I’m sure there are some reservations about Lady Gaga hosting “Saturday Night Live” tonight. But I’m not sure I see the problem, at least in theory. Her musical output has produced some of the great highs and lows of modern pop music, and I wouldn’t be the least surprised to see either extreme matched comedically tonight. I’ve enjoyed her sketch appearances in the past (in 2009 and 2011), and her larger-than-life presence will at least add some excitement to tonight’s proceedings. For someone as image-conscious as she is, Lady Gaga has not been afraid to send up herself during her brief appearances on the show in the past. So I’m going into this with an open mind and hoping for the best. Tonight will probably go one of two ways: in one scenario, she’s a team player in an episode that doesn’t really stand out from the rest; in the other, this is Guest Star-A-Polooza, with countless cameos throughout that turn the episode into a circus. (Maybe Timberlake returns the favor for her cameos in 2011, for example?)
 
As per usual, I’ll be liveblogging the episode, grading each sketch in as close to real time as possible. As per usual, you will disagree. As per usual, we’ll all hug and buy a slice of pizza afterwards. It’s a thing! See you here starting at 11:30 pm EST.
 
Rob Ford News Interview: Ford (Bobby Moynihan) thinks the real problem with his current status boils down to bad photos and bad press conferences. So, naturally, he “corrects” those with even bigger meltdowns. You knew Moynihan would play this role if “SNL” tackled it, and you also knew that accents straight out of “Strange Brew” would pop up as well. The strongest part of the sketch comes not from the parody of Ford, but “60 Minutes,” although I’m not sure how widespread that program’s Benganzi problem is. I’ll also admit that Moynihan’s stage dive was positively Farley-esque in execution. Still, in the end, we have what feels like the 400th tepid political cold open in the past year. Not a good start after two full weeks off. [Grade: C]
 
Monologue: Gaga smartly plays up her New York roots to get the audience on her side…then owns up to the fact that she played the audience with her cheap ploy. That segues quickly into a big-band reworking of “Applause,” with “SNL”-centric lyrics. Sometimes I dislike when a host known for musical works forgoes a traditional monologue in favor of singing, but in this case, it’s a combination of music AND personality, so it works out just fine. The goal here is to demystify Gaga and make her more presentable/approachable, while simultaneously reminding people she has some pretty serious pipes. The latter worked more than the former, but there was success on both levels. [Grade: A-]
 
Paxil: Second Term Strength: “With Paxil, you’ll feel like you’re giving a speech at a college campus in 2008!” Look, “SNL” has not done a good job knowing how to critique the Obama Administration, unable to ever seem to find a way to mine humor from his experience in office. Then along comes the ObamaCare website debacle, and the show falls to its knees, grateful to have something to mock. This is one of those “once you understand the joke, it’s over” sketches, but it’s a fine idea all the same, especially when paired with the Tea Party-centric version of Paxil for Republicans. Most noteworthy here is the production, which isn’t arty but still has enough visual flair to maintain interest even when the comedy is slightly tepid.  [Grade: B]
 
Waking Up With Kimye: Three shows, three appearances by Nasim Pedrad in the post-monologue! (That’s my Nate Silver-esque analysis to “SNL”.) I miss having all the Kardashian Sisters onscreen, but it’s good to have Pedrad’s Kim back. I liked Kay Pharaoh’s non-impression work last week, but if Kayne West lands him in this prime spot, I’ll roll with it, especially when the impression is this good. (“You hear that? She gone and changed the game! Food is JEWELRY now!”) Gaga’s first appearance masks her inner glam star, as she plays Apple Store Genius Bar employee Karen. Naturally, the word “genius” angers West, even though his wife Kim apparently dipped her MacBook Air in caramel. Gaga’s fine, as is the idea of this talk show, but man, it goes on way too long, and has about a half-dozen technical glitches. Also, Gaga’s self-referential line about her own wardrobe isn’t any better than Miley Cyrus winking at the camera while twerking a few weeks back. If you have to break the fourth wall to make your point, maybe you shouldn’t make it at all. [Grade: B-]
 
