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Wednesday, May 21st, 2014

The Episodes of 'SNL' Season 39, Ranked

With SNL's 39th season coming to a close, we're taking a look at the past season with a series of posts examining the highs, lows, and other memorable moments from the past eight months. Here, we look at each episode as a whole, ranking them in order of overall success and positive resonance with viewers.

Obviously comedy is subjective, and everyone watches SNL looking for different things — this list is just one of many you can find online. As far as we're concerned, things like musical guests, surprise cameos, and drama surrounding the show are less important than the plain-and-simple comedy aspects of an episode: How many sketches had clear, clever premises versus how many followed the same, predictable pattern we've seen dozens of times? And of the good material, how strong and memorable was it compared to the highlights from other episodes? Did the host blend in seamlessly and appropriately complement the cast, or did he/she stick out like a sore thumb and come off as distracting or diva-ish? How well did the writers structure the episode around the host's talents — did they effectively navigate the host's strengths and weaknesses, or did they use him/her as little as possible? And simply, does the average viewer remember anything about this episode?

With those criteria in mind, here is our ranking of the 21 episodes of SNL Season 39.

1. Kerry Washington (Nov. 2). The Scandal star gave a flawless performance at precisely the moment the world needed to see a black woman kill it on SNL. A night without any weak links included a ballsy cold open and a solid mix of on-point racial humor, stellar character work, dark game shows, surreal short films, and catchy music videos.

2. Jonah Hill (Jan. 25). The two-time Oscar nominee had much better luck with his third stint hosting than fellow Team Apatow alums Paul Rudd and Seth Rogen, giving us an episode packed with hits ("Me," "The Hit," "Couples Quiz") and an enjoyable monologue with Leonardo DiCaprio.

3. Tina Fey (Sept. 28). SNL's beloved den mother spent the season premiere humbly showcasing the new cast members with some good-natured hazing (monologue, "New Cast Member or Arcade Fire"), making good sketches shine via supporting roles ("Girls Promo," "Used Car Commercial"), and offering new Weekend Update co-host Cecily Strong some sage advice.

4. Louis CK (March 29). Without anything as amazing as "Louie Lincoln," the comedian's second time hosting fell a little short from his first time in October 2012. However, he improved in just about every other category, particularly his chemistry with other cast members, with memorable sketches like "Dyke & Fats," "Black Jeopardy," and "Romantic Speech."

5. Melissa McCarthy (Feb. 1). While it seemed odd to book powerhouse host Melissa McCarthy on a night most people would be focused on saying goodbye to Seth Meyers, McCarthy delivered all the same, with hilarious performances as the temperamental Sheila Kelly and a vengeful member of a women's group.

6. Jimmy Fallon (Dec. 21). After a December of especially rocky episodes, I was more generous than most viewers were to the incoming Tonight Show host's second Christmas episode in three years. His frequent pairing with Justin Timberlake ("Wrappinville," "Celebrity Family Feud," "Barry Gibb Talk Show") at least provided the show with some much needed spark, while "Twin Bed" and "Baby It's Cold Outside" were two of the best pieces of the entire season.

7. Andy Samberg (May 17). The former cast member's first return to the show succeeded largely because SNL turned back the clock to 2007, with several of Andy Samberg's former costars joining him in classic bits like "the Vogelchecks" and the Lonely Island trio producing hilariously over-the-top digital shorts like "When Will the Bass Drop?"

8. Lena Dunham (March 8). I was pleasantly surprised at how much fun Lena Dunham's episode ended up being, which is largely a testament to the Girls star's willingness to dive headfirst into a parody of Scandal and her own frank okay-ness with nudity. The night also gave us some delightfully off-beat musical sketches, with "Ooh Child" and "What's Poppin.'"

9. Charlize Theron (May 10). My positive review of the season's penultimate episode surprised readers, but for the most part I stand by it. Whatever your thoughts on Charlize Theron as an actress may be, she delivered admirably alongside the ladies of the cast in "Cat Commercial," "Girlfriends Talk Show," and "Heshi." I also remain impressed by the animation in "Dragon Babies," and totally smitten with that exploding whale.

10. Jim Parsons (March 1). One review I would change my stance on would be my initial underwhelmed response to the Big Bang Theory star, who in retrospect showed about as much range as any of the one-trick hosts this season. Moreover, Jim Parsons' episode actually contained many strong components — "Bird Bible," "12 Years A Slave Auditions," and "Dance Floor Killer."

11. Josh Hutcherson (Nov. 23). One of the surprise successes from early in the season saw the Hunger Games heart-throb charm his way through several season-best sketches, including the lip-syncing delight "Your Love" and the debut of Beck Bennett's "Baby CEO" character.

12. Anna Kendrick (April 5). Despite not being given much to do other than sing like a Disney princess, Anna Kendrick's episode contained the best cold open from the season's second half, a wonderful return of "Les Jeunes de Paris," and a "Little Mermaid" scene that cleverly mocked modern pop divas.

13. Drake (Jan. 18). The first episode of 2014 saw the debut of new cast member Sasheer Zamata, in a pleasant but largely unmemorable episode centered around Drake's past as a black Canadian Jew and teen soap opera star. One enjoyable sketch was "Slumber Party," in which Aidy Bryant played a early-blooming teen with the hots for her friend's nerdy dad.

14. Lady Gaga (Nov. 16). When this episode worked, it was in spite of Lady Gaga, who over-delivered jokes and mugged at the camera at every turn. Nevertheless, the night gave us some of the season's finest moments, including the hilarious debut of Taran Killam's "Jebediah Atkinson," the beautiful short film "Blockbusters," and a melancholy scene depicting Gaga as a lonely old woman.

15. Bruce Willis (Oct. 12). The Die Hard star seemed serviceable as an overeager black ops soldier and a vodka-pushing centaur, but writers otherwise seemed unsure how to use him, with the best moments being non-Bruce Willis moments like the clever "NASA Shutdown" cold open and the "Beer Pong" video.

16. Edward Norton (Oct. 26). Edward Norton's finely tuned character work did little to punctuate this forgettable early-season episode, with its one saving grace being the excellent "Wes Anderson Horror Film."

17. Seth Rogen (April 12). The Neighbors funnyman gave a surprisingly rookie performance, stuck in flustered straight-man roles and clinging to A-lister cameos far too often, with the exception of his thrilling chemistry with Cecily Strong in "Blue River Dog Food."

18. Miley Cyrus (Oct. 5). Coming right in between her VMAs performance and "Wrecking Ball," Miley Cyrus' episode was tainted by the icky feeling that this was just another one of her promotional stunts. The entertaining parody "We Did Stop" and "Mornin' Miami" were gold, but they offered little relief during an overall headache of a night.

19. John Goodman (Dec. 14). John Goodman's legendary history as an SNL host made his episode the season's biggest disappointment when it gave us practically nothing to remember him by, other than the sadness of seeing a comedy titan huff and puff his way through underwritten material.

20. Andrew Garfield (May 3). Despite the Spider-man star's generally game attitude, Leslie Jones' racy routine, and a saving-grace "Beygency" video, this episode contained such lazy, uninspired material that it nearly turned me against the show completely.

21. Paul Rudd (Dec. 7). Paul Rudd's episode has become the episode I've loved to hate on this season, with nothing really memorable about the 90-minute promo for Anchorman 2 other than a reprise of "Bill Brasky" that really pissed off Tim Meadows.

Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He hosts the Evil Blond Kid podcast and performs on the house team Wheelhouse at the iO Theater.