By Hillary Busis
March 10, 2013 at 02:02 PM EDT
Dana Edelson/NBC
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You guys, Justin Timberlake is onto us. Here’s how this season’s most highly anticipated SNL host began his monologue last night: “There are so many exciting things about hosting five times. You get to see old friends. You get to try new things. You get to inevitably let everyone down thanks to overly high expectations — thanks, Internet!”

But unlike poor Jennifer Lawrence, Timberlake didn’t fall victim to the perils of fervent anticipation. His show was a thrilling, joyous, cameo-stuffed affair that easily ranks among this season’s best, second only perhaps to Martin Short’s Christmas episode — even though Timberlake and SNL both lost a good amount of momentum after Weekend Update, where the show’s weakest sketches are traditionally stuffed.

Timberlake’s big night got off to a slow-ish start with a cold open about Hugo Chavez. The host borrowed a getup from Liberace‘s closet to play Elton John, who had flown all the way to Venezuela to fete the fallen leader because “eh, a gig is a gig.” His modified take on “Candle in the Wind” was more clever than laugh-out-loud funny, though it’s pretty incredible to know that every insane fact about Chavez that made it into the song is true. (Example: Yeah, he actually did say that capitalism is to blame for a lack of civilization on Mars.) Also noteworthy: Hosts rarely appear in cold opens, and Timberlake’s presence there indicates just how ingrained he is in the SNL family.

Those deep roots got even deeper in Timberlake’s monologue, a lengthy (nearly nine minutes!) sequence that predictably centered on the host’s induction into the prestigious Five-Timers Club. The sketch’s script must have looked a little something like this:

“Steve Martin enters; hold for applause. Alec Baldwin enters; hold for applause. Tom Hanks enters; hold for applause.”

Somehow, though, the sequence’s pandering — and its innate laziness — didn’t seem to matter. Seeing Martin, Baldwin, Hanks, Paul Simon, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Martin Short, and even Candice Bergen all in the same room together was thrilling enough to make up for how indulgent the entire affair was — and the monologue’s small touches, like Timberlake drinking a “Kristen Wiig”-themed cocktail topped with a Gilly hairpiece or Short’s enthusiastic revival of the Three Amigos salute, were funny enough to keep the whole thing from collapsing in on itself.

And then came It’s a Date, a game show that gave SNL the perfect excuse to bring back two pairs of beloved recurring characters: Timberlake and Andy Samberg’s smooth-voiced “Dick in a Box” duo, and — even more excitingly — Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd’s Festrunk brothers, a.k.a. two WILD and CRAZY guys. The dudes (and poor Bobby Moynihan) competed for Vanessa Bayer’s affections, promising variously to spend all night “railing on [her] butt,” admiring her “big American breasts,” and enthusing about their favorite season (according to the Color Me Badd boys, “girls can’t get pregnant in the summertime. It’s a known fact!).

In the end, the younger pair outperformed the oldsters — which makes sense, since Martin and Aykroyd haven’t dusted off these characters since 1998. But either way, everyone involved is a winner — except maybe Czechoslovakia, which stopped existing long before Yortuk and Georg last donned their paisley shirts.

Timberlake’s latest foam mascot sketch, like his cold open, is a victim of music rights issues that prevent it from being placed online (legally, anyway). So take my word for it: If you liked JT bringing it on down to Omeletteville, Homelessville, Plasticville, and Liquorville, chances are that his tuneful shilling for Veganville struck a similar delightful chord. The best line, rapped against the beat of “Ice Ice Baby”: “Fiber, it’s a dope ingredient/Think you want some to make your bowels expedient.”

Even better was Timberlake’s performance of “Suit & Tie,” which followed a hilarious fake commercial for the diamond-encrusted “NuvaBling.” The stage was stuffed with backup singers, a full band, dancers doing their best Janelle Monáe impressions, and even, at one point, Jay-Z — and despite all that, it was nearly impossible to tear your eyes away from JT, who broke out some ‘N Sync-honed dance moves as he crooned seductively and apparently took a shot at “Suit & Tie” hater Kanye West. Note how “sh– so sick, got a hit and picked up a habit” transforms into “hit so big, got rappers acting dramatic” in this version of the song:

NEXT: Stefon!!

A strong set of Weekend Update jokes about Dennis Rodman, Old Chewbacca, and the Hebrew version of Playboy — “You look at the models’ breasts from right to left” — led into yet another triumphant SNL return when Bill Hader’s Stefon stopped by Seth’s desk. This could well be one of the character’s last appearances on the show, given that Stefon writer John Mulaney has a hot pilot at NBC this spring — so let’s wring every last drop of enjoyment out of clubs named “Your Mother and I Are Separating” while we can. P.S. Television Academy: If Bill Hader’s virtuoso performance as Donald Duck having a Vietnam nightmare isn’t enough to get him an Emmy, I don’t know what could be.

Alas, nothing gold can stay — and though Timberlake remained charming, the show seriously lagged once Stefon left the stage. While an ill-conceived sketch about the debauched Roman emperor Caligula trying to embrace a life of sobriety wasn’t very funny, at least it happened to be original; the show’s unnecessary reprise of “Maine Justice,” though, failed on both counts. And why ask Andy Samberg to stick around until the end of the show if you’re just going to make him play the straight man?

The short, goofy trailer for a fake romantic comedy that followed Timberlake’s second musical performance — memorably introduced by the Three Amigos themselves, in costume — played nicely with the genre’s cliches. (Kate McKinnon clearly needs to play a sage BFF in one of these movies, stat.) Still, it never rose above its low concept premise.

Thank heaven for Cecily Strong and Vanessa Bayer’s “Saboski” Crystals girls, who ended the show with another daffy endorsement of a quasi-luxurious product. This time, they peddled Monica and Chandler Moet and Chandon champagne while peppering their sales pitch with horrific tales of their former lives as porn stars (“I got cut in half for real in a magic show. Now some of my middle parts are plastic bags… and I can’t wait to fill them up with Moet Chandon!”). Fun fact: This sketch, like “Maine Justice,” appeared first when Jamie Foxx hosted the show in January. Is JT secretly a big Foxx fan?

And thus ended Timberlake’s homecoming — a frequently hilarious evening that entertained even when it was uneven. Was the show as good as you were hoping it would be? Are you upset that “Barry Gibbs Talk Show” didn’t get a reprise? And how long do you think we’ll have to wait before JT comes back for a sixth round of SNL?

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