Whaaat? The Worst Cover Songs Of All Time: I’m super partial to sketches when the cast just pulls off a string of impressions based around a loose-fitting premise. So Britney Spears singing Leonard Cohen? I’m in. Rick Ross singing “Cups”? Hell yeah. Lana Del Ray And Nathan Ray covering Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me”? Perfect. Lady Gaga’s contribution is another iteration of the Humble Pie tour, with her pretending to “cover” Madonna’s “Express Yourself” by simply performing “Born This Way.” These types of sketches tend to actually flow better when pre-produced, since editing can go a long way towards making these pieces flow more seamlessly together. Still, as a silly sketch, this was pretty good, with enough variation throughout to prevent it from feeling like a one-note joke. [Grade: B]
 
Lady Gaga puts on her musical hat to perform “Do What U Want”. Know what I want? To know 100% there won’t be a wardrobe malfunction here. R. Kelly actually shows up to perform his part of the song, and also demonstrate that he can still songs that don’t involve being trapped in closets. But he knows how to do, um, push-ups…with a lady beneath him! So that’s nice. For a performance nominally highlighting Lady Gaga, she’s certainly playing second-fiddle in this musical psychosexual drama. Also, can we talk about the woman whose job it was to hold R. Kelly’s glasses? What’s her story? What are her hopes and dreams? [Grade As A Song: B-] [Grade As A Gaga/Kelly Theatrical Piece: B+] [Grade As A Work Out DVD: D]
 
Weekend Update: Common Sense Correspondent “Mr. Senior” (Kenan Thompson) arrives to bemoan the early arrival of Christmas season. Rather than have his piece consist of an on-set monologue, we get a pre-recorded field report. It’s a nice change of pace, and one “Update” would be smart to deploy more often in the future. (It’s also a nice nod to the past, to those such as Al Franken that would do this with some regularity.) After that, Jebediah Atkinson (Taran Killam), who wrote a scathing critique of the Gettysburg Address in 1863, arrives to defend his views after a Pennsylvania newspaper published a retraction of it this past week. His initial draft reads more like a gossip rag of an episode of “The Vampire Diaries” than a rhetorical analysis. After a season where he has essentially snoozed through every episode, Killam is on FIRE here. His energy is fantastic, the “NEXT!” sounds like a catchphrase the show will beat into submission by Valentine’s Day, and the crowd senses they are seeing something akin to the new Stefon. Comparing Atkinson to Stefon is, of course, blasphemy. But man, that was fun all the same, and sparked in a way that little else this season has to date. [Grade: A-]
 
Condo Co-Op Board: Weeeeelllll, this is one way to put a screeching halt on the overall good vibes from tonight. The idea here is fine: Even though co-op board stories such as this are fairly city-centric, everyone can relate to insane neighbors. But there’s no comedic continuity here: this isn’t an insane ecosystem but rather affectations deployed in 20-second increments. This sucker was DOA from the moment when the “old couple that loves hearing people have sex” joke was greeted with absolute crickets. Let’s just pretend this never happened and move on. [Grade: D-]
 
Spotlightz: This is “Real Work for Real Actors”, according to the voiceover. But really, it’s just kids reenacting famous movie scenes in the style of the Disney Channel. Gaga delivers a version of the famous “Training Day” speech that was simultaneously great and terrifying. (I kept waiting for her to pull a Jenny Slate and drop an actual “F” bomb.) And her small bits of stage business while playing Forrest Gump’s mother (especially looking at her watch each instance that she said “time”) were well done. But the star here is Vanessa Bayer, who can do this type of character in her sleep but still hasn’t overused it at this point in her tenure. No one else in the cast can match that type of earnest enthusiasm at this point. It’s not the hippest niche to hold down, but it’s an important one all the same. Random prediction: the "Breaking Bad" reference here will make this the most embedded sketch across entertainment websites tomorrow. [Grade: B+]
 

Blockbuster: Look: the Lonely Island era of the show is undoubtedly important. It kept the show in the public eye in ways the show couldn’t have possibly imagined, and was the single biggest source for attracting young eyes to the program at a time when those eyes were desperately needed. But creatively speaking, The Lonely Island boys leaving the show has been the best thing for “SNL” in the two years since it happened. I used to instinctively penalize segments for being pre-recorded, since the word “Live” is in the title and that’s what makes it so unique. But you simply couldn’t do a piece as weirdly somber as this in the live environment: not only would it be impossible production-wise, but filmed segments can handle audience silence with more much grace than, say, I don’t know, a sketch like “Condo Co-Op Board”. (I know I said we shouldn’t talk about it again. I’m a liar.) I think in a few years time, we’ll look back on last season’s “Sad Mouse” as the pivotal turning point for the show’s new, lyrical, emotional set of pre-produced films. They are the best thing about the show at this point, and there’s no point in denying it anymore. I loved “What Does My Girl Say?” two weeks ago, but things like “Blockbuster” are what I hope appear as often as possible from now on. [Grade: A] 

