In a season marked by alumni cameos at the tops of the episodes, it made sense for "Saturday Night Live" to double down for its mid-season finale with cast members (and "Sisters" co-stars) Tina Fey and Amy Poehler returning to the stage. Dorky "SNL" superfan trivia fact: Fey is now tied with Bill Murray for second place in the number of hosting stints by returning cast members. They both have five under their belts, while Chevy Chase is the reigning alumni champ with eight hosting stints.
Okay, we've established that expectations were high, so how'd they do? Awesome! Thankfully, this episode didn't rely on too many reincarnations of their best known impersonations (more on that later).
The cold open was a little, um, cold. Yes, they got the requisite Republican debate parody out of the way, but the actual debate was probably funnier. All of the cast members were spot-on with their impersonations (with the exception of Jon Rudnitsky, whose Wolf Blitzer sounded too much like Dr. Evil), but the jokes they used to characterize the people they were parodying are already worn out. This is more likely the effect of a campaign season that's already been too long than a fault of the cast. That said, Jay Pharoah's new take on Ben Carson seeming laconic (falling asleep standing up while wearing glasses that made it seem like his eyes were open), was an innovative way to approach a theme we hopefully won't have to view too much longer.
Poehler and Fey's monologue was quirky and fun, with an original Christmas song based on a joke that the pair of real-life friends are actually quite different and that Fey is "dangerously religious." It wasn't stomach-hurting funny, but are the monologues ever stomach-hurting funny? I guess you could say that Chris Hemsworth's monologue was stomach-hurting funny, but that's only because he went around punching cast members.
It was inevitable that Fey and Poehler would reprise their Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton roles, but they were welcome returns, as they tactfully navigated around the difficult proposition of how Poehler's Hillary could coexist with Kate McKinnon's very different (but also very great) Hillary. In the sketch, the 2008 incarnation of Hillary traveled through time to meet up with the 2015 Hillary. To see them together could make any "SNL" fanatic giddy. The best line arguably went to McKinnon: "Bernie Sanders is a human Birkenstock."
Time travel was also a theme of the next sketch, a game show called "Meet Your Second Wife." The premise was that contestants were unwittingly introduced to young girls who would one day be their second wives. The premise was strong and the jokes were sharp, heightening the game well with each reveal. The technical difficulties at the top of the sketch didn't even take away from the effect.
Next up was a commercial parody for a hoverboard that just might burst into flames when you're riding it. It was a fine entry into a proud tradition of "SNL" sketches that put dangerous toys in the hands of children, a la Bag O' Glass and Happy Fun Ball.
The next sketch featured Kenan Thompson revisiting a character he played last season, who was once an acting coach on "The Jeffersons." Fey and Poehler played lesbians in the 1940s, and Thompson's character coached them to inappropriately garble the delicate subject matter with slapstick comedy. The sketch was extremely silly and fun.
Musical guests Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were up next with "Meet Me in the City." These guys seem like they have potential. Maybe I should start a tribute act or something? Seriously, though, I love that the Boss has a huge posse with him these days, but it was really hard to distinguish between the five (!) guitars being strummed in unison at the front of the stage.
"Weekend Update" has been getting consistently better, with Colin Jost and Michael Che going strong on the political jokes, continuing to even outdo the political sketches. McKinnon, who is undeniably this season's MVP, shattered the political theme, playing a character referred to as "somebody's mom" who combined personal gross-out anecdotes with ill-informed recaps of soap operas. (Yes, I understand that including the phrase "ill-informed recaps" in a recap leaves me vulnerable in the comments section.)
Jost's skewering of Martin Shkreli was on-point, as was Che's skewering of Kwanza. But like true gentlemen, the anchors gave up the honor of the last jokes of 2015 to former anchors Poehler and Fey, the latter of whom made a good callback to her "dangerously religious" persona by saying a school in Connecticut that changed the phrase "holy night" to "solstice night" in a school performance of a Christmas carol should also consider changing the Virgin Mary to over-the-jeans Mary.
The best sketch of the show happened an hour into the episode. Spoiler alert: Kenan Thompson as Cosby doing half of "Baby It's Cold Outside" was such comedy gold that it's a wonder that nobody's done it before. This brief segment, which concluded with him saying, "Let me show you my penis," was the perfect heightening to an already strong sketch, which also featured Maya Rudolph in a hilarious cameo as a spacey drunk who was only a little bit more coherent than her famous impersonation of Whitney Houston. Aside from the Cosby send-up, the most quotable line of the episode might be "Lola was a gifted mess of a woman."
"Tina and Amy's Dope Squad" was a hilarious take on Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood" video, which unexpectedly derived from Aidy Bryant interviewing the hosts for a fangirl podcast while they were promoting their new film. "We've been told that we roll deep," they sang while rattling off their posse, which included their gynecologist and Robert Downey Sr., among one or two legit A-level pals.
Springsteen and the band kicked some serious ass on "The Ties That Bind," the song that was almost the title track to the album that eventually became "The River." Jake Clemons continues to do his late sax-playing uncle's legacy justice.
When Rudolph made her attendance at 30 Rockefeller Plaza known, it became increasingly apparent that she and Poehler might revive "Bronx Beat." This encore visit was also a welcome return, bringing the sensibilities of Betty and Jodi into 2015, as they ranted about ISIS, Etsy, "Downton Abbey," and the new "Star Wars." Fey came on as Betty's cousin and did a Philly accent that would be a good match for Jon Wurster's Philly Boy Roy character.
So they let that Springsteen guy do a third song to close the show with "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." And Paul McCartney hopped on stage to shake jingle bells. The moment could have been hokey were it not for the smiles of unabashed joy on the faces of the cast. The only bummer was that Bruce only name-checked the "SNL" alums in attendance, and not any of the current cast. This is a shame because although the alums brought back familiar characters, it was the current cast who gave them an ideal environment in which their comedy could continue to thrive throughout this episode.