Saturday Night Live” has been off the air for nearly a month, but it’s been nearly omnipresent in the news since Jimmy Fallon hosted the shows. But instead of discussing his hosting performance (and the near omnipresence of Justin Timberlake in the same episode), the topic of the show’s diversity dominated discussion of the show. That topic has surrounded the show throughout its existence, was re-ignited when “SNL” cast six Caucasian cast members before this season, grew more fervent when both Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah said less-than-satisfying things about it to the press, and went into overdrive when news of a “secret” audition arose days before John Goodman hosted the show in December. Since then, the show officially hired comedian Sasheer Zamata as a featured player, and added two new members to the writing staff: LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones. So, problem solved, right?
 
Wrong.
 
That’s not to say these aren't excellent moves for the show. The problem here is that judging them merely upon merit is nearly impossible, and that’s a problem the show brought upon itself by hiring the three women within this context. Yes, this was a lose/lose proposition for the show: Do nothing, and the outrage continues; do something, and the show is accused of bending to public pressure and hiring due to political fear rather than actual merit. But again, because it’s essentially impossible to not stress this enough: “SNL” created this lose/lose situation for itself, and now Zamata, Tookes, and Jones aren’t merely the newest additions to a constantly rotating staff of talent but the seeming byproduct of a hastily-assembled talent search meant to stem the tide of increasingly vocal dissent. This isn’t about reacting to the casting decisions made before this season, but rather reacting to the entire history of the show’s hiring decision in front of the camera as well as behind it.
 
Zamata can’t be simply another cast member, at least not for the next few weeks, and that’s not her damn fault. She should be, and should have the opportunity to be great or to be terrible based on what she brings to the table. But there’s an asterisk there for the time being, an asterisk I’m worried the show will exploit rather than try to erase in the short term. Looking back at the way the show handled this topic when Kerry Washington hosted, there’s every chance tonight’s episode will seek to address the hire in a way that highlights the show’s historical ineptitude in this arena and (comically) suggest everything is fine now. But as I stated during that Washington-hosted episode, this issue doesn’t go away with one sketch or one hire, but rather through the sum total of efforts going forth. Hiring women and men of African-American, Asian, or other non-Caucasian races shouldn’t be about scoring points in the press but putting a better product on-screen. Zamata shouldn’t be there just so the show can now have First Lady Michelle Obama in sketches. But isn’t it kind of nice that this is now a freakin’ option?
 
If the show wants to keep a core cast that plays the main roles in every sketch, then diversifying that cast is the only way to keep the show’s comedic range from atrophying. I still think having a huge reservoir of on-demand talent living in the NYC area that can play any role conceived in the writers’ room on any given week gives the show the most flexibility while keeping the talent pool fresh and hungry. (You think up-and-coming comics wouldn’t work cheaply for the chance to be in one out of four, or even eight, shows a year?) MTV’s “Girl Code” has a range of diverse voices on that show, which main turns offers up multiple viewpoints on the same topic. All of those women live and/or work in New York, and could step in and nail a “Weekend Update” segment tonight if given the opportunity. “SNL” has shown the ability to change in certain areas–its embracing of digital shorts was both a byproduct of the success “Lazy Sunday” but also its comedic value as a whole–so it will be interesting to see if Zamata is the start of a new era for the show’s hiring practices or something meant to shut up those who write about the show on a weekly basis. Because Lord knows those writers are blowhards who don’t know when to get off their soapboxes, amirite?
 
Let’s kick things off in 2014 with a liveblog of tonight’s show, featuring host/musical guest Drake. As always, I’ll offer up my opinions of each segment in real time as each one airs. As always, grades are subjective. As always, it’s silly to have to point out the grades (especially when it comes to comedy) are subjective. As always, it won’t matter that I just admitted the grades are how I feel rather than a universal assessment because a few of you will go ballistic that your favorite sketch got a “B-“. Let’s do this, 2014-style, starting at 11:30 pm EST.
 
Piers Morgan Live: The theme of this iteration: those that have misled the public in the past few weeks. First up: Governor Chris Christie, still reeling from “Bridgegate” and doing his best impression of a low-level mafia member in “The Sopranos”. After Bobby Moynihan’s great first outing as Christie, this was a disappointment. Next up: a pre-monologue Drake as Alex Rodriguez, who is suing everyone from Major League Baseball to Jackie Robinson. He also blames his seemingly-incriminating texts on Auto-Correct. Drake has a lot of nervous energy, and it’s hard to tell if it’s part of his character or just Drake being a first-time host. Finally, Kate McKinnon appears as Justin Bieber, who has been accused of throwing eggs at a neighbor’s house. (Somehow a real thing and not a joke the show made up.) McKinnon doesn’t need to say a thing here, instead using her incredible physicality to send the crowd into hysterics. The “Piers Morgan” sketches are rarely anything but a way to shove in half-ideas that can’t support a full sketch, and that’s fine. Here, each segment got progressively better than the last. It’s a weak re-entry into the show, but not horrible compared with other limp cold opens thus far.  [Grade: B]
 
