When you get a former member of the show to return as host on “Saturday Night Live,” what often unfolds is a trip down memory lane. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and certainly can be part of what makes the show so great. The fact that “SNL” has thirty-eight past seasons of material to celebrate is something the show need not shy away from, and it’s an aspect of its existence that’s useful to deploy when the situation is right. Things get thornier when the show dips into the past at the expense of its present, which is why tonight’s episode (with host Jimmy Fallon and musical guest Justin Timberlake) could either be a 2013 highlight or the smuggest episode the show has ever produced.
 
The Fallon/Timberlake friendship is well-documented, and both have played vital roles in the show’s recent past. I look at episodes like this as opportunities not to simply remind people of what was once great, but what is currently strong. That provides continuity in the show’s history, linking the past and present. Over in professional wrestling, an organization’s main stars can be used to elevate new talent. Said stars can also squash up-and-comers before they have a chance to flourish thanks to behind-the-scenes politicking. It’s probably weird to link “SNL” and the WWE, but the link is there all the same. “SNL” brought up six new featured players at the start of the season, and none of them have made much of a mark thus far. If Fallon and Timberlake use their talent and star wattage to help lift a few of them from obscurity tonight, then that helps “SNL” as a cultural entity. Even if they make the repertory players look good, that's still something. If we just see Timberlake breaking something down to [Insert Newest Version]-Ville before he and Fallon interact with each other in a fake mirror, that only serves the two of them.
 
So it should be interesting to see which way things go tonight. My instincts say that Timberlake will be in a non-small number of sketches, the majority of the cast as a whole will get few lines, a slew of former cast members and other celebs will make appearances, and we’ll get a safe, crowd-pleasing installment. That’s not a horrible way to end the year, but it’s crushingly safe. But if you’re Lorne Michaels, and you have not one but both faces of NBC’s late-night line-up (which you control, along with “SNL” itself), why would you attempt to rock the boat? We’ll find out what happens at 11:30 pm EST, when the last live blog of the year commences. Refresh throughout the show for real-time analysis of each segment as it airs.

 

WrappingVille: Oh God. So it hath begun. This is pretty much every nightmare come true. The twist? One: Fallon is involved in the oversized outfit, and their “nemesis” is Timberlake’s mother. (Or, as some in the comments have suggested, a jab by Timberlake at an overzealous member of the crowd.) But really, the actual content doesn’t matter: it’s all about the Pavlovian response to the catchphrase. See Aidy Bryant’s fear at the oversized finger coming down to the boom box? That’s character work masking real actor fear. See Fallon and Timberlake entirely pleased with themselves? That's catnip for some, comedic death for others. The wordplay on “deck sacker” is fairly clever, in the vein of “Sofa King”. But there's little else here that doesn't lean on existing sentiment rather than come up with anything new to say with this premise. Let’s hope this was Fallon/Timberlake/”SNL” getting this out of their system rather than a preview of things to come. [Grade: C+]
 
Monologue: Fallon has a lot to be thankful for: not just a new baby girl, but a new gig hosting “The Tonight Show”. He wants to sing with three of his friends: David Bowie, Bob Dylan, and Paul McCartney. It’s an excuse for him to play the guitar and do some of his impressions, but he’s really good at both, so why not? Once you heard “Paul McCartney,” you knew McCartney himself was in the building, given that he was here last year doing the show as well. The two sing “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” and it’s as nice and earnest as you’d expect. The parade of guests continues, but the monologue is a good place for the host and guests to do whatever they like and not impact the rest of the show. (Still, if McCartney appears again tonight, would you be surprised?) [Grade: B]
 
