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Hart brought performance to the sketches, elevating the whole show, even after an uneven monologue many saw as "sexist."

Kevin Hart is a naturally funny guy, so there was a lot of hope that this week could serve as a rebound and a strong holiday farewell after last week’s misfire with James Franco hosting. Instead, it was hit or miss with Hart’s monologue -- which many viewers saw as sexist -- setting the wrong tone from the top.

There were some gems throughout, though, and one of the things Hart did right was commit fully to each character. Even better, as an actor, he performed the characters rather than read his lines from cue cards. When the guest host is actually committed and acting over just reading, it elevates the cast to push themselves harder as well, so at least we were more immersed in the sketches, even if they weren't always great.

As usual, we’re ranking all the sketches from worst to first, including the Cold Open and the regular “Weekend Update” segments. We’ll skip the musical guests, because they’re not usually funny -- unless Ashlee Simpson shows up. We wrap up with a look at the cast-member who had the strongest week. Also, in these early episodes, we’d like to see if the new kids are getting any screen time. "SNL" recently added Heidi Gardner, Luke Null, and Chris Redd as featured players.

MONOLOGUE - Kevin Hart

After touting his third time hosting, Hart settled into a fairly standard routine about the challenges of fatherhood, as he’s just had his third child. Unfortunately, he didn’t offer a particularly unique angle, which means if you’ve ever seen a comedian talk about parenthood, you’ve seen this. Babies are hard, they make you tired, they’re awful at two. Yeah, we know. Then he called out women for not being the “fun” parent, and lamented how hard that can be in a segment that felt like it stepped right out of the 1950s. Hart can be funny, he just kind of wasn’t here.

Nativity Llama

Unable to secure a camel for their nativity play, a local church had to settle for a llama instead. The jokes were about the llama being in his mating season, so it got crass and infantile and somehow that was funnier. The cast did a great job of playing off the llama’s small movements and sounds, staying in character and mostly on-script. This was another case where performance over reading cue cards helped sell an otherwise pretty thin and silly premise.

Active Jack

A 1970s PBS children’s show reunited after 45 years. First, we got to see a bit from the original show as they performed the theme song, with Kenan Thompson stepping in as the older Captain Jack to Kevin Hart’s younger version. The concept was there for this to be really fun, but they didn’t seem to know where to go with the older versions of the cast, so they just really didn’t go anywhere. It was just Thompson and Kate McKinnon, petering out into nothing by the end of the bit. It’s a shame, as this one really had potential.

COLD OPEN - White House Christmas

As we’ve come to expect from these Alec Baldwin's Donald Trump Cold Opens, they brought out all the usual favorites, including the Trump boys, Melania, Mike Pence and a double-shot of Kate McKinnon as Kellyanne Conway and Jeff (“Elf on the Shelf”) Sessions. Leslie Jones joined in on the fun as Omarosa, while Scarlett Johansson dropped by to reprise her take on Ivanka Trump for the trimming of the Shame Tree, filled with the ornaments of all of those who’ve wronged the President. The sketch didn’t break any new ground, but the banter was fun as they basically looked back on a bad year and looked forward to “everyone getting away with everything.”

Pandora Charms

“We take one little fact about your wife, and turn it into jewelry.” Kate McKinnon, Cecily Strong and Aidy Bryant nailed it as the three wives completely underwhelmed by these lazy gifts, and the commercial sketch itself was a perfect satire of the ridiculousness of this gift idea, and the fact you can just keep giving these charms for every event from here until eternity. I saw you looked at a dog, so here’s a dog. Taking thoughtless gift giving and adding just a little thought … the tiniest little bit of thought.

Family Emergency

Hart does a good job of selling the silly premise of a man who fakes family emergencies at business meeting so he can use the restroom. When called out for this, he denies it and vows to stick around, leaving Hart to get to go broad as someone who’s really struggling to hold it in. The joke proceeds to its logical conclusion, but extra points for the “very special” moment when the rest of the team pretends they got phone calls from his family to give him the excuse to go to the bathroom, complete with cheesy music. If only they’d managed to do it before the accident. Hart committed himself fully, sweating and doing a tight-cheeked walk out of the room at the end.

Crystal & Gene

Leslie Jones is Kevin Hart’s overbearing wife in a silly sketch that worked because of the fun banter the pair shared. Jones is in her comedic element yelling and commanding Hart around, while he created a put-upon character that was somehow charmingly entertaining and pathetic at the same time. The actors' height difference helped sell the premise, and added to the humor, but we do feel sorry for that oversized stuffed bear she wanted him to violate.

Weekend Update

Colin Jost and Michael Che brought another solid segment, spoofing everything from Roy Moore to Trump and even that kid who earned $11 million reviewing toys (or, as his parents told him, $50 whole dollars!). Leslie Jones reprised her take on Omarosa to talk about how she threw herself out of the White House and into the bushes before throwing herself off of the WU set, as well.

Honestly, Alex Moffat’s take on “Guy Who Just Bought a Boat” doesn’t need the constant references to his disappointing genitals. The monologue has lots of clever wordplay and innuendos that are every bit as enjoyable without those recurring distractions. The whole segment felt a little short and incomplete, though, which was disappointing as “Update” is usually one of the show’s biggest highlights.

Inside the NBA

“I like the Senate. I write an email, hit the Send button, sent it.” Hart was on fire as Shaquille O’Neal, meandering through non-sequiturs as Kenan Thompson’s Charles Barkley ripped on him. Ultimately, the diminutive Hart stood up on stilts as Shaq to challenge him to some b-ball. That was all the sketch needed, but it proved the importance of performance. Hart wasn’t fumbling through reading his lines, he was performing.

Captain Shadow & The Cardinal

Chris Redd was the highlight of this sketch as the plucky sidekick to Hart’s grim-n-gritty Captain Shadow. The crux of the pre-taped piece was a traffic stop after the Shadowmoblie was clocked at 140 mph. Hart tried to spin it into a race issue, but then the cop found cocaine on him. The earnestness of the performances sold this, particularly Redd’s take on the optimistic and energetic youthful hero sidekick.

PLAYER OF THE WEEK

It was a close one this week, and the only reason Chris Redd didn’t get it is because he had only one spotlight performance, but it was fantastic. His superhero sidekick was a thing of beauty, filled with goofy charm and charisma through the roof. He channeled Burt Ward's Robin from the 1960s Batman series, while still making it something wholly unique. Redd is really proving himself a great character actor on the sketch show, so here’s hoping 2018 offers him more opportunities to shine.

For this week, though, Leslie Jones really stepped up with a double-shot of Omarosa and as Kevin Hart’s uncomfortably domineering wife in a sketch that simply relied on the performances of those two to work. Jones has really grown into her own as a performer on the show in these kind of character pieces. Yes, the yelling and controlling wife is in her comedic wheelhouse, but she’s come a long way from someone just fumbling over cue cards, and it’s been a delight to watch. She’s such a unique personality and comedic voice, it’s exciting to watch her become more confident on-camera.

“Saturday Night Live” returns January 13 with host Sam Rockwell and musical guest Halsey, airing live coast-to-coast at 11:35 p.m ET/8:35 p.m. PT.

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