Monologue: “Toronto: Where the rappers are polite, and the mayor smokes crack.” Welcome to “SNL”, Drake! He apologizes for creating the phrase “YOLO,” so now I’m confused: I liked Drake until learning that, and now I hate him something fierce. Rather than having a “normal” monologue, we get a “flashback” to his bar mitzvah. It’s a smart move, since Drake instantly gels with the cast, and it gives the show a chance to introduce Zamata without drawing attention to her presence. Eventually, Drake breaks into a rap about being both black and Jewish, in which we learn that “Kim Kardashian” is apparently a Hebrew name. Who knew? Drake looks absolutely pleased as punch after stringing together a complicated a capella verse, and his energy is infectious. The nervousness in the cold open indeed seems character-specific, which is a huge relief. [Grade: A-]
 
Hip Hop Classics: Before They Were Stars: Kenan Thompson is Sway, hosting clips from rappers other than Drake that were famous onscreen before they were music stars. This is a variation on “let the cast do a bunch of impressions,” which means we get Taran Killam’s Eminem in “Felicity” and Drake’s Lil Wayne in “Family Matters”. Rather than having the impressions flow from one to another, Thompson’s introduction for each one throws off the rhythms of the sketch. Still, it’s hard not to laugh at Beck Bennett’s Mr. Wizard. I mean, it’s hard if you’re my age. If you’re younger, you don’t know Mr. Wizard and you make me question my own mortality. Also, any sketch involving clips of Winnie Cooper can’t be any lower than a B. That’s not a personal decision so much as a universal mantra. [Grade: B]
 
Nancy Grace Live: Noël Wells gets the nod for Grace for what I believe is the first time. She’s investigating the legalization of marijuana in Colorado. The bakery owner she interviews is over the moon over her recent income increase. “I’m Walter White, and this is Baking Bad!” Drake appears next as Katt Williams. He does a fine job, but isn’t given much in the way of actual material. He also seems to have a hard time with his timing, although that might be more a technical issue with the cameras rather than Drake’s fault. Still, this is a big miss of a sketch, which isn’t quite sure how it wants to approach what feels like incredibly fertile comedic ground. Rather than following up with McKinnon’s shop owner, the show went with Katt Williams for no other reason than Drake told the writers’ room he could do a Katt Williams impression. That makes two sketches already stitched together rather than created from the ground up. The first one kinda worked. This one didn’t. [Grade: C]
 
New Year’s Resolutions: Taran Killam, Drake, Jay Pharoah, and Sasheer Zamata team up to sing a little ditty about keeping resolutions…and then instantly breaking them. It seems like a terribly repetitive idea, but it evolves into verses about blow-up dolls and LARPing. Which…is pretty incredible. Screw the song: I want to see Drake cast imaginary fire spells for thirty minutes. That would be amazing. This took a while to really get good, but ended on an incredibly strong note. [Grade: B+]
 
Sleepover: For the first time tonight, Drake is playing a non-celebrity. He’s a nebbish dad who nevertheless catches the eye of Aidy Bryant’s attendee. “Mr. Gorman is a shout of man!” I’m torn: Bryant is fearless here, but I don’t know at the outset how old these girls are supposed to be. So rather than being shocking, the entire sketch just makes everyone (and me) uncomfortable. Still, props to Drake for being willing to look silly: too many hosts come on and don’t give themselves over to the show, and that freakin’ mustache alone proves he’s game for anything. (Seriously, we need to kill that thing with fire.) The sketch at least explains the disconnect between the language and the age at the very end (she’s really 25, not 13, after being in a coma for a decade), but it doesn’t retroactively make the sketch better. Rather, it opens up about another fifteen new questions. Yes, I’m overthinking this, but introducing the concept first would have produced a drastically different (and perhaps better) sketch. Sometimes the twist ending justifies itself. This one didn’t. [Grade: C+]

Drake appears on the music side to perform “Started From The Bottom” before seguing into “Trophies”. As with many other musical artists this season, he employs a dramatic look for his performance, but here runs away from the "bigger is better" approach, using only a red spotlight for the duration of the song. Whereas Timberlake got swallowed up by his production, all eyes are on Drake here. Going smaller works, since it puts the proper focus on Drake’s storytelling. It’s safe to say the guy’s having a great show thus far. [Grade: B+]  

