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With ‘SNL’ in transition, more is less

Louis C.K. with (from left) Aidy Bryant, Cecily Strong, Kate McKinnon, and Sasheer Zamata in a sketch on “Saturday Night Live.”

Dana Edelson/NBC

Louis C.K. with (from left) Aidy Bryant, Cecily Strong, Kate McKinnon, and Sasheer Zamata in a sketch on “Saturday Night Live.”

“Saturday Night Live” used to be fantastic, America’s great institution of funny. But now the show is a mere shadow of its former self, a diminished classic hardly deserving of the “SNL” name. The newer cast members just don’t have that magic, that special gift of developing sharp, memorable characters. And the writing? Worse than ever.

As “SNL” approaches the final three episodes of its 39th season, beginning May 3 with host Andrew Garfield, that’s what some people are saying. But, of course, that’s what some people have been saying about “SNL” for decades, even people who haven’t watched in years. “SNL” exists in a perpetual state of faded glory, where each viewer’s favorite period always seems to be in the past, waiting online somewhere for nostalgic streaming jags. By cherry-picking a few old episodes from a particular era, the critical viewer can watch and rewatch and affirm his or her own opinions ad infinitum.

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This year, many have piled on the show for being disjointed, watered down with too many cast members, and sloppy in dealing with racial casting. And it’s all true, especially when it comes to the cast size problem, a reaction to the loss of a large number of key players — Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, Andy Samberg, Jason Sudeikis, Seth Meyers — in a short time. Lorne Michaels overcompensated for the high-profile departures by building one of the most filler-filled casts in the show’s history.

Of the 17 current “SNL” cast members, too many are indistinct. Brooks Wheelan, anyone? Noel Wells? John Milhiser? They may be quite talented, but so far none has had a chance to prove that. There’s no time. Sasheer Zamata, too, hired after some bad press about the lack of black women on “SNL,” is memorable at this point primarily for being the comic hired by Michaels in response to the controversy. The sprawling cast doesn’t appear to have developed a unifying sense of ensemble that subtly, but surely, raises the energy level on the set.

All that said, I refuse to complain that all is lost, that “SNL” is so over. There haven’t been many glimmers of greatness during this transitional season, the kind of clear standout work shown by the likes of Wiig and Amy Poehler. But there have been glimmers of goodness here and there, as well as an emerging subgroup of remarkable players.

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The most versatile has been Taran Killam, who can do killer versions of Brad Pitt, Matthew McConaughey, and Michael Cera, as well as invent characters such as the bespectacled 1860s newspaper critic Jebidiah Atkinson, who has bones to pick with everything from the Gettysburg Address to the Oscars. Killam brings a gonzo energy to everything he does. So does Kate McKinnon, who, like Wiig, improves every sketch she’s in. Watch her in her signature “Last Call” sketches, in which she mauls men’s faces with her tongue as Donnelly’s bar closes. She doesn’t hold back or break.

Vanessa Bayer, Cecily Strong, and Nasim Pedrad are all growing in range and distinction. Bayer and Strong are twisted excellence in the ex-porn stars sketches, spewing malapropisms such as “Louis Vitoon.” Bayer’s Miley Cyrus impersonation has been valuable on the show in recent years, and particularly this year when Cyrus guest-hosted in the fall. And her Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy shows she may have more range to reveal in the future. Another cast member, Aidy Bryant hasn’t shown the same potential for range, but she brings a game attitude that is infectious. Like Bobby Moynihan, she is part of the backbone of the show but not necessarily a star.

Strong? She shines in her sketches, but I’m not feeling her as anchor on Weekend Update. While her partner, Colin Jost, improves each week, she seems miscast in a more one-liner-based role.

Some of the strongest material so far this season has not been live. The “Girls” parody, with Tina Fey as a new character from Albania named Blerta, was perfection. So was “(Do It on My) Twin Bed,” a music video about bringing boyfriends home for the holidays. A bit in which the GPS keeps cutting off Lena Dunham from a car sing-along of “O-o-h Child” was rich, including the unexpected kicker. And the offbeat digital shorts from Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett have had a number of amusing moments (“Blockbuster”).

As always this season, the live sketches that bring in music have tended to have a lot of charm. The “Les Jeunes de Paris” sketch returned, with Killam and Anna Kendrick dancing frenetically to the jukebox, and Jimmy Fallon and Strong turned “Baby It’s Cold Outside” into a tart little one-act play. I loved watching Louis C.K. stumbling into four women singing “Mr. Big Stuff” on a stoop almost as much as seeing Josh Hutcherson lip-synching “Your Love” in the 1980s.

They weren’t brilliant sketches, but they left an impression. In a time where sketch comedy is overflowing on the Internet, that’s not nothing. And who knows, in 10 years, perhaps, they will be the all-time classics for one generation or another, the sketches that will forever darken the reputation of everything that comes after them.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.
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