"There will be no twerking tonight," Miley Cyrus announced during her opening monologue. Let's talk about what else did not happen during Miley's second visit to Saturday Night Live. She did not get naked. She did not rip up a picture of Sinead O'Connor, as rumored. She did not tarnish the reputation of any sports-fan paraphernalia. (Bobbleheads, you are spared the shame of the foam finger. For now.)
Instead of trying to outdo herself in the shock department, Miley engaged in some cheerful self-mockery of her VMA performance and "We Can't Stop" video. Her musical numbers were raw and effective: a full-band, balls-out version of "Wrecking Ball," and an acoustic-guitar reworking of "We Can't Stop." She didn't fare as well in most of her sketches, failing to generate laughs as wannabe high school rapper Lil' Teeny or a perfectionist head cheerleader. On the other hand, whenever she was asked to play herself, she was hilarious. Clearly, Miley Cyrus is her own best character.
New York City, 2045: There was only one thing I really wanted from this episode, which was to see Vanessa Bayer's pre-2013 Miley Cyrus talking to the real Miley. So thank you, SNL, for giving this to me in the first three minutes. The sketch opens with the ingenious framing device of Kenan Thompson, in post-apocalyptic New York City, describing the moment that ended civilization. Cut to Miley backstage at the VMAs, where her former self emerges from the future to try and talk her out of twerking. There's terrific symmetry here between Bayer and Cyrus, particularly when they recite the same lines in Bayer's "Miley Cyrus Show" cadence. ("Omigod, it is like totally the morning and the birds are chirping and stuff like that, and I am like totally hungry and stuff like that, and I am obsessed with cereal!") Every gag in this sketch lands, but Bobby Moynihan and his giant teddy bear costume nearly walk away with the whole thing. A few minutes later, Moynihan will upstage Miley's monologue with a cutaway joke about her naked "Wrecking Ball" video.
'50 Shades of Grey' Screen Tests: You have to love sketches like these – or at least, I do. There's nothing wrong with taking a minute to trot out the cast members' celebrity impressions, especially when so many of them are new to us. This pre-recorded sketch shows "screen tests" for the 50 Shades of Grey movie, featuring actor pairs of escalating weirdness. Kate McKinnon does both Jane Lynch and Tilda Swinton to perfection, which is not surprising. What is surprising is how well Nasim Pedrad imitates Aziz Ansari.
We Did Stop (The Government): The stars totally aligned for this one. Miley Cyrus's "We Can't Stop" video is recast as a Republican anthem for the government shutdown. "This is our house, this is our rules." "This is our party, we can do what we want." How did we not see it before? Taran Killam works it as an androgynous John Boehner, while Miley dons the Michelle Bachman wig. Kudos to the prop person who assembled the Pentagon out of freedom fries.
Pat Lynhart, Connecticut Mother: Cecily Strong looked a lot more comfortable at the Weekend Update desk this week; maybe having Tina Fey breathing down her neck last week was freaking her out. The real stars of the segment, though, were Jay Pharaoh's Shannon Sharpe and this new character from Kate McKinnon. Pat Lynhart is a suburban mother asked to comment on Grand Theft Auto V. Instead of condemning the violence, she delivers a wild-eyed monologue about her love for the game: "Last week I was reading The Paris Wife with my book club. This week, I had sex with over 3,000 prostitutes. I AM INVINCIBLE."
Miley Sex Tape: They're not calling them "digital shorts" anymore,but that's technically what this is, right? New cast member Kyle Mooney exits his office in a panic, because Miley Cyrus wants to have sex with him. Is his problem that he can't handle the pressure, or that he thinks Miley is literally one hundred years old? This film's surreal humor has echoes of The Lonely Island, but there's something about Mooney that makes me think he's taking off in a whole new direction. He has this magnetic, off-kilter screen presence, like a cuddlier Fred Armisen. This may just be the start.
Overall, it was a strong show, with a confident buzz that was missing from last week's season premiere. I don't know if Miley was single-handedly responsible for that jolt of electricity, but on a night when the show was delayed half an hour, her frenetic twerky energy was just what the doctor ordered.