April 11, 2010 at 11:27 AM EDT

Tina Fey’s return to Saturday Night Live wasn’t a non-stop laugh-fest — it was something almost better: interestingly uneven, as though Fey wasn’t quite sure how to fold her sensibility (and her sitcom and movie stardom) back into the role she used to occupy as a writer and performer on SNL.

After a mildly awkward opening monologue/musical number that addressed how she “juggles it all” (fake nannies, personal trainer, Steve Martin cameo’ing as her tax lawyer), there was a funny commercial for “Duncan Hines Brownie Husband,” with Fey biting and licking a man-shaped brownie. (“Rich fudge and emotional intimacy,” cooed the voice-over.)

The evening frequently reminded us that Fey (often in partnership with her comrade Amy Poehler) used to go for two extremes on SNL: inserting a feminine sensibility into  a show traditionally dominated by guy-humor, and parodying the worst aspects of female celebrity.

For Fey last night, this sometimes meant making mean-girl jokes: portraying a skanky commentator at the Masters who’d slept with Tiger Woods, and a blowsy Dina Lohan in Kenan Thompson’s nicely weird sketch about Al Roker as a party-animal.

Fey’s return to “Weekend Update” was as host of her own “Women’s News” segment, during which she made sure to slam Tiki Barber, and really let loose on Bombshell McGee, whom Fey said had “a tattoo on her forehead because she ran out of room on her labia.” Ouch.

Fey’s pre-publicized return to her most famous impersonation resulted in “The Sarah Palin Network”: Fey as Palin in a black leather jacket promoting a slate of programming such as Tea Party Wheel of Fortune, Hey Journalist, I Gotcha! (re-edited news footage that had Fey/Palin out-smarting Katie Couric), and her husband starring in a guns-blazing adventure show, Todd! At the end of the sketch, Fey/Palin looked at her palm to read, “Good night.” All of this ranged from the mildly funny to  that-joke’s-been-done-to-death (a palm-reading gag, really?).

The most intriguing sketch was one set at a school dance in which Fey played the drab, kind surburban mom to a brainy daughter (Nasim Pedrad) who idolized her. It was smart, genuinely sweet, and in the context of SNL, downright daring: What, no harsh ridicule for a nerd? Admiration for a parent?

Even better was the night’s final scene, in which Fey played a nine-inch-tall hooker telling her hopes and dreams to sympathetic guys at a bar. The dialogue was only fitfully funny, but it had the strong verbal rhythms of a 1950s kitchen-sink drama.

Musical guest Justin Bieber was worked into a sketch in which Fey, playing a teacher, fantasized about super-cute student “Jason.” In the teacher’s fantasy, Jason sings for the depressed, over-worked teacher, who fantasizes about the cute boy (“I love the way his hair really knows the way it wants to go”). Fey knew she had to play off the teen idol’s appeal, and found a way to do it that was both funny and not creepy. Or creepily exaggerated, as when the teacher day-dreamed about pushing Jason around in a stroller.

All in all, not a great SNL, but a different sort of one. Familiar faces receded — Kristen Wiig was limited to one appearance, as the cranky movie reviewer Aunt Linda; Fred Armisen virtually disappeared after his Obama cold-open — while Nasim Pedrad was given some strong supporting roles. Jason Sudeikis had an “Update” segment playing the devil that was, of all things, almost endearingly sincere in the scorn heaped upon pederast priests.

Sincerity from SNL — who’da thunk it? Tina Fey’s influence was everywhere, and mostly it yielded goodness. Not huge laughs, but an evening with more substance than usual.

Agree? Disagree?

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