It's always fun when an "SNL" cast member returns to the show that made them, because it usually means we get a mix of fresh new content along with some of that actors' classic character material from the show. Plus, sometimes they bring along some of their friends from the seasons they were on.
While Will Ferrell did bring his George W. Bush impression, and Tracy Morgan dropped by, the biggest influence his return brought was to the feel of all of the sketches. They were more in line with Will's era, meaning they were more driven by their characters, with a fairly basic premise to set up the action and then just letting the ridiculousness fly. "SNL" has moved on from this approach, so it wasn't successful in all of its iterations on the night, but there were still moments where Will's charisma and commitment alone were enough to sell a segment.
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.
Alex Moffatt directed Kate McKinnon and Will Ferrell as an old couple trying to promote Dickenson's chicken pot pie, only Will couldn't get his lines straight. Kate knew the lines all along, but as soon as they decided to have her try and say it, she couldn't. And that's about it for the premise of this sketch. Will seems to keep things simple, with one quirky hook to each sketch, then hoping the performances will carry the sketch. Unfortunately, while they keep it watchable, it never really gets any funnier, and so it feels like it's dragging a bit.
"When an enemy sees me on his tail, I want him to feel the same way you'd feel if a clown showed you his penis," said Will Ferrell in this fighter pilot sketch where that is his call sign: Clown Penis. It was a pretty thin premise, but Ferrell punched it up by having Clown Penis also be particularly bad at his job, flipping upside down inexplicably and even flying into outer space rather than formation. It was pretty thin and the kind of thing you'd usually see late in an episode, and not as the first proper sketch of the night.
After a month sabbatical, Will Ferrell's Gareth returned to the flight crew, but rather than join in on the safety rap with Chris Redd and Aidy Bryant, he decided to share his nihilistic worldview. There is no God. Everyone is going to die alone. Religion is a sham. That's about all this sketch had for us, but the play between the three leads was enjoyable to watch, at least until Kyle Mooney's air marshal escorted Ferrell to a seat. We never did find out why he was on a sabbatical in the first place.
Crate & Barrel
Everyone else was ready to move on after Will Ferrell mixed up Cracker Barrel and Crate & Barrel in a story, but they clearly teased him too long about it, because Will would not let it go. Once again, this was a case of a thin premise being stretched out to fill a sketch, with Will's performance selling the humor of it. This was one of the more successful ventures in that direction, though, because there were little reveals throughout to up the ante of silliness, like him suddenly declaring he quit, and then finding out he owned the company. It still falls into the camp of old-school "SNL" sketches that felt like they had a fun hook, but never figured out a satisfying ending.
After a few of their standard jabs at Donald Trump during his trip abroad, Will Ferrell was brought out as economist Jacob Silj, who was just a little stiff on camera... as in he was like a shouty robot. When Colin Jost called him on it, Will was incensed by his insensitivity, citing a medical condition that makes him unable to control the volume of his voice (another case of a thin premise being carried by performance). He even took it so far as to suggest Colin thinks slavery is funny and might like to sell Michael Che.
Heidi Gardner showed up as teen film critic Bailey Gismert. She was awkward and emotional and all over the place, until the end when she randomly shouted out, "'Lady Bird' sucked, directors should be men!" Since she was supposed to be a YouTube star, maybe it was an attempt to be controversial? In reality, it just left the whole segment on an odd note. We know it was a joke, but it just wasn't a very sharp one and it seemed to have no direction.
A late-night infomercial for a compilation of classic '50s rock songs by Will Ferrell's Chucky Byrd. But while Beck Bennett mostly stayed in character to sell the CD collection, Kate McKinnon started to notice that the songs were largely about wooing underage teen girls. The songs only got worse, until the reveal that Chucky is Beck's grandfather and the songs date back to the '80s, not the '50s. Beck's earnestness paired with Kate's direct discomfort really sold the bit, without ever completely losing the feel of a late-night infomercial.
