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‘The Hobbit’ meets ‘The Office’ on heroic ‘SNL’ with Martin Freeman

Martin Freeman brought a legacy of distinguished comic work to Studio 8H, from “The Office” to “Sherlock” to “Fargo,” and to that he can add a rollicking debut as a “Saturday Night Live” host.

Though it took a tumble in the final half hour, this weekend’s episode led off with some of the strongest scenes of the season so far, thanks in large part to the genial and polished Englishman. He was central to the night’s biggest triumph, a merger of the roles he’s known best for on this side of the Atlantic, “The Office: Middle-earth.”

This Bilbo Baggins was working in the dreary blue-collar complex of the original British “Office,” leading a frustrating life much like that of Freeman’s character there, deadpan prankster Tim. It was pitch-perfect parody and a killer showcase for Bobby Moynihan, aping the sniggering insecurity of Ricky Gervais’ David Brent under Gandalf’s beard and cloak. It was full of witty touches: the Gollum as Gareth (Taran Killam), shirtless but necktied; the precious ring encased in Jell-O; even the BBC logo recast to say JRR (as in Tolkien). The team behind this expertly blended two distinctive series and demonstrated knowledge and love of both.

(The precise characters and distinctive rhythms of “The Office” are irresistible to “SNL,” which also spoofed the American version — Jell-O and all — with host Steve Carell in 2008.)

Freeman also endeared himself as an insulation contractor soon to appear on an Atlanta talk show, waving awkwardly as a tease to his spot went on way too long. It was a funny premise — at least I think that was the premise, and not the saucy straight-guy remarks that Killam’s effeminate co-host kept making.

The night’s other gem didn’t include the host at all. It was monster-truck-style ad for Christmas mass at a humble church, touting a cast of Sunday-service regulars in the pews and the pulpit. The sweaty handshaker and the meekly funny pastor amused, but best of the bunch were the two liturgical readers: a muttering teen (Kyle Mooney) and a bejeweled 44-year-old (Cecily Strong) trying way too hard.

Unfortunately, the show took a dive after Weekend Update with aimless bits starring Freeman as a factory manager training a nitwit (Killam), a lounge sax player with a snarled personal life and a waterbed retailer trying to make his wife (Aidy Bryant) a star. If ever an “SNL” was made for cherry-picking, this was it.

Other thoughts:

• In his monologue, Freeman got off a brief allusion to the ongoing tensions in New York by heralding the city’s magical Christmas elements: The Rockefeller Center tree! Radio City Music Hall! The racial unrest! All three drew cheers.

• Getting a front-and-center slot on the show and a lot of Twitter love was a music video about Sump’n Claus, the other man in the red suit (Kenan Thompson) who hands out cash to the naughty. It was immaculately produced but overlong and light on laughs. Nonetheless, look for it in clip-job Christmas specials for years to come.

• The cold open figured out an effective way to play the devastating Senate Intelligence Committee torture report for laughs, having the guys who devised the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques (Moynihan and Mooney) discuss the other clients who hire them for torture, from Time Warner Cable to 1-877-KARS4KIDS.

• Seth Meyers couldn’t do it, Cecily Strong couldn’t do it, and now Michael Che is the latest Update anchor to fail to get Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy (Vanessa Bayer) off his script.

• In sort of the flip side of Vanessa Bayer’s deluded rom-com fan from October, Strong played the sort of idealized female character who falls in love with some doofus in a male-driven comedy. Despite an inexplicable Marcia Brady monotone, she had good gags about sleeping in a jersey and loving wings, and again proved she’s a better Update contributor as a weirdo visitor than as a co-anchor.

• Next week,  Amy Adams of “Big Eyes” is back for her second hosting stint, six years after her first, with musical guest One Direction.