SNL Scorecard: Justin Timberlake Saves the Best for Last

I used to think Steve Martin was the greatest Saturday Night Live host of all time. But after Justin Timberlake showed us on last night's season finale what he can do to spice up a sub-par year, I'm ready to rethink that opinion.

It's almost not fair. Timberlake is such a natural, like some form of sentient artificial intelligence that was put on this Earth to do one thing perfectly: host SNL. The results this time around -- his fourth turn as host -- were, top to bottom, the best show of the season. It still spotlighted a glaring problem that was a microcosm of this entire season: Other than the cold open, the entire show was made up out of recurring sketches. Everything! The Digital Short was a recurring, both "Weekend Update" segments were recurring. To borrow a phrase from Seth Meyers: Really!?! You have the best host of the season -- maybe ever -- and you can't think of one new thing for him to do? It was almost like Timberlake announced, "I'm never hosting again, so let's do my greatest hits."

That said, at least those greatest hits are great. On to the final Scorecard!

Sketch of the Night

"Justin Timberlake Monologue" (Timberlake) Perhaps it's the stark contrast when compared to the jittery Ed Helms monologue from last week, but, daaaaaaamn, this is how it's done. Timberlake owned the very, ahem, spirited crowd the second he pounced on stage -- crooning and joking his way through the best monologue of the season. You see, he wasn't gong to sing. But he did sing! He tricked us all! And we love him for tricking us! Because he's Justin Timberlake, SNL host extraordinaire.

Score: 9.5

The Good

"Liquorville" (Timberlake, Wiig, Lady Gaga): We all knew this was coming. And before the show aired, I was quietly hoping that Timberlake's "Bring it on down to..." guy would be given a rest this time around. Eh, I was wrong. SNL has been flying on fumes for the last few weeks and it's nice to see a sketch like this come along and screams at the top of its lungs "I'm full of life!" - and not losing one bit of momentum from Timberlake's stellar monologue. (Note: the clip is not on Hulu, hopefully this YouTube video stays up for awhile.)

Score: 8.0

"Herb Welsh" (Hader, Timberlake, Armisen, Sudeikis, Pedrad) This is the third time we've seen Herb Welch in action and this is the first time that it really worked -- but, alas, it will probably get overshadowed with all the other Timberlake goings-on from last night. The first time this sketch aired, just the idea itself of the way-past-his-prime (if he ever had one) local television reporter was enough to keep the sketch interesting. But this time, when Welch's deep-seated, World War II-embedded hatred of the Japanese community was revealed -- even accompanied with a battle cry of "Bonzai" -- Hader's Herb Welsh transformed from a tired, cranky coot to something a little more dangerous.

Score: 7.5

"Digital Short: 3-Way (the Golden Rule)" (Samberg, Timberlake, Lady Gaga) My favorite part of this now "Dick in a Box" trilogy has always been the early '90s dance moves performed overlooking the East River -- and we still get plenty of that in this third installment. This time around we have a song about the plight of two straight men in bed with another, which is OK as long as one girl is also involved. I've grown to like these characters, but, really, this probably needs to be it for them. On a night where every single sketch, save for one, was a recurring sketch, maybe this would have been a good time to try something new.

Score: 7.0

"What's That Name?" (Timberlake, Lady Gaga, Hader, Elliott, Armisen): First, I do appreciate that Lady Gaga was up for so many sketches last night. She's a good sport! But someone should have given her some advice to tone it down, just a bit, in this sketch. What works for "Liquorville" isn't going to work for a game show parody. The best joke of this sketch was when Timberlake couldn't remember the name of his former N'Sync band mate, Chris Kirkpatrick. Gaga's overacting (at 5:00) when she knew the answer kind of took me out of the joke. Timberlake was funny; Gaga was trying to be funny.

Score: 7.0

"Weekend Update" (Meyers, Cooper, Samberg, Hader): Seth Meyers' take down of Arnold Schwarzenegger's affair with his housekeeper on "Really!?! with Seth" was, alone, enough to propel this into the "good." Meyers knew it, too. His first few jokes seemed rushed, probably knowing that he had a hot goblet of comedy gold just waiting to be served. Best line, "'That's so risky. I'm not even married and I erase my Internet history every four hours just in case I die and my mom comes over." I always look forward to Samberg's Nicolas Cage impression, and I always come away disappointed. It's fine, I suppose -- and Bradley Cooper seemed game -- but it just seems like an impression that needs more bite than "Why wasn't I in The Hangover Part II?" Also, there was an obligatory -- and I do mean obligatory -- appearance by Bill Hader's Stefon. I promise, it almost took you longer to read that sentence than Stefon had airtime. Also, I love that Hulu has a separate clip just for Stefon -- all 40 seconds of him standing there.

