After a two-week hiatus, "Saturday Night Live" returned this week with one of its all-time greatest hosts. Did it measure up? Let's find out with yet another popular scene-by-scene appraisal.
"Saturday Night Live" (Host: Christopher Walken, Musical Guest: Panic at the Disco)
Cold Open -- Bill and Hillary Clinton (one of whom is running for President, I'm told) discuss the recent disclosure of their finances in the news. Hey! They woke Darrell Hammond up early tonight! His Bill is a sure thing, all straight-faced, shameless lies and calculations. Amy Poehler as Hillary isn't quite his match, but what she gets right is the way Hillary never quite gets it right. The more she tries to seem folksy or normal, the weirder she becomes. The sketch is trifling, though, and I wish the writers would put some more political red meat on these bare bones. 2 stars.
Monologue -- There's something inherently hilarious about Christopher Walken's speech rhythms. It has gotten to the point where it's hard to watch him all intense in his earliest movies, like The Deer Hunter, and be able to take him seriously. His monologue tonight, in celebration of hosting "SNL" for the one hundredth time (counting reruns), consists of him responding to questions from the audience, questions he was kind enough to provide himself. He ends by saying that he thought it went "wonderfully well." I agree; this is Season Best caliber stuff. 4 stars.
Annuale -- A repeat from the Tina Fey show back on February 23, and one of Pop Culture America guest Gina Philips's favorite sketches. I'm not quite as enamored of PMS gags as she is, but there's a good premise and some funny lines in the disclaimer. 1 1/2 stars (penalized a little because it's a retread).
The Northside High Senior Musical -- Walken as the director of a high school musical takes issue with some of the randier lines in "Greased Lightning" from Grease. Walken alters the lyrics so that they are little more than sanitized nonsense like "hubba hubba" and "flox flox flox." Falls off a little at the end when the boys put all the words together and the result isn't as funny as it should be, but a solid sketch that's a pure Walken showcase. Go Gene Rayburn! 3 stars.
Nathan's Going-Away Party -- Nathan (Jason Sudeikis) is leaving the firm and discovers what a profound impact he's had on Eric (Walken), a man he barely knew. Christopher Walken's wig in this one makes him look like Barnabas Collins from "Dark Shadows" (the original). And it slips about halfway through. A tremendous sketch with a terrific build as Walken's declarations grow more and more psychotic. Sudeikis does a nice job in the less showy role, reacting to Walken and helping to sell the mania. Casey Wilson has a brief walk-through part that delivers a big laugh. A scene that really touched this big ol' goofy heart of mine. 4 stars.
Laser Cats 3-D -- This week's SNL Digital Short is another Laser Cats adventure, last seen in the previous season's Jake Gyllenhaal episode. This time, Admiral Spaceship and Nitro (Andy Samberg and Bill Hader) do battle with the evil Mayor Top-Hat (Kenan Thompson) who's out to rule the world by banning laser cats. It's not bad, but Mayor Top-Hat pales as a villain compared to Gyllenhaal's evil Doctor Scientist. Senator Christopher Dodd makes a bizarre cameo and looks funny wearing 3-D glasses, but then, so does everyone. Walken plays the boys' commander. 3 stars.
Surprise Party -- Walken in yet another funny wig plans a surprise party for his granddaughter Anne, much to the excessive delight of his friend Sue (Kristen Wiig). Kristen sells this one (barely) on the sheer force of her over-the-top performance, while Walken plays straightman for a change. I have the feeling we'll be seeing Sue again. Maybe she and the Target Lady could fight each other to the death. 2 1/2 stars.
Panic at the Disco performs "Nine in the Afternoon" -- I was terribly eager to see this performance. Seriously. I hated P!ATD back when they had an exclamation point in their name; I wrote them off as just another unlistenable emo-lite act. But I was reading Blender a couple of weeks ago and it gave PATD's new record a glowing review and spoke of how they had embraced 60s-style psychedelia. Well, I loves me some psychedelia, and I root for bands to get better (when they really suck, like P!ATD did), so I wanted to give their new sound a try. They certainly are draping themselves in the trappings of psychedelia, but dressing up your horn and string sections in marching band gear doesn't make you Sergeant Pepper. The horns and strings sound great; now if we could just get rid of that mediocre rock band standing in front of them. 2 stars.
Weekend Update -- Some good lines. The Madonna joke was dead on. As was the thing about Santa giving you a carrot on Flag Day. And I have just renamed my dog "Osama bin Sniffen." But overall, this was a pretty rote effort. And short. The only commentary was provided by Samberg as a pregnant guy from the "Oprah" show. There is such an animal? Watch out for Doug Wentworth! 2 stars.
Walken Family Reunion -- "SNL" cops to the fact that everybody thinks they can do a Christopher Walken impression. The entire cast (except Wilson and Forte, who plays a waiter) gets to adopt the bizarro speech patterns of the host and parrot them back at him. Some impressions (Hader's) are better than others (Armisen's), but the scene does what it's supposed to do. And Darrell shows up in a second sketch! He must be drawing overtime. The last line is terrible and whoever wrote it should get swatted with a big block of splintery wood. 3 stars.
Indoor Gardening Tips from a Man Who's Very Scared of Plants -- Walken as the titular character pastes googly eyes on cacti and ferns to make them less threatening. A truly, aggressively stupid idea given comic momentum only because Walken continues to be a hoot. Here, he has the stage all to himself (not counting the greenery) and he proves that the other cast members are only sporadically necessary. 3 1/2 stars.
Top Chef -- Walken as a contestant on "Top Chef" objects to the fact that he can't cook with any of the stuff he likes. Kristen is scary good here as the dead-behind-the-eyes hostess. Forget about Excitable Sue; bring this character back. Walken's schtick starts to wear for the first time in the evening. Who wouldn't like a beet and couscous pizza? 2 stars.
Panic at the Disco performs "I Write Sins, Not Tragedies" -- Hey! Isn't this from the previous album? Already these wusses back off their supposed new direction and huddle for safety under an old hit (it was a hit, wasn't it?)? The horns are gone but the strings remain. A couple of the girls in the string section are cute. Now if we could just get rid of the mediocre rock band obscuring my view of them. 1 1/2 stars.
Larry King Live with Jimmy Carter -- Armisen as King interviews the former President about all the books he's written and how no one ever reads any of them. Oh. My. Gawd. Darrell is in a third sketch! Someone get a recovery bed prepared for him at New York General, stat! A one-joke scene that takes rather vicious swipes at a decent guy. Why can't the Clinton/Obama/McCain scenes have such sharp teeth? 2 stars.
And then an awkward "Good night" from Walken. Overall, a good effort. The highs were very high and none of the lows were unbearable. Next week it's big-time TV producer Ashton Kutcher and Gnarls Barkley. Watch it, then come back here and join the discussion.