COLD OPEN - George W. Bush
Will Ferrell came up with a clever way to approach the current administration in his cold open. He simply dropped back into his impression of an old administration and let George W. Bush talk about Trump's America. Especially as people are remembering his presidency fondly in comparison now. "I just want to address my fellow Americans tonight and remind you guys, I was really bad," Ferrell's Bush said. He flubbed a lot of words and even brought out Leslie Jones as Condoleezza Rice to sing a modified version of the "All in the Family" theme song to really drive home the notion that he was pretty bad. "What has two thumbs and created ISIS? This guy."
Wow, this pre-taped sketch just went there. Guys sweat. #TimesUp was the theme of the sketch, and the guys who are under fire for sexual harassment were apparently the target audience for this particular brand of deodorant. By the end of the sketch, even the announcer had been hit with allegations. Branded as "For when the truth comes out about you," this sketch was almost too timely and uncomfortable, but that's why it worked. The truth is there are a lot of guys out there sweating it out wondering when their time will be up. This is brilliant satire, even if it is uncomfortable to think about.
He even said during his song that "SNL" does too many song monologues, but how many of them come complete with a serious head injury? That was Will Ferrell's schtick for his take on the staple, singing nonsense, harassing the audience and even passing out at one point and thinking the show was over. Cecily Strong and Kenan Thompson put him on a stretcher to close it out after he tried to introduce musical guest Matchbox 20. It was solid physical comedy and a fun twist on a tired tradition.
Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett's recurring reality TV parody dropped Will Ferrell into the middle of its latest manufactured drama. This time Will's character overbooked himself, promising to watch movies at home with Beck while also agreeing to go out to the movies with Kyle. What followed was what we've seen every time, with plenty of cutaway "interview" segments with the houseguests as they describe what you can clearly see happening. Kudos to Tracy Morgan for a cameo appearance as the houseguest still taking a nap.
One of the most uncomfortable stories to come out of #MeToo and #TimesUp is the allegation brought against Aziz Ansari. Not everyone was as quick to simply believe the anonymous woman's account, with some describing it as a "bad date." It's a polarizing accusation, so that very discomfort is what "SNL" lampooned in a simple dinner scene. Heidi Gardner brought the topic up, leading to the lights dramatically dimming and everyone fearfully expressing their thoughts. Beck Bennett broke the conversation by suggesting that if she had wanted to leave she could have just left. Lights back out, Kenan stabbed himself, things got ugly. Apparently, there are some things that are just too difficult to talk about ... or it might bring about the end of the world!
Cecily Strong and Will Ferrell return to their home neighborhood after achieving stardom on a "Real Housewives"-type of reality show and they are bleach-blonde, spray-tanned, wine-drinking, tiny-dog-carrying, face-lifted disasters. Things started awkward, and then ratcheted up to ratchet with the inclusion of their camera crew. Aidy Bryant couldn't keep a straight face as Cecily started berating her for no reason at all, even flinging panties at her, while Will threw the barbecue chicken at Mikey Day and Beck Bennett because his wife doesn't eat anything that talks anymore. It was so narcissistic and obnoxious, and yet don't we love those shows for just those reasons? Because they're so very not like us? Please say they're not like us!
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
The newbies continue to make more and more appearances, with Heidi Gardner really getting a chance to shine this week. Luke Null, who seems to get the least screen time, even got one bit where he was able to beatbox. But it was utility player Beck Bennett who managed to shine the brightest under the neon glare of The Will Ferrell Show. Ferrell dominated every sketch, but Bennett was everywhere tonight, and while he mostly played it straight, he got to bring the lights down in a discussion about Aziz Ansari, and perhaps found even more drama opposite Will and Kyle Mooney in "The House" reality TV parody. Beck is such a reliable straight man, it's easy to overlook his importance in the success of many sketches, and he played that role brilliantly throughout the night.
"Saturday Night Live" returns next week with host Natalie Portman and musical guest Dua Lipa, airing live coast-to-coast at 11:35 p.m ET/8:35 p.m. PT.