SNL returns for Season 37.  No cast changes, with the exception of Nasim Pedrad being promoted to repertory player.  Alec Baldwin hosts for a 16th time, breaking the record for most all-time he had shared with Steve Martin.

Cold Opening – Either the 7th or 8th GOP Debate
With the number of candidates present, this was at its core a showcase of impressions, and as that, it was hit-or-miss.  Jason’s Romney was as bland as Romney, Paul’s Paul was mostly accurate but a bit too Dennis Kucinich-esque, Andy’s Santorum was confused, Kristen’s Bachmann was at her absurd best, and Taran’s Huntsman started speaking English like a Chinese person apparently because they didn’t know what else to do with him.  I haven’t watched any of the GOP debates, but from what I’ve heard, it seemed like SNL painted an accurate picture – in fact, it may have been too accurate.  There were some gags in the sketch – Perry getting confused while tired, Paul getting pushed into a corner due to his ideological purity – that seemed to be based on very specific moments from the actual debates that most viewers probably were not familiar with. So, this sketch was clever … I think. B

Alec Baldwin’s Monologue
No surprise that Steve Martin showed up.  You had to figure he would be there at some point during the night, and the monologue would be the most likely place for that.  At first, this monologue was in danger of being one big shameless plug … for an ice cream flavor.  The steroid angle was indeed a clever way to address the record-breaking.  And Seth Rogen’s cameo was ultimately beside the point. B+

Red Flag Perfume
SNL has a fine history of fake fragrance commercials.  Remember Canis or Compulsion, anyone?  Red Flag was a bit too broad for my taste, but it made its point. B-

All My Children
Sure, this covered all the typical elements of a soap opera parody, and it wasn’t particularly All My Children-specific, but its timing was so spot-on, and its absurdity was at just the right level that I would put it right up there with any other soap opera parody.  Reminiscent of Quick-Zoom Theater and GreenhillyB+

WDHX Channel 19 News
Those Buffalo accents appeared to be accurate, at least as far as I can tell.  When little details like that are paid attention to, you know something is right with the show.  As far as the main content of this sketch, I enjoyed how the delay led to everyone talking over each other, but I was only mildly amused by the menagerie. B

Radiohead perform “Lotus Flower”
Thom Yorke did his characteristic head-bopping around the microphone, and he had maracas!  That synthetic bass – whatever instrument it was – did this song plenty of favors.  Yorke is perhaps the most interesting rock singer out there right now, and when you realize that he is saying actual words, he is even more interesting. B+

Weekend Update
-The Jokes: The joke about Minka Kelly doing a good job was funny.  And that was about the only funny joke.  Some of the stories were funny on their own.  Funnier than Seth’s jokes about them.  A lot funnier. C-
-Tony Bennett: I don’t think there needed to be the pretense of Tony being there to talk about movies.  I don’t think there needed to be any pretense at all, really.  They could have pretended that he would be talking about his new duets album; at least that would have been timely.  All he did was ramble on anyway.  And this is a good enough impression to be allowed to ramble on like that.  The audience was certainly happy to see him. B-

Who’s on Top?
Bill Hader played the host, natch.  At first, I thought that this was going to be one of those classic SNL sketches that perfectly toes the line between offensive and brilliant.  Though it was brilliant, it wasn’t really offensive.  And judging by the reaction on the Internet, I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t offended.  Ultimately, it was amusing thanks to its actually meaningful interpretation of personalities juxtaposed with an absurd, practically meaningless intellectual endeavor.  And the icing on the cake came from the peculiar idiosyncrasies of Who’s on Top?‘s format (“Ten more minutes.” “Don’t rush me!”/”I don’t want to picture that – pass.” “Correct”/”I want to lose it all!) A-

Top Gun Screen Tests
It took 13 years after the Star Wars bits for SNL to revisit the classic movie screen test concept, but now it’s only taken a year since the Back to the Future screen tests for it to be brought back for Top Gun. If this becomes an annual (or more than annual) thing, I won’t complain. Even in the details, this rendition closely followed the format used with BTTF: Alan Alda, Al Pacino, and Prince all returned (though this time Baldwin played Pacino instead of Bill); Bill again appeared twice; and Taran again appeared twice. And Andy as Crispin Glover served as a further callback to BTTF. The Tom Hanks, Bobcat Goldthwait, and Sinbad impressions all served as great quick gags, but it was only Harvey Fierstein who really had anything of substance to say about Top GunB+

Child Psychologist
I thought this was a Bedelia sketch at first.  If only.  The biggest mistake that can be made when trying to make an annoying character funny is to make her annoying characteristics too annoying.  And Nasim’s whining was way too grating to be funny.  But she was funny when she was actually talking over the whining. C

Radiohead perform “Staircase”
Radiohead performed “The National Anthem” on SNL 11 years ago, and that song has been referred to as something of a “free jazz” opus.  In the decade-plus since then, it would appear that they have become full-fledged with the free jazz, or something like free jazz.  Basically, I mean to say that this song droned on and on with the same sound the whole time.  There may be something to appreciate there, but I’m not entirely sure what that is. B

Angels in the Trenches
This is one of those comedy bits in which a bunch of crazy ideas are thrown out in rapid succession, and the hope is that at least half of them will stick.  In this case, the ratio of success to failure was about 80/20.  And that is a damn good ratio.  My favorite was Lt. Armisen’s request that a letter be sent to his congressman regarding a pothole. B+

The last time Alec Baldwin hosted – the season finale of 09/10 – was the worst episode he ever hosted, and that is saying something, considering that he did host during the notorious 94/95 season.  And the Baldwin episode before, with the Jonas Brothers, wasn’t that great either.  So it was nice to see a return to typical Baldwin episode-level form.  I am unusually excited for this season, and I don’t have much of a rational explanation for why I feel that way.  There have been no cast changes, nor have there been any other significant changes, so one would figure the show should be about the same as last year.  But I remain optimistic for this season, thanks to this solid first episode.  Most of the sketches were solid, and the subpar sketches generally were not too one-note and unoriginal.  And this was the most receptive SNL audience I have witnessed in years.  The support of your fans can go a long way, so I’m going to take a cue from this audience and cheer whenever I can this season.