By Hillary Busis
Updated April 08, 2012 at 09:30 PM EDT
Snl Sofia Vergara
Credit: Dana Edelson/NBC

About a year ago, Kristen Wiig announced that she was going to retire two of her most famous SNL characters: fast-talking one-upper Penelope and bubble-haired, mischievous Gilly. As it turns out, this declaration was nothing more than a Gilly-style prank: Last night, the grinning grade schooler returned to wreck havoc on Studio 8H once again. The resulting sketch was one of the episode’s few missteps. (There’s a reason Gilly should have gone to that big classroom in the sky.)

But overall, Sofia Vergara’s first outing as host of Saturday Night Live was solid and consistently funny — a pleasant surprise, considering the less-than-impressive promos that heralded her arrival. Modern Family‘s Emmy-nominated star was an energetic, enthusiastic presence, and the show’s writers didn’t reduce her to a pair of boobs with a Spanish accent. The show did lean a little heavily on sketches that skewered ads — we got three pre-taped commercial parodies, including old stalwart “Lil’ Poundcake”; one (awful) skit about a news team filming a promo; and a segment in which Vergara and new featured player Kate McKinnon filmed a Pantene spot. Maybe this ad overload was a commentary on Vergara’s bottomless well of endorsements: the actress was onscreen during commercial breaks as often as she was when the show was actually airing.

The episode got off to a strong start with a better-than-usual Mitt Romney cold open. As the Republican worked harder and harder to ingratiate himself with special interest groups, the sketch got increasingly absurd; I especially loved when Jason Sudeikis-as-Romney started extolling the virtues of adult onset diabetes. After he sent us into the credits with SNL’s iconic opening words — “Hey, New York, let’s start the show!” it was time for Vergara’s monologue, a low-key segment stocked with a few great punchlines. Welcome Sofia with pulled-down pants by watching the monologue below:

A goofy Samberg-Sudeikis gay panic commercial paved the way for our second “Bein’ Quirky with Zooey Deschanel” sketch. I didn’t love this segment the first time it aired; the timing seemed a little off, and the jokes were a tiny bit too easy. But this time, the faux talk show was a total slam dunk — from Kristen Wiig’s spot-on Drew Barrymore to Zooey’s table of old typewriters to Vergara’s braying, genius impression of Fran Drescher, I was giggling like a happy, guilty baby. As always, Taran Killam gets bonus points for his Mickey Mouse-voiced Michael Cera; he might not sound anything like the real Cera, but his impersonation has quickly become one of SNL‘s funniest celebrity send-ups.

The less said about that jokeless Santa Barbara news team sketch — and Gilly’s unwelcome return — the better. But I have nothing but praise for that genius “Almost Pizza” commercial parody. This fake ad wasn’t just a send-up of DiGiorno spots and the weird un-food that lurks in your supermarket’s freezer aisle; it was a hilarious, bizarre mini horror film, complete with a slice of frozen pizza that had a terrible mind of its own. I love when SNL gets weird, and “Almost Pizza” was gleeful weirdness at its best. Plus, Bill Hader makes everything better.

This week SNL ignored indie artists and YouTube stars in favor of One Direction, the British boy band du jour. (Not to be confused with Du Jour, one of the hottest boy bands of the early ’00s.) In a pair of lively performances, the X Factor-approved group showed why teens across the world have fallen for their floppy-haired, skinny-jeaned charm. I just can’t help wondering what happens once the subject of “What Makes You Beautiful” hears the song that was written for her. Won’t finding out she’s beautiful immediately make her unattractive?

Last night’s brief Weekend Update was basically a showcase for Bobby Moynihan’s old-fashioned, immigrant-hating Drunk Uncle — a one-note character who hasn’t yet worn out his welcome. Even as he’s railing against technology or mourning times gone by, Moynihan’s punchlines are just strange enough to land without inspiring groans; in his honor, I’m adding “a haircut” to my Netflix queue and trying not to care whether my Wifi is organic.

Considering Vergara’s thick Colombian accent, an installment of “The Manuel Ortiz Show” was as inevitable as Stefon hiding behind his hands. When it comes to sketches dedicated solely to silly dancing, I’ll always vote for “What Up With That?” or “Les Jeunes de Paris” over “Manuel.” But tonight’s “Ortiz” segment was better than most, thanks to Kristen Wiig’s hot lady prisoner outfit, Bill Hader’s elastic face, and Sofia Vergara’s explanation of how she was abandoned as a child: “I was left at a fruit stand. They thought I was a box of limes.” One Direction also seemed to have a blast in their bushy mustaches and ridiculous ’70s wigs; if there’s one thing a boy band loves, it’s elaborate costumes.

“Manuel Ortiz” was followed by a sketch that I absolutely loved, even if it probably fell flat with the vast majority of viewers. The peculiar quirks of Andy Cohen’s Watch What Happens Live aren’t as universal as, say, the quirks of any Real Housewives show. But Taran Killam’s smarmy, attention-loving Cohen was absolutely terrific, as were all the sketch’s barbed digs at Watch What Happens itself (“The show is live, so anything can happen! But don’t worry, nothing will”). Also, for the record: Cohen looks cuter like this.

The Watch What Happens sketch also gave us our first look at Kate McKinnon, a comedian who may be joining SNL’s cast full-time. She displayed a decent ear for accents in both that skit and the one that followed, in which McKinnon played a befuddled Penélope Cruz; if Wiig leaves the show this season, the cast is going to need a gifted female impressionist, and McKinnon could definitely fit the bill.

The concluding sketch, a formless Hunger Games parody, may have had more impact if it had bothered having a story. Even so, Abby Elliott’s intense Katniss was amusing, and hearing Sofia Vergara scream “BOOM! HUNGER GAAAMES!” was way funnier than it had any right to be. (Though turning the entire sketch into a look at the Hunger Games Puppy Bowl may have resulted in something with more bite.)

Before we say adios, PopWatchers, tell me: What did you think of last night’s SNL? Did Sofia Vergara meet or exceed your expectations? Did One Direction make you swoon? Think Kate McKinnon proved herself worthy of a spot in the cast? How do you feel about Josh Brolin’s return to the show next week? What were your favorite and least favorite sketches? And finally, why did a Chinaman steal my job?

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