It’s been almost a month without new episodes, but “Saturday Night Live” returns tonight with host Melissa McCarthy and musical guest Phoenix. McCarthy was a game host during her first gig in the Fall of 2011, but the episode itself was a mixed bag. In that episode, she played quite often against Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg, both of whom have since left the show. She and Jason Sudeikis also had a lot of interactions last time around, so it will be interesting if “SNL” holds onto that dynamic or pairs here up with the many new cast members that have popped up in the interim.

 
There’s only one way to find out, and that’s by liveblogging tonight’s episode. Nothing has changed since last we met. I’ll recap and grade each sketch as they occur. You’ll skip past the majority of the recaps, look at the grade, spray a bottle of Hidden Valley Ranch at your computer, clean it off, and then type an angry response in the comments. It’s good ol’ fashioned fun. See you at 11:30 pm EST when I’ll kick things off properly!

 

Kim Jong-un Address: The North Korean leader announces a change in state policy: the reopening of a nuclear facility and legalize same-sex marriage. Basically, it’s Bobby Moynihan speaking jibberish while Nasim Pedrad “translates” offscreen. Why the change?  He starts off saying that it’s due to an experience with his nephew, but it’s pretty clear that there’s more than a little over-protesting happening during his address to his citizens. (He can go six dozen times in a row without stopping, don’tcha know). This cold open fits nicely into the “completely toothless political” variety that has been a hallmark of the show over the past few seasons. Even a late appearance by Dennis Rodman isn’t edgy but rather indicates how off-cycle this sketch is. [Grade: C+]
 
Monologue: McCarthy enters gingerly in very, very high heels. Her trepidation is a nice twist on the normal strut downstage. She uses the saxophone player’s seat to edge her way towards the audience while telling lame jokes. Her gift for physical comedy is on full display, and she has the crowd eating out the palm of her hand. Taran Killam appears to perform their “rehearsed” song-and-dance number, which only further flusters McCarthy. The best part of all this? The band looks absolutely DELIGHTED by everything she does. That kind of fun is infectious. It’s far preferable to other episodes this season where they have looked at certain hosts as if looking upon an animal recently struck by a car on the highway. [Grade: B+]
 
Outside The Lines: Sheila Kelly: If you thought the Rutgers basketball scandal was bad, you haven’t see anything yet. McCarthy’s Middle Delaware State coach has a reign of terror that extends beyond the court into every aspect of the school. Most of the sketch is pre-taped, but the final segment is live onstage between McCarthy and Hader’s ESPN reporter. While the pre-produced material is crisply edited, and often quite funny, the live segment is very stilted. McCarthy’s intensity goes a long way towards making this a palatable, if pretty forgettable, sketch.  [Grade: B]
 
The Voice: McCarthy’s out-of-tune contestant gets all four coaches to turn for her less-than-staller song. Jay Pharoah’s Usher impression only requires him to lift his legs, but it’s a good impression all the same. Kate McKinnon appears as Shakira, because there are no Latin women on the cast of “SNL” and someone had to do it. (Later correction: Cecily Strong is Hispanic. Which either means McKinnon just looks more like Shakira of Strong couldn't do a Shakira impression.)  The sketch revolves around the coaches picking anyone, which isn’t really true (the show pre-selects contestants, and even then plenty don’t get picked). But that’s fine, since the primary angle is McCarthy’s skepticism over having so much praise heaped upon her. There’s probably a great sketch to be made about how the coaches on “The Voice” make the show about themselves rather than the contestants. But that would be biting the musical hand that feeds NBC a little TOO much, I think. [Grade: B]
 
Honey Baked Ham Bake Off: McCarthy’s character Jean has a long, long history of losing this bake off, apparently. Her problem in the past? Presentation. The cure? A dance number featuring two back-up dancers dressed as pigs and a copy of ESPN’s “Jock Jams”. We’ve seen McCarthy’s “overly serious” face before, but there’s something about the casual demeanor of Killam and Monyihan that takes things up a notch. They don’t appear embarrassed to be dressed up as pigs, but they don’t seem overly excited, either. The professionalism splits the middle, but it’s the perfect attitude, especially in contrast with their outfits. (Kudos to whomever inserted “ham” into the lyrics throughout as well.) There’s nothing deep here: just a really bizarre idea executed well with fantastic commitment from all involved.  [Grade: A-]
 
The Bathroom Businessman: Who can waste eighteen minutes a day going to the bathroom? Here’s the best part of this: there have been plentiful meetings across this country that probably have worked on prototypes for just such a system. The twist to this? It’s basically a PSA to ensure people stop texting in bathroom stalls. I agree it’s disgusting. It’s not as disgusting as watch Kenan Thompson soil himself, but it’s disgusting all the same. [Grade: B]
 
Phoenix takes the stage to perform “Entertainment”. To these ears, Phoenix has always played better in a studio environment than in a live one, but it’s still interesting to see lead singer Thomas Mars’ more reserved persona hold the center of the band’s more manic stage presence. (Look at that guitarist strum! That looks like it hurts!) Phoenix’s songs always take a while to grow on me, so the fact that this doesn’t land as well as something as “Lisztomania” is more on me than “Entertainment” itself. It’s a good song, just not their catchiest. [Grade: B]
 
