After a two-week hiatus following its strongest episode of the season, “Saturday Night Live” is back with host Kevin Hart. I’ve seen Hart in "Undeclared" as well as in supporting roles in several films, but won’t pretend to be anything remotely related to an expert on his stand-up career. So I’m coming into tonight’s episode with a relatively blank slate. Anything is possible when it comes to this installment, so far as I’m concerned. And that’s a good thing, so near as I can tell. Sometimes the hype can be too much (as will undoubtedly be the case when Justin Timberlake hosts next week), and sometimes negative preconceptions can cripple an episode before it even starts (paging Justin Bieber, who lived down to that hype). 

Tonight? I’m ready to roll with whatever the show has ready to offer. Along for the ride is musical guests Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, who will obviously be playing deep cuts from their album “The Heist” and in no way will play “Thrift Store” in either slot. Nope. No way, no how. Oh, who are we kidding? They will probably play it twice, and it will be f#$^ing awesome both times. In five years (or, more likely, five weeks), we’ll look back and wonder why we suddenly all lost our minds and agreed to like this song. But for now, let’s just accept the fact that if we see a broken keyboard, we’re probably going to buy that broken keyboard.
 
Come back at 11:30 pm EST, when I’ll start this liveblog properly. As always, I’ll be grading the sketches in real time. As always, you’ll forget that comedy, like all art, is subject and therefore will be shocked and horrified that your opinions don’t line up with mine. It’s a national pastime at this point, and this patriotic recapper celebrates that kind of freedom.
 
Obama Press Conference: President Obama comes on to explain the sequester in “human terms”, and how the cuts will affect all jobs used to federal funding. Air traffic controllers now have to watch Doritos ad before viewing the skies, and every 10th Mexican citizen running across the border will now instantly gain admission to the country. Something about this sketch is really off, with Jay Pharoah having trouble switching between the cue cards and relating to people onstage. Showing its topicality, “SNL” busts out a lengthy “YMCA” visual gag to save the proceedings. I guess it’s good to know that the show consistently fails to deliver a solid political sketch in the Obama administration, no matter who is portraying the president. [Grade: C+]
 
Monologue: Kevin Hart is excited to be here, y’all. He launches into a long story involving a homeless man palming a Panera sandwich. Hart does the smart move and leverages his experience as a stand-up comedian, forgoes anything musical or concept-filled, and simply delivers an increasingly wild story about his last time in New York City. After that, he admits that he once unsuccessfully auditioned for the show, and offers up the three impressions he did at the time. Those impressions? Avery Johnson, Robert DeNiro, and Denzel Washington. (His reasoning for the third: “I’m black. He’s black. Perfection combination!”) Hart is definitely energetic here, but everything is delivered at almost the exact same tone and rhythm throughout, which means there are no peaks and valleys. That’s fine for 45 seconds, but for more than five minutes? A little variation would have been nice, if only to emphasize the true comedic beats. It’s hardly a dealbreaker, but made it a little hard to engage with the monologue. [Grade: B]
 
Steve Harvey Show: After a short segment called “Dogglegangers”, Harvey launches a new segment called “Overcoming Phobias” (pronounced pho-BI-as, apparently), with Hart playing a man who is afraid of horses. Nasim Pedrad’s psychologist comes on with a stuffed horse in order to help the man overcome his fears, but then both men shrink in fear from the horse. This is a REALLY bizarre sketch to put post-monologue. Hart and Kenan Thompson are on-point here, but this feels like the type of sketch normally reserved to air after the second musical performance. That’s no reason to alter my grade for the sketch. But if you look back on this year as a whole, the post-monologue slot is straight-up schizophrenic. [Grade: B-]
 
The Situation Room: When you have a lot of ideas for sketches, but no idea how to stretch them out into a full segment, deploy “The Situation Room”! Normally, that’s how this sketch plays out, but this iteration is all Papal Conclave, all the time. We learn that the new pope is Quvenzhané Wallis. Hey, anytime you can see a grown man dressed as a 9-year old girl doing The Dougie, it’s a good day, people. When Wolf Blizter sees Wallis getting a horsie ride from another cardinal, he says, “Horsies rides in The Vatican! That’s gotta be a first, but probably isn’t.” (OK, “SNL”, that’s probably your line of the night right there.) The set-up for this was a bit odd, with the action taking place in three different locations, but the idea alone was solid, topical on multiple levels, and took away Hart’s fastpaced verbalizing in favor of more physical comedy. This wasn’t classic, but this was easily the best sketch thus far. [Grade: B+]
 
Barnes and Nobles Firing: And speaking of repeats, here’s another iteration of Bobby Moynihan and Cecily Strong yelling at everyone else in their place of employment. I love Moynihan. I love Strong. This combination should be great. And yet, it doesn’t, since it’s one-note, insanely loud, and reduces what could be an ensemble sketch into a two-person screamfest. Apparently, saying “bitch” over and over = comedy. So, that’s….fun? After a monologue and two sketches that prove that Hart can contribute to the show, this sketch sidelines him in favor of two grating characters the show hopes turn into recurring favorites. The only shining light? Tim Robinson’s creepy old employee making Hart break on-camera. At least SOMEONE looked like they were having fun! [Grade: C-]
 

Here’s what I love: though not planned at all, we’re going to get back-to-back weeks in which Macklemore and Ryan Lewis perform “Thrift Stop” and Justin Timberlake performs “Suit And Tie”. Talk about the highs and lows of modern-day economic realities! Or something. Here’s the thing: if you already know this song, then you understood what was going on here. If not…you probably were completely lost. Half the fun of the song comes from its video, which sells not only the concept but its tongue-in-cheek approach. Because hey, if you drop a one-hit wonder, it’s always good to acknowledge its nature. Poor Psy right now is wondering why no one wants to do anything “Gangnam Style” anymore. [Grade: B]

