after pills would come in “Cool Ranch” flavor. (Here’s one way for “SNL” to really shine this election season: airing women’s issues that don’t get nearly enough attention on the national stage.) Everything Pedrad does is absolute gold here, especially Huffington’s descriptions of Biden and Ryan. Afterwards, Jean J Jean makes his triumphant return to the “Update” desk. We can’t get “What’s Up With That?” anymore, but we can get Kenan Thompson’s French Def Comedy Jam artist discussing recent revelations about Lance Armstrong. Talk of cycling is just an excuse to bring back this comic’s general observations about food, wine, and women’s hygiene. (“Pepe need the pew!”) I have never had grue, but man, I want to try some after hearing Jean K Jean rant about it. I have to give extra props to Meyers’ subtle shoulder shake during each musical breakdown. (I would like a .GIF of that, please. If I don’t get one, I don’t know why there’s an internet in the first place.) There’s no reason mocking the way a Belgian man throws a handball should be funny, but it happened nonetheless here. Two top-notch guests make this a solid “Update”. It’s really feast or famine this week, overall, in terms of quality. [Grade: A-]
 
Odysseus And The Sirens: Hey, I get it: Lisa Loeb’s “Stay” is catchy is hell. So it’s understandable why Odysseus would crash his boat in order to hear it better. Apparently Odysseus attended Lilith Fair, since most of the music that the sirens sing to lure him to shore was once played on its stage. Sudeikis has the joyous energy that he brought to the late, great Lord Wyndemere sketches. (RIP, Lord Wyndemere.) There are small details that keep it from being a straight-up karaoke routine, such as Odysseus not understanding the “L.A.” reference from “All I Wanna Do”. This is pure silliness, but it’s silliness executed at a high level. Hell, I would crash my boat upon hear TLC’s “Scrubs”, too. (Though I’ll confess Salt-N-Pepa’s “Shoop” is my true jam. Oops, I’m typing out loud again, aren’t I?) I’m having so much fun I don’t even mind the model designed by a fifth-grader that depicts the sketch’s explosion. I don’t remember Homer writing about Odysseus doing the running man, but I think I prefer this new spin on the classic character. [Grade: A-]
 
The Hell-oween Ball: Principal Frye in the house, everyone! Applegate’s horny librarian is a treat, but it’s all about Pharoah’s Frye, with his heavy breathing and bizarre phrasing. “Two students have just been expelled for fornicating inside a Mufasa costume!” might be the line of the year so far. I had to pause the show to catch my breath. Pharoah breaks, which is unusual, but who could blame him? There’s almost no form to the sketch at all, which simply hands the microphone to several teachers before abruptly ending. I wanted to see more of Applegate’s “slutty Jedi”, but them’s the breaks. [Grade: B]
 
Passion Pit returns to play “Take A Walk” again. Kidding! They are playing “Carried Away”, a catchy if indecipherable ditty. I want to know more about the band’s female keyboardist, who seems like the happiest person that’s ever lived on this planet. What’s her story? Where does she find such joy? Can she bottle it and sell it on Amazon? If this song came on my Pandora playlist, I certainly wouldn’t skip ahead, although I’m not sure I’d purchase it. There’s nothing really wrong with this band. But nothing tonight has convinced me to pursue deeper tracks in their catalog, either. [Grade: B]
 
Jillian Chizz Dance Studio: Applegate is doing her best Kristen Wiig here as a Fosse-inspired dance instructor. As far as 12:55 am sketches go, this is pretty middle of the road. That’s not a bad thing, per se. It’s certainly preferable to say, cutting off a sketch mid-stream in order to end the show on time. (Sorry. I’m still bitter.) Chizz’s backstory with Tommy Tune is fairly random, but it’s hardly weird. Two things make this a fairly impressive final segment. The first? Applegate’s character has a fully-developed inner logic that Applegate plays to the hilt, allowing her to taken center stage rather than simply serving the sketch. The second? All of Jillian’s nonsense actually pays off within the reality of the sketch, with all of her students finally understanding her Fosse-based counting system and turning into decent dancers by the end of the proceedings. The degree of difficulty for this scene at this point of the night is high, and the challenge was met by all involved. But the heavy lifting belonged to Applegate, who did a fine hosting job tonight overall. The show didn’t always ask her to do a lot tonight. But here they put all of the responsibility on her, and she bears that weight with ease, grace, and comedic wit. [Grade: B+]
 
Best Sketch: “Vice Presidential Debate” (though tomorrow I’ll probably favor either “Weekend Update” or “Odysseus And The Sirens”)
 
Worst Sketch: The Californians
 
Biggest Surprise: That a show so strong could also contain something as tone-deaf as “Tech Talk”. Don’t worry. I did all my ranting above. No need to repeat here.
 
Most Pleasant Surprise: Nasim Pedrad’s on-air time. Last week, Kate McKinnon was front and center. And while McKinnon didn’t hurt for screen time, tonight’s MVP was Pedrad. That came at the expense of time for Vanessa Bayer (barely there) and Aidy Bryant (who I honestly can’t recall seeing, even during the goodbyes), but at least now there’s a sense that any particular cast member can be the go-to performer on any given week. That’s how it should be.
 
Next Week: Bruno Mars pulls double duty as host and musical guests.
 
What did you think of tonight’s episode? Did “Tech Talk” reveal the show’s Achilles’ heel, or did it not bother you? Who would be your pick for episode MVP? Sound off below!