Recap: ‘Saturday Night Live’ – James Franco and Nicki Minaj

Although he appeared in last season”s best sketch (“Monster Pals”), James Franco hasn”t actually hosted “Saturday Night Live” in almost exactly five years. With “The Interview” just around the corner, don”t be surprised to see Seth Rogen show up tonight. (I”d be more surprised, but also more delighted, if co-star Lizzy Caplan shows up for a “Masters Of Sex” parody as well.) Franco has been up for anything in his previous “SNL” appearances, and just released a fantastic “SNL” documentary now available on Hulu Plus, so he”s a good host to kick off this final leg of the Fall 2014 season.

As always, I”ll be liveblogging each segment. This week, I”m giving everything a “B” just to appease those that quibble with the individual grades I assign. Oh wait, that probably wouldn”t be any better. Grades are imperfect, in-the-moment reactions and nothing more. This has been a strong overall season, one that”s been a lot of fun to recap thus far. I”m hoping Franco, Martin Freeman, and Amy Adams bring things to an equally strong conclusion.

Come back at 11:30 pm EST and share your thoughts as I share mine!

Politics Nation Cold Open: Al Sharpton is excited: People finally agree with him about a current topic. (“This must be what it feels like to be Beyonce!”) Apparently, Ney York grand juries need videotapes of police brutality filmed in 1080p, which explains the Eric Garner decision. In terms of a reaction to this past week, “SNL” had to do SOMETHING, even if its take on Sharpton is more about malapropisms and shoddy interview style than anything polticially hard-hitting. My impression/hope: This isn”t the last Michael Brown/Eric Garner-related sketch tonight, so all the satirical eggs may not be in this initial basket. [Grade: B]

Monologue: Franco discusses this week”s Sony hacks, and wants to get ahead of any potential leaks about himself. On cue, Seth Rogen comes out to say the leaks are even worse than they feared, and includes their private cellphone photos. We”ve seen Rogen/Franco do this before, and it”s fine if familiar stuff. After showing a couple of “embarrassing” photos, the monologue almost instantly ends. Well, better than dragging out a lame premise like audience Q&A, I say! [Grade: B-]

Peter Pan Live: Well, why not, right? Not sure anything could be funnier than a purple freakin” crocodile, but let”s see what happens. In actuality, this is a Tonkerbell sketch more than a parody of the televised stage production. Not sure I ever needed to see this character again, but I do enjoy seeing Franco try to out-minimalize Christopher Walken in terms of performance. It”s faaaantastic. Also fantastic? Cecily Strong singing Edie Brickell! There was enough in the actual “Peter Pan Live” to mock, but I”m guessing “SNL” couldn”t bite the hand that feeds here. In summary: Right idea, wrong focus. [Grade: B-]

Star Wars The Force Awakens: Seeing Luke Skywalker using an actual walker made me more depressed than I”d care to admit.  [Grade: C+]

Jingle Ballerz: It”s time for a Hip Hop Nativity, featuring Rihanna, Rick Ross, and Taran Killam”s unnervingly accurate Eminem. Minaj also appears in-sketch as Beyonce alongside Kate McKinnon”s Justin Bieber. As with her last time on “SNL,” Minaj makes a strong case that she would be an intriguing host and not just musical guest. She has great presence and strong comedic timing. Throw in another great Jay Pharoah Kanye West impression into the mix, and you had a solid ensemble sketch with multiple levels of enjoyment. [Grade: B+]

Grow A Guy: “A Mike O”Brien Picture.” Is that the first time we”ve seen that? I”m guessing so. I”m a fan of this development! As for the actual short…there”s something lyrical about the way O”Brien”s character seems to exist in a world in which he has grown all of his friends, some of which don”t seem to understand/remember their origin. But it took a LONG time to get to that point, with Beck Bennett”s bullying a little too on point to actually be enjoyable. I”m an O”Brien fan, and still am slightly bummed he”s not in the cast anymore. But this feels like a slight misfire. [Grade: C+]

Troll Bridge: “Dear Diary: A year ago I was a co-anchor on ‘Weekend Update”. Now I”m doing horrible troll sketches. I”m giving it my all, and yet no one”s laughing. Oh wait, this is a horrible premise. Looks like I have to go out and do it anyways. Apparently 'guys making out' is still a thing that makes people laugh in and of itself even though it's 2014. I liked last year better. I hope I get a TARDIS for Christmas.”  [Grade: D]

Weekend Update: The initial takes here on the Garner trial were exactly what I hoped the show would do in addition to the cold open. The focused, heartfelt approaches from both Che and Jost were pitch perfect and really point towards a way in which they can differentiate themselves from past hosts. Unfortunately, then “Update” went back to the old, stale rhythms almost instantly afterwards. Oh well. As for the guests? Anthony Crispino is a crowd favorite, but I”ve never warmed up to him. (I know, I know.) But Leslie Jones? I”m excited to see her again at the “Update” desk. She”s here to talk about dating sites catering to marijuana users, but warns African-Americans not to use mushrooms due to her own poor experiences with it. (“I talked to Harriet Tubman for two hours!”) I”d watch an entire “SNL” episode consisting of Leslie Jones making Jost delighted yet mostly uncomfortable. Minaj appears once again as Kim Kardashian to talk about her Paper Magazine photo shoot. She adds backgrounds as way of providing context for the now-infamous photo shoot, but the comic idea never really takes off. The big takeaway here? More of that first 90 seconds, “SNL”: That was some fascinating, immediate stuff that demonstrated the personalities of those behind the desk, and the show (and “Update” especially) needs as much of that as possible. [Grade: B-]

Overly Full Brain: I did NOT expect to see any sketches involving Savage Garden references tonight. So well played, show. This is basically a “cast gets to do impressions” sketch, which is fine, especially when one of the impressions is one of the dudes from the band O-Town. However, the movie quote part absolutely slayed me (“WHO REMEMBERS A BILLY ZANE LINE FROM ‘TITANIC”?”) and Franco's increasingly manic energy was a huge boost to this sketch's laugh factor. Plus: When you get Nicki Minaj, you get her for the whole night apparently. Here's your “Anaconda,” y'all. It's all but official: She”s definitely hosting in the next twelve months. I”m predicting it right now.  [Grade: B+]

Kid Mayor Recall: I”m not voting for anyone who doesn”t like “Frozen,” so I don”t support this recall initiative. Franco must have taken a Red Bull during “Update,” since he”s on fire on this side of midnight. They gave him a monologue that consisted of saying very mean things about a four year old and he had the audience in the palm of his hand. It was a little too monotonous in terms of delivery, but it was still a well-written piece delivered with confidence. Sometimes, the simplest sketches are the best kind. [Grade: A-]

Sunseeker Yachts: “We”re gonna need a bigger throat!” At some point, this recurring sketch just went for full-on graphic dialogue (“What does ‘pull out” mean?”) rather than weirdness/sadness. Which is fine, but certainly less interesting. Given how little Bayer has been on this season, I shouldn”t complain too much about her only significant onscreen time tonight. But it might be time to fully retire this sketch once and for all. [Grade: C+]

Best Sketch: Kid Mayor Recall

Worst Sketch: Troll Bridge

How was Nicki Minaj? She was all over the place tonight, and I mean that in a good way! She was in multiple sketches, and her two musical performances strove to highlight different facets of her albums. And yet she never overstayed her welcome. For his part, Franco seemed happy to share the spotlight with her. An excellent job by Minaj all night.

Next Week: Martin Freeman and Charli XCX