Weekend Update: Jacqueline Bisset appears to talk about her comedically long walk to the “Golden Globes” stage, so naturally Bisset (Vanessa Bayer) is sitting in the upper level. She paws at the audience around her, who are DELIGHTED to be part of the gag, which recurs throughout the segment. After a long absence, Nasim Pedrad’s Arianna Huffington returns to the “Update” desk. She’s upset about the recent media treatment of Hilary Clinton, noting she’ll be a strong candidate against anyone the Republicans would throw at her. (“As the busboy said the water: Chris Christie is already finished!”) It’s worth it just to hear Pedrad pronounce “penises” in Huffington’s accent, which somehow comes out as 14 syllables. The biggest takeaway here: Unlike “Update” segments in December, there was no “goodbye Seth” vibe this week, which was either an oversight or a suggestion that this dude ain’t going nowhere once he takes over the “Late Night” desk in February. Overall, this was an OK but mostly forgettable “Update”. [Grade: B-]

Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular: Pedrad is the “star” of the adventure, playing a confused woman named Rahat. And that...that’s her rice. And this is me feeling awkward as hell watching this slice of comedic death. Drake is doing his best both in-sketch and in real life to keep this from completing sinking into the abyss. But as great as Pedrad’s characters normally are, this is one-note in a way that is oddly lazy. This is the first truly big misfire in an otherwise fine if unspectacular show. [Grade: D+]

Detention: Bayer’s Miss Meadows make a surprising reappearance (she first appeared in the Miley Cyrus ep this season) here as a poetry teacher brought in to read the poems of students forced to attend detention. Some of the poems have epic lines (“Doritos, Doritos, Doritos!”) and some are less eloquent (“XBOX and Raven-Simone…before she was gay!”) The premise is the same: the last poem is always about Miss Meadows and the student’s sexual affections towards her, at which point she makes sounds like “someone is punching a dolphin” according to Mike O’Brien’s despondent teacher. This sketch wasn’t the worst one of the night, but felt the least vital, like it was padding out the episode rather than being something new to explore with Miss Meadows. Still, even if the premise isn’t all that great, the poems themselves were amusing and varied enough to occasionally entertain. [Grade: B-]
 
Drake takes the stage again to perform a stripped-down version “Hold On “We’re Going Home”. Staying in the primary color spectrum, he appears here in a solitary blue spotlight before Jhene Aiko joins in her own blue pinspot. Again, the sparseness of production works fabulously here, pairing with the equally spare instrumentation to create an atmosphere all its own. Rather than feeling like a big concert, this feels like black-box theatre. I’m totally down with that choice. Great, great stuff here, and something future musical guests should shamelessly copy when the material is appropriate. [Grade: A-]
 
Mornin’ Miami: One of my favorite sketches from the Fall is BACK! It’s still fine, but lacking the comedy shock value of the first version. Still, some of the specificity that made the first go around so great is still here. (“Jeanine Tripplehorn is back from the dead to tell us how we were wrong and she was never dead in the first place!”) But really, this is the "Mad Libs" approach to sketch writing, where the wireframe is identical and only the punch lines get slight variations. McKinnon’s song this time before the final day’s announcements? “Total Eclipse Of The Heart”, an admitted upgrade from “I’ll Stand By You”. The “BF” initials for Bobby Moynihan’s anchor…now stand for something I’m not sure I can actually print. All in all, this was fine but probably never needed to air again without anything sufficiently new added to the mix. This is why I’m fine that the Ex-Porn Stars seem to be done as a recurring sketch. More of something good isn’t always better. [Grade: B-]
 
I Know: Bennett and Kyle Mooney get the last slot with their latest short. But while I consistently gave their previous shorts high grades, this might be the first dud they have produced. The premise doesn’t go anywhere once established, being too short to really gain traction and escalate into increased absurdity. When the “emotional” payoff occurs, we’ve spent no time with these two other than fifteen seconds of them constantly arguing. I’m fine with absurd shorts, but this was just the germ of an idea that needed a few more passes before actual filming. [Grade: C-]
 
Best Sketch: Monologue
 
Worst Sketch: Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular
 
Best Surprise: After going meta with Kerry Washington, the show smartly let Zamata just be a member of the cast, with Drake’s curtain call appreciation the only overt mention of this being her first show. She neither shone nor was obscured tonight. She was just another new cast member with limited time on the show. That was great.
 
Best Non-Surprise: That Drake was a great host, even when the material was subpar. The best evidence of that? The “Indiana Jones” sketch, which even he knew was terrible but still sold every moment with incredible focus and dedication. Many can make a great sketch sing. Few can hold a scene together when it’s breaking apart at the seams. For that alone, he deserves another hosting job in the show’s fortieth season.
 
What did you think of tonight’s show? Was Drake a hit or a bust? Did the sleepover sketch shock you in a good or a bad way? Sound off below!