Score: 6.5

"Secret Word" (Wiig, Timberlake, Hader, Moynihan, Elliott): I'll give Timberlake the credit, but, until this installment, I've never enjoyed "Secret Word." Actually, I probably didn't enjoy "Secret Word" inasmuch as I enjoyed Timberlake's terrible magician, The Mysterious Krandel. Again, on a show filled with recurring sketches, why not try a new one with this character?

Score: 6.0

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  • Fabe says:

    Wait! Do you mean that you're done with it for the season or forever? You're still going to do the Relevancy Poll next season right? I can't wait to read that every Monday! Don't stop next season!

  • topsyturvy says:

    Timberlake's "I know I'm cool 'cause I'm acting like I'm cool" attitude has always annoyed the frack out of me. It seems to be intensified when he hosts the show.

  • Mike Ryan says:

    Well, first, tomorrow there will be two polls: one for this episode and then a year in review poll. (And, semi related, an interview with Will Forte coming later in the week.) As for after that, well, September is a ways away...

  • Mike Ryan says:

    I 100 percent get that. But I think it works for him in relation to SNL.

  • meh... says:

    If this was the best of the season, I'm glad I didn't bother to see any other episodes. This show is TERRIBLE!

  • Tommy Marx says:

    With all due respect, "What's That Name" made me laugh more times than an episode of Modern Family. Yes, Lady Gaga was a little bit stilted, but Justin Timberlake was hilarious.

  • Kristen says:

    I'm so happy the season ended on a high note because I was seriously beginning to lose faith. And, really, whenever Timberlake hosts, I feel like I'm nine years old again and I regret nothing. It's been a pleasure reading these all season, Mike. Good job.

  • Jamie says:

    I haven't watched this yet, but I just wanted to leave an incredibly ass-kissing comment about how much I like reading these posts. I generally form my own opinion about SNL (because I am an ardent apologist for the show), but it's always fun to see another informed perspective and not another unbelievably lame "SNL isn't funny, even though I still obviously watch it so I have an excuse to complain about it in a comment" thing. Good work, Mike! (And I agree with you about Paul Brittain.)

  • Brian Van says:

    My only (mild) disagreements are that "Amusement Park Ride" was more in the "good" territory than you're giving it credit for, "Secret Word" was worse ("another game show sketch? ::groan::"), and that "Barry Gibb Talk Show" is just something that is worth doing no matter how weak the non-repetitious parts are, because the repetitious parts are still hilarious. I agree with you that it was less worthwhile this time, as Fallon was much more on his game in previous iterations of this sketch, and the writing for this one just wasn't good.
    That said, I was already warmed-up by the time any of these aired, so I laughed my ass off at all of these lesser end-of-show skits.
    As for "good nights" for some of these castmembers, here's who I guess we should worry about:
    * Kenan Thompson, Bill Hader, Andy Samberg - cast members most likely to have that "run out of gas" feeling. They're all doing quite well, all working at their personal bests. But may decide that now is the time to step out. Hader has film career potential, and Samberg's Lonely Island cohorts were almost cut in the last offseason, additional factors in their tenures. The other long-timers seem much less likely to check out, though.
    * Abby Elliot, Paul Brittain, Jay Pharoah - cast members who might get cut for not delivering the goods. Of these, Paul Brittain probably has the strongest case to stick around, since he seemed to be more consistently included in the show than the other newcomers. Still, no one (other than personal fans) would miss any of these cast members from the show. Pharoah's first year was a particular disappointment as he was much anticipated but hardly seen. (He was good when he was around, though.)
    * Nasim Pedrad, Bobby Moynihan, Vanessa Bayer, Taran Killiam - cast members who may outrageously end up on the chopping block if not enough of the above cast members end up out-the-door. Pedrad and Moynihan have been solid performers for their tenures. Bayer had a good start and a steady finish. Killam seemed to be as missing as Brittain early in the season, but showed the best potential of this group down the stretch. I'd groan if any of these cast members were pushed out, because they all deserve to stick around. But I think one or two of them might be part of a usual off-season cast shuffle. They're all good but not great, useful but expendable. Blame Kabletown!

  • zooeyglass1999 says:

    It works for me because he delivers when he hosts.