Family Feud Celebrity Edition: Kenan Thompson’s Steve Harvey hosts an episode pitching CBS stars versus NBC stars. Sounds like “Celebrity Jeopardy” with a new skin, but since that sketch hasn’t aired in years, it’s fine. It’s also part of one of my favorite sketch subsets: “throw in a lot of impressions and let the actors shine”. One of those impressions happens to be Timberlake-As-Fallon, which means we’ve already gone through the looking glass before midnight. The last celebrity: Brooks Wheelan, playing himself. You see, it’s funny because he’s never on the show! (Excuse me while I hit my head on my desk a dozen times.) Timberlake and Fallon face off, and instantly break into laughter. The two are in their own little world, which looks like a lot of fun from way out here on the outside of said planet. Also, it’s not clear if “SNL” knows that Jim Parsons and Sheldon Cooper are different people. Which is...weird. Taran Killam’s Ashton Kutcher almost single-handedly saves this sketch, but it’s overlong and has a punch line that states “being Justin Timberlake” is the sexiest thing that one can do. I know I’m on an island here, and that’s fine. I understand why everyone else will have really enjoyed tonight’s two first sketches, and they aren’t wrong to do so by any stretch. But this is every fear I articulated at the outset, and the audience reaction probably means the worst is still to come. [Grade: C]
 
Let’s Do It In My Twin Bed: Lil’ Baby Aidy in the HOUSE! Now this is more like it: the ladies of “SNL” get their own big-budget music video as women trying to get lucky while home for Christmas. Production values? Check. Nice design touches in the childhood rooms? Check. Solid musical hooks? Check. A whole thing with Lil’ Baby Aidy’s mom and some dude named Jean who gave her a bad cough? Check. Pictures of everyone as seven-years old? You bet. Holy hell, this is great, and saves the show from the tailspin it’s been in so far. For the first time tonight, Fallon participates as part of the ensemble rather than dominating lead. Anything and everything the show can do to reinforce that the current crop of female performers can stand up to the best groups of the show’s history is a smart thing to do. In the premiere, the “Girls” parody did this. And now, at the end of this season’s half, we get another reminder of just how good these women are. [Grade: A]
 
The Barry Gibb Talk Show: Three live sketches, three Timberlake appearances. This one is the strangest, not because it’s not a popular sketches involving the two, but because Robin Gibb died in 2012. So I figured this sketch would have ended with his passing. I was wrong. We don’t have any featured players in this sketch, but we do have…Madonna? Madonna! That’s definitely Madonna. And she’s having a terrible time with her props, which makes for an awkward transition into taming Barry Gibb’s normally bombastic tendencies. But at least we get Killam’s Paul Ryan back again, a great impression that got sent to mothballs once Romney lost the presidential election. In the closing credits, Barry Gibb comes on to sing along with the guys. This must be an absolute blast to watch live. But it’s still odd to air after Robin Gibb’s actual death, and it’s another example of Fallon/Timberlake dominating to the point of making everyone else superfluous. When even Madonna doesn’t really register, that seems like a problem. [Grade: C]
 
Justin Timberlake takes the musical stage to perform “Only When I Walk Away.” He’s stolen Kanye West’s production team, which surround him in lasers and…big floating heads of Timberlake himself. Is he about to be banished to The Phantom Zone? I'm not sure. The visual spectacle is impressive, and the heavy guitar riff stands in sharp contrast to many songs off “The 20/20 Experience.” But this performance is about Timberlake-As-Icon, not Timberlake-As-Artist. Again, that’s his prerogative. But I think I would have enjoyed this equally well at “Lazer Timberlake” in the local planetarium. In trying to erase Studio 8H during the song, Timberlake primarily erased himself. That makes this the one time all night in the live environment that’s happened. [Grade: B-]
 
Weekend Update: To talk about her appointment to the U.S. delegation to the Olympics, Billie Jean King arrives to celebrate her upcoming trip in Sochi. Kate McKinnon-as-King sounds promising…but ends up being a rather limp segment full of Melissa Etheridge jokes. (Because, topicality.) Afterward, Fallon and Mayor Michael Bloomberg arrive to discuss their respective impending changes. “I’ll be fulfilling a life-long dream of drinking a small soda on a non-smoking beach!” declares the outgoing Mayor. As expected, Fallon is here to officially pass the baton to Seth Meyers. That was an overly busy yet surprisingly short “Update” that worked best as part of the Goodbye Seth tour that started three weeks ago rather than a solid fake news segment.  [Grade: B-]
 