Weekend Update: Bar Mitzvah Boy Jacob appears to tell the story of Passover. We’ve seen Vanessa Bayer do this before, but it’s adorable to see the adherence to both Jacob’s script and the horrifically corny punchlines at the end of each passage. Seth Meyers’ banter with the “Update” guests is normally a highlight, but here, it’s all about the failed interactions and Jacob’s nervous demeanor. Afterwards, Charles Barkley comes on to talk about the NCAA Final Four. It turns out that Barkley’s pre-tournament bets have been so bad that he now owes his bookies a ridiculous sum of money. (In fairness to him, he didn’t know “Witchita” was a state.) But at least he’s ready for the NBA playoffs (which last about 10 months, give or take five months). Rounding things out, Drunk Uncle shows up to talk about Tax Season. Strap in: this will probably take 25 minutes or so. How does he approach taxes? “Huey Lewis And The Jews”. But it’s OK: he watches “The Client List” to get over the pain of his rampant racism. Peter Dinklage (I’m sorry, Drunklage) joins him to talk about “Game Of Thrones”, because a Lannister always pays his bar tab. OK, I’ll start the campaign to get Dinklage to host “SNL”, now. He’s great, and even elicits an absolutely shocked reaction from the crowd with his line about the IRS. (Peter Drunklage thinks it should be the Immigrant Return Service.) A great surprise appearance to round out a pretty strong “Update” overall. [Grade: A-]
 
Million Dollar Wheel: McCarthy fills in as the substitute for Vanna White for this version of “Wheel Of Fortune”. She does whacky things, like…TURN THE WRONG LETTERS. Once again, McCarthy is charming as hell, but this is a bad, one-note sketch. I’m not sure why this even sounded funny on paper, nevermind in-studio.  [Grade: C-]
 
Pizza Eater Loan Application: Sometimes, a host (or let’s be honest, a cast member) does variations on essentially the same character in each cash. In McCarthy’s case, she  brings something slightly new to each character, which speaks to not only how game she is but how flexible the writer’s can be when conceiving sketches for her. Her plan to get a loan for the purpose of eating leftover pizza is stupid, but delivered without a trace of malevolence. She’s not trying to perpetrate a scam, which is why Sudeikis’ loan analyst tolerates her for as long as he does. (“It’s just a chair. You don’t have to say ‘excuse me’ to the chair.”) It goes on about two minutes too long, but then again, I think this isn’t so much a sketch as a pitch for a movie involving these two that will film this summer. Directed by Judd Apatow. And it will be four hours long. During which my pizza will get cold. And McCarthy will slo-mo snatch it from me. [Grade: A-]
 
Phoenix returns to perform “Trying To Be Cool”. The guitars in this song sound like a plane landing just outside my door. I dig it! Mostly, though, this is a three-keyboard attack, with a solo that comes straight out of Kraftwerk. I won’t pretend to understand most of these lyrics, so judging this song as a whole is tough. But it’s a far more muscular song than most songs I’ve heard from the band, and it ends in a two-drum approach that gives it a nice, propulsive coda. Dare I say I like it better than the chosen first single off the new record? I dare! [Grade: B+]
 
The Art Of The Encounter: Cecily Strong specializes in closing out the show lately, and she’s here with McKinnon to host a dating show set semi-inexplicably in the 1990’s. Also curious: McKinnon’s character seems vaguely drunk. Then again, maybe it’s not that weird, since this is a vaguely reskinned version of the “We’re Not Porn Stars Anymore” sketches. (See that graphic at the bottom? The series of suggestions in lieu of actual dialogue?) Then again, those sketches never involved a date ending with someone doing “the splits” on another’s face. So maybe this is totally different!  I’m not sure this was really funny, but it fits the “it’s 12:55 am, so here’s something really bizarre” bill nicely. [Grade: B]
 
Best Sketch: Pizza Eater Loan Application (though "Honey Baked Ham Bake Off" was soooo close)
 
Worst Sketch: Million Dollar Wheel
 
The Takeaway: McCarthy should come back whenever she feels like it. See how many men were in the Five-Timer’s Club a few weeks ago? Let’ s populate it with more women. Candace Bergen and Drew Barrymore are lonely. Even when the material isn’t up to par, McCarthy is aces. That being said…
 
The Second Takeaway: Notice how little she interacted with the other female cast members tonight? A little indie film called “Bridesmaids” demonstrated that McCarthy is plenty funny when dealing with both genders. This is the second time for McCarthy hosting, and the second time that the female cast members got underserved. Hopefully the third time is the charm here.
 
While You Were Gone: HitFix posted two “SNL” related galleries, one on all-time underrated cast members and one featuring a wish list for hosts this season. Check them out if you want more “SNL”-related material to tide you over between now and next week.
 
What did you think of tonight’s return? Did McCarthy impress or underwhelm? Does the idea of Vince Vaughn hosting next week fill you with glee or dread? Sound off below!