Lady Gaga emerges to perform the power ballad “Gypsy”, wearing an outfit that is half Elton John, half butterfly, half parachute. (My math might be off on that.) I’m impressed that she didn’t perform “Applause” in either one of her two musical slots tonight, but maybe the pop culture moment has already passed. It’s a solid, Pink-esque song, and its acoustic guitar-piano approach is refreshingly grounded. Sadly, her outfit overshadows the song, interfering with the guitarist sitting on the piano bench and then making her transition into guitar playing awkward. But you know who didn’t care? That dude in the tight purple pants. No one in the history of the world has ever been as excited about anything as that guy was about dancing to this song. I salute you, Purple Pants Guy! [Grade: B]
Talent Pageant: Gaga and John Milhiser (getting what feels like his biggest role to date) are overbearing stage parents who mime their daughter’s performance onstage. The POV on them rather than the student is not only practical, it’s absolutely necessary once the routine becomes decidedly adult. It’s a super simple idea, and fantastically executed: Gaga and Milhiser have wonderful chemistry, Gaga’s performance skills get put to good use, and Milhiser makes a huge impression for those wondering what he can offer the show. (Like me. Dude seems nice. I have no clue what his skill set is.) The “less is more” approach doesn’t always work, but here, it’s just about perfect. The sketch premise is introduced, executed in almost one take, lasts about two minutes, and leaves before it overstayed its welcome. It even takes a brief moment to assure the viewers at home that the daughter didn't actually perform the routine, but instead almost instantly ran off in tears. Just fabulous stuff.  [Grade: A-]

 

Upper West Side 2063: It’s “Sunset Boulevard” via “Poker Face”. Earlier, the fourth-wall breaking was annoying. Here, the self-lacerations are built into the sketch, and therefore are more tolerable. Still, given that we know Lady Gaga can play various fictional creations, it seems like a bit of a waste to have her play an old, sad-sack version of herself. Yes, it continues the Humble Pie Tour, but it’s kind of a tonal mess. Remember what I said earlier about live sketches not being able to hold pathos? Here’s a good example, as the crowd isn’t sure to laugh at Gaga or feel bad for her. (The intermittent “aww”s suggest a confused crowd.) It’s an idea with some seriously screwed up undertones, but the segment isn’t sure whether it wants to commit to them or not. Having it end on a machine that provides Gaga the applause she so desperately craves is one of the darkest final notes in recent “SNL” history, yet it was met with the obligatory end-of-sketch in-house applause. Which is ironic. I think. I’m so damn confused. But in a good way. I think. Someone send help. [Grade: B- as a sketch] [Grade: A- for compelling, possibly unintentional subtext]
 
Rosé Zone: Think RedZone, but for trashy reality shows! Sure, why not! (Aren't there already websites that do this, though?) It's an odd placement for this sketch, considering it already had a showstopper in that last sketch. It's fine, but also forgettable. I know this show has a running time to maintain, but placement matters, and this is a strange coda for an overall strong show. [Grade: B-]
 
Best Sketch: Blockbuster
 
Worst Sketch: Condo Co-Op Board
 
Most Intriguing Sketch: I feel like I could write a term paper on “Upper West Side 2063”. Which makes it a successful sketch, regardless of whether I thought it was actually funny.
 
Final Verdict: Maybe the best overall episode of the season, taken in aggregate. There were some lows, but also a lot of energy, and when the show let Gaga shine, she more than held her own. Calling this the best episode of the season is slightly damning it with faint praise, but I was engaged more with this episode top to bottom than anything else yet this Fall.
 
Next Week: We’ll get a lot of “The Hunger Games” jokes as Josh Hutcherson hosts.
 
What did you think of Lady Gaga’s hosting skills? What’s your opinion of the new brand of digital shorts? Sound off below!