The penultimate Saturday Night Live of the fall season began — and pretty much ended — with the cold open, a welcome return by Will Ferrell as George W. Bush announcing that he was entering the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Ferrell has always danced a dangerous line with his W impersonation, mixing satire (“The field of Republicans out there is so messed up, I figured it makes you miss me, doesn’t it? And that’s sayin’ a lot” — and the killer “The way I see it, unless your name is Running Bear or Chief Two Rivers, we’re all anchor babies”) with pathos (“You gotta admit, it’s a pretty good plot twist that I turned out to be the smart one”), which is kinda like eating his cake and having it too. That’s a compliment, by the way: The more dangerous comedy on SNL, the better.

Screen Shot 2015-12-13 at 9.25.39 AMThe writing and the performance were sure-footed, topical and strong, which is more than can be said of the rest of the show, hosted by Chris Hemsworth, on hand to push his mammoth whale-y movie. Hemsworth lacks the two essential ingredients for an SNL host: he isn’t relaxed and he sure isn’t funny. The writers handed him some of the weakest material of the season, from a lame monologue that took him backstage pretending to josh with various cast members he proceeded to assault, insult or both, to a late-in-the-show Chippendales set up that looked like it was going to make fun of — or at least serve up some — Hemsworth beefcake but came up short on both counts.

Two notable exceptions to the night’s limposity: A sharp “Weekend Update” (see next post) and a Debbie Downer Christmas carol singalong that seemed knowingly torn from the Stephen Sondheim songbook: