Hillary Clinton had a brief starring role on the season premiere of "Saturday Night Live," and as always with these sorts of things, the question comes down hard on the obvious one: Did she do herself any favors? "I've had a hard couple of 22 years," her double, Kate McKinnon, told her. A hard couple of 22 months as well.

What was unique about Clinton's role on "SNL" was in fact that it was a role -- perhaps not unprecedented but very rare for a politician on "SNL." They usually play themselves -- they don't play Val, a bartender (Clinton) or anyone else for that matter. In the well-thumbed political manual of "How to Utilize Saturday Night Live: The Political Edition," the sage advice is to play yourself -- just a funnier, nicer, more human and more ironic version of yourself, if at all possible. (Also this: Laugh at that other self.)

Instead, we got Val. Clinton locked eyes with the Teleprompter more than with McKinnon, so the question about her future job as a professional actress was easily settled last night. But that didn't mean the skit didn't work for Clinton. It actually did because it broke down a standard go-to joke, of having the politician come face to face with their alt-universe "SNL" version, which is usually guaranteed a quick laugh -- but not much else. Recall Tina Fey and Sarah Palin, or Amy Poehler and Hillary Clinton.

And turning the joke, however very very gently back on Clinton -- as someone late to her convictions on issues like gay marriage or even the Keystone pipeline -- didn't hurt her either.

"I'm just an ordinary citizen, who believes the Keystone pipeline will destroy our environment," said Val. A genuinely amusing line because Clinton only a week and a half ago, after many months of silence, finally said she opposed the pipeline.

Viewers got to see Clinton laugh too. They don't see that often, and -- if they really put their mind to it -- probably can't remember the last time they actually did witness the spectacle of a full-throated, head-thrown-back, honest-to-goodness Hillary Clinton laugh -- insofar as there hasn't been much for her to laugh at.

"I wish you could be president," said the Hillary-McKinnon character. "Me too," said Hillary-Val the bartender.

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Critics -- and there will be many today -- can argue that Clinton got a free campaign commercial (they won't be wrong.) They can argue that she was unpresidential, or diminished her stature as a serious candidate (they will be wrong; most politicians eventually find their way to Studio 8H, including President Barack Obama in 2012).

They can say her timing was horrendous, given tragedies in Oregon and Afghanistan (half wrong anyway; these things are planned days, weeks in advance, even if The New York Times did wreck the surprise by reporting late last week that this would be, uh huh, a "surprise.") 

They can argue that it was "millennial pandering" -- the rap she got recently from a Salon columnist for doing an interview with Lena Dunham and her "Lennyletter." (But don't all politicians pander?)

But it may be worthwhile considering this too: These coveted "SNL" appearances don't always have the advantage of transforming a troubled candidate into a golden candidate, whose image is instantly inverted, and whose flaws are magically erased. Even a generous "SNL" sketch can't perform miracles.

Example: Al Gore hosted "SNL" on Dec. 14, 2002. On Dec. 17, 2002, he officially announced that he would -- after careful consideration -- not run again for president.

@Newsday