Weekend Update: Dennis Rodman and Kim Jong-Un appear to discuss their “historic” meeting recently. When you have Moynihan as the North Korean leader, featuring an accent that’s more than slightly offensive to boot, maybe it’s time to add a touch more diversity to the cast. My word. (And before you get upset in the comments, this isn’t about needing “SNL” to depict a real-world character with a cast member of the same ethnicity. This is about any attempts such as this needing to be driven by more than simply, “We want to do a bit, and will just make do with the limited range of the cast we’ve selected.”) Afterwards, Hart joins Seth Meyers for a “Really???” segment about the Voting Rights Act. What seems like a slam-dunk segment gets off to a slow start when Hart’s frustration with the cue cards leads to an expletive that will probably earn an FCC fine. I bet if they ran this segment ten more times, they all would go better than this try. Oh well.  [Grade: C+] 
 
The Walking Dead: Given this show’s popularity, it’s somewhat amazing that this is the first time “SNL” has attempted to parody it. Hart plays Lyle, a man who comes across Rick, Daryl, and the others. Lyle turns Rick’s attempts to dub him a zombie as “racist”, which seems like a fine if obvious vein to mine here. But I’m more curious if anyone on “SNL” has actually watched an episode of “The Walking Dead”. True, veracity to the show isn’t crucial, but it would be nice. Other than some smart zingers about Carl’s mental state at this point in the show, this did not need to be a sketch about “The Walking Dead” at all. Simply setting it in a zombie apocalypse would have achieved the same basic effect. White guilt is white guilt, whether or not it takes place inside Robert Kirkman’s version of the zombie apocalypse or not. [Grade: B-]
 
Shark Tank: Another TV parody! This one features Hart as a man trying to impress the sharks with an idea involving putting sunglasses on lamps. The sketch tries to spin a tale involving collection agencies and rich widows, but it fails to engage, entertain, or make me laugh once. Hart’s energy is admirable, but also can translate into him trying to hard at times as well. He consistently seemed like he was on the verge of losing his place in the sketch, which in turn made me nervous throughout. On top of that, while the sketch was short, it also managed to go absolutely nowhere. I at least expected a reason why Hart’s character kept mispronouncing “shark”. Oh well.  [Grade: D+]
 
Z-Shirt: OK, here’s a one-note joke sketch that somehow turned on a dime into one of the best segments of the night. It’s a slight bit, but achieves what it wants and the exits as quickly as it entered. The editing, the pacing, the energy, and the progression from “what the hell am I watching” to “OK, I get it” made this a pure pleasure to watch. It didn’t overstay its welcome, shifted gears at precisely the right time, and was slickly produced. “You are DEAD behind those eyes!” is a runner-up as line of the night. [Grade: B+]
 
Dove Chocolate Radio Commercial Audition: Dang, three segments in between commercial breaks? Wow. In some ways, this is set up like the famous Patrick Swayze/Chris Farley “Chippendale’s” sketch, with oblivious judges unable to discern between two unequal candidates. But here, Hart’s character understands the disparity, and tries to cede the floor. That makes the chasm between the pair much more entertaining, with Vanessa Bayer’s airiness contrasted with Hart’s more boisterous take, which goes increasingly over-the-top simply to spite the executives making the decision. After a horrific “Shark Tank” sketch, the show has rebounded nicely over the last two segments. [Grade: B]
 
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis return to the stage to perform “Can’t Hold Us”, and it’s absolutely killing me that I can’t identify the sample at the heart of this track. (It sure SOUNDS like a sample. In any case, I’m going to worry less about that and focus more on the marching band flavor that the horn section adds to the middle portion of the song. It’s got a “Lose Yourself” flavor, but still maintains the party atmosphere that the pair are trying to convey. While not as instantly hook-y as “Thrift Shop”, I’m far more likely to listen to this a few months from now. [Grade: B+]
 
Z-Shirts Part II: OK, a thirty-second live punch line to a forty-five second pre-taped bit that aired fifteen minutes ago? I….kind of love that. It’s not exactly “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”-level execution here, but I do appreciate a single joke/concept that spreads out over an entire show in unexpected places. [Grade: B+] 

 

360 News: It’s the “news in every direction”…except the host is wearing a neck brace, and therefore can’t quickly shift between the show’s multiple cameras without experiencing serious pain. Sadly, this sketch is giving me a lot of pain. The pacing and planning of tonight’s episode left a three-minute gap at the end, so they had to show SOMETHING. But after a pretty solid post-“Monologue”, the show ends on a slightly sour note. [Grade: C-]
 
Best Sketch: Z-Shirts (both parts, combined)
 
Worst Sketch: “Shark Tank”
 
The Final Word On Kevin Hart: Without knowing anything about the man’s mental makeup, it appeared at times that his energy levels were his best friend and worst enemy tonight. Cue cards were a problem throughout the hour, with Hart stumbling over his lines repeatedly and simply starting over rather than plowing through them. However, when that wasn’t a problem, he did yeoman’s work lifting some semi-rough material and elevated the good material to greater heights.
 
Next Week: Expect a cavalcade of guests to augment Timberlake’s double-duty performance as host and musical guest.
 
What did you think of tonight’s episode? How did Kevin Hart do as a host? Sound off below!