  • This was a great rundown, but I like Secret Word and Samberg's Nicolas Cage. I also enjoyed the Miley Cryus (whom I didn't think I liked up until then) and Elton John episodes. Different strokes, I guess.

  • Mike Ryan says:

    I can see Sudeikis leaving soon because his movie career is really taking off. Same with Wiig -- probably one more season each. Hader's movie career seems to be more in the "best friend next door" mode, but, currently, he's the reigning King of SNL. I don't see him giving that up anytime soon -- and he's gone on record recently saying that.

  • Mike Ryan says:

    That was very nice of you to say. Thank you!

  • Al says:

    When Gaga came on for her 2nd song & did "Born this Way", I got really excited...because I have tickets for 2 weeks from see Weird Al. 🙂
    Anyway, about the show: Couldn't disagree more about the cold open. I thought it was the strongest one they've had in weeks. Jay Pharoah seems to do his best stuff when he plays off of somebody (especially Abby, Kenan, Taran, or the hosts) instead of soloing (like last week's Will Smith flop).
    Also disagree on "What's That Name?", in that I thought Gaga (who was great in her other sketches) brought it down a lot more than you thought she did. The bit with Alphonse didn't even make INTERNAL sense. And the Japan relief joke ("Of course! Playing for any other cause would just be a slap in their face!") seemed like a slap in the face of everyone ELSE trying to recover from a life-shattering natural disaster in the past year or two (Haiti earthquake, Georgia tornadoes, Missouri tornadoes, Louisiana flood,...). Timberlake & Chris Kirkpatrick were the ONLY saving graces of the sketch.
    Totally agreed with the rest; this was an awesome show.
    I hope you bring the scorecard back this fall.

  • Mims says:

    Wiig, Samberg, Hader and Sudeikis all have one year left on their initial seven year contracts. Otherwise the only thing I would disagree with is your assessment of Nasim - I think that she has been outstanding this season. I don't think she's going anywhere.

  • lord-z says:

    I dunno, I think the recurring sketches really pulled the show down to, at least, the low end of top five. Timberlake did great, though. Kind of a lousy way for Armisen to leave, as I suspect he will, playing third fiddle in a recurring sketch with Jimmy Fallon as the main attraction. If Meyers does indeed leave to take over for Regis, as the rumourmill grinds, possibly untrue, it was a nice little sendoff, both for him and Stefan, riding off into the sunset together.
    I hope you return with the scorecard next season. We might not always agree, but it is always nice to see someone elses pov on the show, someone whose opinion isn't "It sucks and has sucked since [Beloved Performer] left [a number of years ago]!"

  • ZebedeeDooDah says:

    If Meyers does leave, who would you want to see replace him as Weekend Update host? I kinda feel like it would be a good place to slot Jay Pharaoh.

  • lord-z says:

    I think Brittain would be great there, if they dare to give one of the best gigs to a featured. I suspect Sudeikis, if he does stay, could get the part for his last year, after having auditioned for it several times. If they are determined to keep Elliot, I kind of fear they will give her update, just to give her something to do.

  • Scraps says:

    Excellent work breaking down the season. Opinions may differ, but that's really what I keep coming back to this recap for, what did Mike, and all of the commenters, think about this episode.

  • Scraps says:

    Also, I think Samberg and Timberlake's 'D*ck in a Box' characters are the frontrunners for the next SNL inspired feature film. Odd that this video/song was released so soon after The Lonley Island's latest album. Guess it will be on the next one.

  • Steve Smith says:

    Were we watching something completely different. Every single one of these "skits" fell flat because they were rehashes that have been run into the ground. Bottleville - was unfunny and ran out of gas the first time JT did it. This show needs a break. If all the cast can come up with is repeat skits and talk show/game show parodies over an over then it might be time to take a season off for some retooling and a gas refill. I like the cast, I respect the show - I even like JT... watching all of them perform the same dead/dying routines over and over is sad.

  • Mims says:

    Yeah, ditto. I've enjoyed these recaps a lot more than those over at Hitfix or The A.V. Club 🙂

  • robotbutler says:

    I think there should be a "Really!?!" segment about how anybody could think the Barry Gibb sketch wasn't the funniest of the night.

  • penny says:

    Mike Ryan, I disagree with you wholeheartedly with your ranking of Anne Hathaway. She was a much better host than Russell Brand ( he does the same schtick ) , Jeff Bridges was completely out of his element ( he is not a live performer ), and Amy Poehler was decent- plus their shows were badly written . Anne's SNL hosted episode is still the best written episode of this tv season.