We can judge most TV series by their best and worst episodes, but Saturday Night Live lives and dies from sketch to sketch, so that's how we're judging its best moments of the year. A few criteria, because no year-end list is any good without some criteria: All sketches from new episodes in calendar year 2012 are eligible; I'm limiting myself to only one sketch per episode; and no recurring characters allowed unless they delivered their best sketch ever (sorry, Stefon; sorry, Two Best Friends of Various Dictators). And now the list, presented in chronological order.
“Bein' Quirky with Zooey Deschanel”
(aired: February 11; host: Zooey Deschanel)
The grand tragedy of Abby Elliott is that after spending the better part of three seasons being a punching bag, she finally started showing some promise in her fourth year, only to leave just when Kristen Wiig's departure would leave a vacuum at the top of the female ranks. (Though I wouldn't wish the mercurial treatment the SNL producers have put the women through this season on anyone else.) Elliott's big win last season was coming up with a zeitgeisty recurring impersonation of Ol' Adorkable herself, Zooey Deschanel. And with game guest-host Zooey showing up as Mary-Kate Olsen, she and Elliott delivered the best "Bein' Quirky" of all. From making their eyes all big to frail Mary-Kate's quavering voice to the most welcome presence of Wiig's Bjork, this at least allowed Elliott to leave her mark before she left.
“The Obama Show”
(aired: February 18; host: Maya Rudolph)
Maya Rudolph's grand return as host was a triumph pretty much across the board, but things got especially great when Rudolph's Michelle Obama introduced the newest phase in her initiative to get Americans fit by embodying one of TV's great families. And so began a shot-for-shot remake of the Cosby Show credits (Maya doing Clare's finger-wag! Joe Biden as Theo!), easily my favorite 30 seconds on television last year. It's a pity that the rest of the sketch on Hulu cuts off before Amy Poehler shows up as Hillary Clinton to lay down "Night Time Is the Right Time" with the Huxtables. Damned music rights.
“The Real Housewives of Disney”
(aired: March 3; host: Lindsay Lohan)
The Lindsay Lohan–hosted episode wasn't the disaster some feared it would be, but it did turn into a sad little shell game where the producers tried to keep her out of the way as much as possible. Poor Lindsay, sure, I guess, but at least she got to be pretty prominent in the best sketch of the night, a sharp jab at the Housewives series through the prism of Disney princesses. Everybody's drunk and self-promoting and awful, with Kristen Wiig a particular highlight as a Kim Richards–esque Cinderella ("and I'm a huge f*cking mess"). Also loved Vanessa Bayer's Snow White getting five up top from the seven dwarves.
(aired: March 10; host: Jonah Hill)
Once in every top ten list, the writer has to include one favorite that's just for him. Sorry, guys, this one's mine: Jonah Hill hiring out a symphony to serenade his lady on their anniversary, only to break it down to Coolio's "C U When U Get There." I'm already a sucker for intensely committed renderings of silly pop songs — complete with pop-up backup singers — but the whole thing hits another level at the end, as Wiig joins in and the players take the whole thing out into the audience. Hill and Wiig are just scream-giggling to each other by the end, and if you weren't having fun with it, it was probably insufferable. But I saw two performers having a total un-self-conscious blast up there, and it was infectious. Things got really loopy at the end of that year, with Wiig and Andy Samberg nearly out the door, and while sometimes it came off sloppy, just as often it came off as loose and familial. This was one of those times. I put this sketch in my Hottie Boombalotties folder. (Again, music rights keep it off Hulu, but Buzzfeed provides.)
“She's a Rainbow”
(aired: May 19; host: Mick Jagger)
Speaking of familial, last season’s finale saw one of the sweetest send-offs in show history. The show has only acknowledged that a cast member was leaving a handful of times: It most recently happened with Amy Poehler, but whereas her farewell sharply undercut the sentimentality before things got too sad, the show indulged itself to say good-bye to Kristen Wiig. She was such a workhorse for the show, powering through the exits of arguably the three greatest female talents the show's ever seen in Poehler, Tina Fey, and Maya Rudolph. So it was heartwarming to see Lorne Michaels and Seth Meyers marshal current cast members, Mick Jagger, and Arcade Fire, among others, to dance her off into the sunset. The sappier audience members (hey, guys) were hard-pressed to hold back a tear or two.
(aired: September 22; host: Joseph Gordon-Levitt)
Easily the strongest piece of election-year material, this ad on behalf of the undecided — and decidedly uninformed — voters of America was a satisfyingly sharp jab at the way we do our politics and our race to the bottom to convince our dumbest and least engaged because they're the ones who are gettable. Everybody's well-dressed, professional, composed, and ignorant as hell. It's fantastic. "What are the names of the two people running? And be specific."
(aired: October 6; host: Daniel Craig)
One of my favorite stories of this season so far has been the creeping dominance of Kate McKinnon, featuring two most welcome appearances on Weekend Update. The first saw McKinnon as Ann Romney, lashing out at Mitt's fellow Republicans and obsessing over Jay-Z and Bay-on-say. My own restrictions for this list, however, are keeping dear Ann on the sidelines in favor of McKinnon's next Update bit, where she played Spanish artist Cecilia Gimenez, world's most notorious art-restorer (but perhaps the world's best meme-generator). Defending her painting of Jesus and his "enormous round monkey face," Gimenez makes a great case for why she should get paid. After all, she asked Jesus why he looked like a shark, and he said he thought it looked cool.
Second Presidential Debate
(aired: October 20; host: Bruno Mars)
After all the acclaim that the pre-election SNL episodes got in 2008, the 2012 sketches couldn't help but feel like a letdown. Without a Sarah Palin in the mix, the show had to rely more on Obama, and while Jay Pharoah's version of the president was far better than Fred Armisen's, Obama humor as a whole is still a weak spot. The exception was this sketch after the second, delightfully contentious debate. With so much more to work with this time (the big joke of the first debate was how listless Obama was, and that's no fun), we got two rowdy candidates, a rogue's gallery of weird townies asking questions, a delightful Tom Hanks cameo, and the sweet footnote of Aidy Bryant getting to deliver her first "Live, from New York, it's Saturday Night!"
(aired: November 3; host: Louis C.K.)
The post–Lonely Island digital shorts have undergone a fascinating evolution this season, with a string of tonally discordant films that have been neither successes nor failures but worthy efforts. They're working at something here, and the melancholy "Sad Mouse" and hazy "Mokiki" bits have been great changes of pace, if nothing else. The one unambiguous triumph so far should not be surprising, since Louis C.K. has been knocking tonally discordant material out of the park on Louie for some time. His take on Abraham Lincoln as his own TV persona — working the comedy clubs, having awkward interactions with black guys — was the perfect venue to blend host, show, and the culture (your move, Daniel Day-Lewis).
(aired: December 8; host: Jamie Foxx)
Along with Kate McKinnon, the other breakout this season has been Cecily Strong, who scored with a recurring Update character (Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With at a Party) and rapidly increasing screen time from episode to episode. She was uncharacteristically absent from the Jamie Foxx–hosted show until the very last sketch, when she and Vanessa Bayer (virtually a non-factor all season up until this week) doled out killer line delivery upon killer line delivery as two ex-porn stars extolling the "gamorous" virtues of "Saboski" crystals. I've watched it no less than ten times in about three days. I show no signs of slowing down.