"Saturday Night Live" reaches the halfway point of its 39th season this weekend with what should be its most entertaining episode of 2013: Former cast member Jimmy Fallon returns to host with musical guest -- and unlikely comedy assassin -- Justin Timberlake.
The episode, airing at 10:30 p.m. Saturday on NBC, comes at a critical time for the television stalwart. A show often criticized for not being as good as it used to be is actually living up to that tired line.
The loss of longtime cast members Bill Hader, Fred Armisen and Jason Sudeikis over the summer has clearly hurt the show. Head writer and "Weekend Update" anchor Seth Meyers is about to leave the show to take over Fallon's late-night chatfest. Executive producer Lorne Michaels has justifiably taken heat for filling six new featured-player slots with all white comedians -- and only one woman. And only one of those new players has left even the slightest impression on the audience. (Beck Bennett's turn as an executive with the body of an infant is "SNL's" best bit of physical comedy since Casey Wilson played a quadriplegic stripper.)
Fallon and Timberlake, who will almost certainly reprise their popular "Barry Gibb Talk Show" bit, will do what so many big stars have done to "SNL" in the past few years and inject life into the show simply by being there. The Paul Rudd episode two weeks ago passed muster with surprise appearances by seven, count 'em, seven comedians who are way more famous than "SNL's" current crop of not-ready-for-prime-time players.
But there is hope for Season 40 and beyond. Cecily Strong is shaping up to be a, ahem, strong replacement for Meyers at the fake-news desk. Aidy Bryant manages to get a big laugh in every sketch. Taran Killam has found a recurring character in Jebidiah Atkinson, a 19th-century critic who hates everything.
But the show's brightest star is undoubtedly Kate McKinnon, a refugee from LOGO's "Big Gay Sketch Show" who came aboard "SNL" as a recurring player in 2012. McKinnon is the new Bill Hader: an attractive, pliable performer with a knack for impressions and a willingness to do anything for a laugh. Her crazy-eyed appearance as a soccer mom addicted to "Grand Theft Auto V" is among this season's highlights.
When "Saturday Night Live" returns from its winter hiatus, I expect several of the new featured players to be gone. (Name one thing John Milhiser or Kyle Mooney has done this season. No? OK, try to think of what they look like. No, saying "they're white guys" doesn't count.) But this weekend, "SNL" will briefly regain its spot atop the pop-culture heap.
McKinnon is capable of keeping it there for much longer.
• Sean Stangland is a Daily Herald copy editor and a tireless consumer of pop culture. You can follow him on Twitter at @SeanStanglandDH.