There was never any question that Tracy Morgan’s post-accident return to “Saturday Night Live” would be an emotional one, but the big surprise of the night was just how seamlessly Morgan slipped both back into the cast and into some of his classic characters, from Astronaut Jones to Brian Fellow. Even without the added weight of Morgan’s deadly car accident looming over the show, it would have been a solid entry into a season that is steadily picking up steam, and a fine entry into the “Hey, so-and-so is back!” canon of ex-stars returning to host.
Morgan was remarkably sprightly during the show, popping up in almost every sketch and unfurling both greatest hits and a few new characters (like “guy at bar who doesn’t want to fight, just really wants to dance, also doesn’t understand euphemisms”) to the delight of the audience and the rest of the cast. There were a few moments that spoke to the emotion of the show, including an opening monologue that combined both Morgan’s “SNL” family and his “30 Rock” one to charming effect, but the overall feeling last night was one of joy. Now that’s how you do a triumphant return.
The Two Best Sketches: “Astronaut Jones: The Martian” and “Mitchell’s Fake Cocaine”
Combining Morgan’s Astronaut Jones with “The Martian” is an obvious marriage of beloved character and topical news item (despite the film’s dominance at the box office, this was probably the last week that “SNL” could play it up for humorous effect, so the timing here is especially good), but that doesn’t dilute the absolute glee with which Morgan took to prancing back around on stage, singing about rockets (sorry, it’s stuck in your head now, no escape) and heading off to the great wilds of space. Even Matt Damon didn’t have this much fun making the real “Martian,” and that’s saying something.
The Worst Sketch: “Good Morning Song”
The gag here is…confessional singing? Weirdly, this sketch feels way too much like the face-plant ’50s dance sketch from the Miley Cyrus show, as both simply scan as an excuse to dress everyone up in period garb (fun), letting them sing it out (also fun) and then totally failing to find a real joke at the end of it (not fun). This thing landed like a well-clad performer in a puddle of, well, whatever that horse made.
Best Male Performer: Tracy Morgan
Morgan didn’t seem to rest during the show’s breakneck run, popping up in both old classics (like this Brian Fellow sketch) and new entries into his prodigious “SNL” canon. Morgan’s sense of timing and humor remain very much intact, and his return show was an example of not just a well-hosted show, but a truly fine return to Studio 8H that anyone could be proud of. And, yes, you still have the Astronaut Jones song stuck in your head.
Honorable mention: Kenan Thompson.
Best Female Performer: Tina Fey
And speaking of people who return to “SNL” in totally fine form and slip back into their old roles: Hi, Tina Fey. Fey joined the rest of the “30 Rock” crew for Morgan’s funny and sweet opening monologue, and — while that was treat enough for all the Fey-heads out there (that’s the Fey fan name, right?) — she put the cherry on top of the entire show by turning up during “Weekend Update.” Although it’s probably best that veterans like Morgan and Fey don’t pop up all the time — this is still a cast looking for its own voice, after all — neither of them overstayed their welcome, leaving most fans wanting still more.
Honorable mention: Kate McKinnon.
Sketch Most Likely to Go Viral: “Brian Fellow’s Safari Planet: A Beaver and A Camel”
“Astronaut Jones: The Martian” may have been the better sketch, but Morgan’s return to the world of Safari Planet — complete with a beaver, a camel and Pete Davidson — was the most anticipated. “I’m Brian Fellow!” and “That’s crazy!” may be some of the show’s most simplistic catchphrases, but they land with a bang every single time. Also, that camel. That camel.
Best Impression: Larry David as Bernie Sanders
Character Most Likely to Become a Franchise: Kyle Mooney’s Lincoln Chafee
Lincoln Chafee’s presidential campaign may not be long for this world, but Kyle Mooney’s take on the ill-fated hopeful should be allowed to live forever. Mooney’s impression of the former Rhode Island governor isn’t even that good — it’s not David-as-Sanders level good, that’s for damn sure — but it captures the oddness of Chafee in perfect fashion, topped off with Mooney’s own signature awkwardness; a heady, totally strange combination.
“Saturday Night Live” returns November 7 with host Donald Trump and musical guest Sia.