Waking Up With Kimye: I’m surprised and happy to have this sketch back so soon after its premiere a few weeks ago. Jay Pharaoah’s Kanye West has eighty percent enthusiasm mixed with twenty percent blind panic at the next thing that will come out of Kim Kardashian’s mouth, which is a great ratio for producing laughs. He loves her gingerbread house (“Kim flipped the script! Holiday bread became a building!”) but is mortified that she thinks his dad’s name is “Mr. Black Guy”. We get a “Bound 2” parody here, because of course we do. What we don’t get is either Fallon or Timberlake, which seems really bizarre. The only way to make the current cast shine tonight is…to remove them entirely. Good to know.  [Grade: B]
 
Now That’s What I Call Christmas: We get our second Impression-A-Palooza tonight, which features (among others) Noël Wells’ Zooey Deschanel, Bobby Moynihan’s André Bocelli, and a half-dozen strong Fallon takes on everyone from Michael Bublé to Pitbull. Also, how did I not see Cecily Strong’s Alanis Morrisette coming? That seems ridiculously obvious in hindsight. Mostly though, I want McKinnon’s Shakira to sing every song ever, since those 11 seconds were my new everything. Nothing revolutionary here, just an easy fastball down the comedy middle that the show struck solidly. [Grade: B]
 
A Christmas Carol: See, Ebenezer Scrooge was gay, which is funny! Right? Wrong. This is so intellectual lazy, it's not worth spending any energy discussing how ridiculous it was. Life's too short for such offensive stupidity. [Grade: D-]
 
Baby, It’s Cold Outside: A sweet ballad between Fallon and Strong turns from “sexy time” to “oh boy, I really don’t want  you to stay over now that we’ve had sex” time. Now this is more like it: a holiday-themed sketch with a devastatingly simple concept featuring almost-flawless execution. The pair have great chemistry, and deliver their respective parts with charm and skill. What makes this really work is not just the twist on the lyrics but a disarmingly sweet ending that turns the “love ‘em and leave ‘em” mood into one of quiet hopefulness in the face of fear. Plenty of sketches descend into logical anarchy, and that can be fine. But this featured the type of coherent three-minute plot often reserved for the adventurous digital shorts of the post-Lonely Island world. That….that was excellent, and so much of a turnaround from the previous sketch that I think I have whiplash. [Grade: A-]
 
Justin Timberlake returns to perform “Pair Of Wings,” an acoustic-based ballad that features far fewer lasers and far more string players. A hidden track as his second song? That’s a surprise. Whereas his first performance made Timberlake a faceless entity swallowed up my technology, this smartly puts the man and his music front and center. If most of “The 20/20 Experience” owed to 70’s dance, funk, and soul, “Pair Of Wings” sounds like the best of that decade’s singer-songwriter genre. A little James Taylor and a little Carole King can be heard in this simple, shimmering track. Just like the last sketch, this is a breath of fresh air given what’s come before. [Grade: B+]

Best Sketch: "Let's Do It In My Twin Bed", but man "Baby, It's Cold Outside" was thiiiis close

Worst Sketch: "A Christmas Carol", and man nothing else was close

Biggest Surprise: Paul McCartney didn't re-appear after the monologue

Biggest Non-Surprise: Half the cast didn't need to be there, and not just the featured players but normally heavy hitters such as Bobby Moynihan and Vanessa Bayer

What did you think of the Fallon/Timberlake "SNL"? Too much of a good thing, or is there never enough? Did they serve the show, or did they swallow it whole? Looking back on the season so far, which episode do you think was top-to-bottom best? Sound off below!