Image C+ Sound B Extras B-
"The Garden Weasel (a.k.a. What Have You Done For Me Lately?)," "Promise," "Spiders," "The Guest Host," "The New Producer," "The Flirt," "Hank's Contract," "Out of the Loop," "The Talk Show," "The Party," "Warmth," "A Brush with the Elbow of Greatness," "Hey Now"
by Bill Chambers TV was born puritanical and never really took the stick out of its ass. We don't even think of cable as TV--one asks, "What's on TV?" vs. "What's on cable?" It's a television medium, a bastard offspring, and what I love--one of the things I love--about "The Larry Sanders Show" is that it revolves around TV but could only be a cable show. You'll wish, after a couple of episodes, that network sitcoms weren't still so reined-in by standards and practices and beholden to children up past their bedtimes, as "The Larry Sanders Show" makes poetry of profanity and has a sadistic, altering worldview, particularly on business relationships and the entertainment industry. One whiff of it wipes the Stepford smile off TV's face.
But as Garry Shandling, the brains behind the series as well as Larry Sanders's alter ego, tells television critic Tom Shales in an interview exclusive to the first season DVD release of "The Larry Sanders Show", if the show were all cynicism, it wouldn't have lasted for six years. While Shandling's use of the word "love" to describe the relationship between the three protagonists is a tad sentimental, they do have a very real bond that has arisen out of a mutual, often self-serving desire to see each other not fuck up: As in a family, the actions of Larry, his gruff yet sycophantic producer Artie (an unimaginably brilliant Rip Torn), or his sidekick Hank (Jeffrey Tambor) are bound to reflect on the group as a whole.
"The Larry Sanders Show" hit the ground running, remaining artistically consistent throughout its run. Thus, revisiting early episodes is unusually painless even if you've followed Larry's adventures in nighttime television through to its bittersweet end. A typical instalment begins with the tragicomic Hank, arguably the most three-dimensional character ever to grace the small screen (that Tambor never won the Emmy for which he was nominated four times is an utter disgrace), warming up the studio audience with quiet, sub-vaudevillian patter; moves on to a monologue from Larry dealing in current affairs (transforming every episode into something of a time capsule); and from thereon in interrupts clips of Sanders's ficititious talk show (improvised before an actual studio audience) with backstage machinations (shot in a documentary vein though not framed as such).
The slog of the first season is the amount of attention devoted to Jeannie (Megan Gallagher), Larry's second spouse, a wet-blanket who seems to have married the workaholic Sanders in order to facilitate her unhappiness. Gallagher's work is perfectly acceptable--she's not a clucking cartoon--but Jeannie illustrates the creative crutch of the American wife as domestic harpy. Her egotistical demands are in keeping with the rest of Larry's satellites, but because she's a woman and indirectly involved in Larry's affairs, Jeannie's hostility contributes little beyond sour grapes.
What follows is a closer look at "The Larry Sanders Show: The Entire First Season" 3-disc set and the episodes contained therein:
What Have You Done for Me Lately
Larry is asked to do on-air commercials for The Garden Weasel by the new head of programming, and he infuriates her with his sarcastic delivery of the ad copy. Although this became the pilot, it was filmed well into the shooting schedule; the result is instant chemistry among the ensemble. A-
David Spade appears on "The Tonight Show" after Larry booked him; Larry can't decide how to punish him. We're embarrassed for William Shatner in an ingenious cameo. B
Arachnophobic Larry has to deal with a spider expert and Carol Burnett, who glimpses his testicles in an abortive Tarzan sketch. One of the few overtly slapstick episodes of the series proper, and a memorable one. A-
The Guest Host
Dana Carvey guest hosts while Larry's on vacation and his success at it strikes fear in Larry. Good as an isolated episode but, coming on the heels of the Spade half-hour, it suggests a rerun. Also, the strength of the show is the Larry-Artie-Hank troika, diluted here by interloper Carvey. B-
The New Producer
An angry episode wherein Artie's temporary replacement attempts subterfuge of "The Larry Sanders Show", inciting 'memo worry' and hilarious drunken tirades from Hank and Artie, who threatens to "piss on [Hank's] good ear." B+
More than anything she'd done previously, "The Flirt" made men everywhere sit up and take notice of Mimi Rogers, so gorgeous and plush-lipped here that she threatens to wreck Larry's home life. A-
Shandling's right when he says this, the first episode they had in the can, was too heavy for a pilot. Hank must come to terms with the fact that he's expendable after the network refuses to consider any of his renewal demands. Tambor is simultaneously loathsome and devastating as Hank pretends to have no recollection of a resurfaced one-night stand. A
Out of the Loop
Larry insists on being more intimate with his staff members, leading to his entanglement with the head writer's (Jeremy Piven) crippling sex addiction and his talent booker's (Janeane Garofalo) Gen-X woes. A-
The Talk Show
I've never been able to watch this one in a single sitting past my initial viewing. Jeannie materializes on set demanding more of Larry's attention, creating a farce without urgency as he darts back and forth from a taping to Jeannie, consoling her during the commercial breaks. Still, it's a novel take on a strained-marriage dynamic familiar from cop shows where only one partner is a civilian. C
With some reluctance, Larry holds an office party at his house. The moments of Artie's total inebriation deserve a spot on Torn's highlight reel. A-
Larry learns of focus groups and wants his talk-show evaluated. Richard Simmons is typically obnoxious--and typically abused--as the special guest star. Ends flatly. B-
A Brush with the Elbow of Greatness
Larry's fame works against him after he knocks over a woman in a grocery store line-up, an accident that's caught on tape by security cameras. Celebrity anthropology on a cracker. A
Hank dozes off in the middle of a show and Larry's ensuing lecture finds the two at odds over Hank's catchphrase "Hey now!," which Tambor delivered like nobody's business. The central argument scene is crisply executed with a Marx Brothers finish, but as a season-capper, "Hey Now" feels quite feeble. B-
On DVD, the 16mm sequences of "The Larry Sanders Show" suffer from screen-door grain and other artifacts related to both film stock and the inferior tape format on which they've been archived for all time, while the actual video portions are missing the fine detail of today's HDTV and Digital Betacam images. Although these presentations compare favourably to their broadcast counterparts, set expectations low. Accompanying Dolby Surround mixes are quite full-sounding whenever Larry's on the air. The sole extra is the aforementioned interview featurette, "No Flipping", which runs 25 minutes and is kept afloat by Shandling's thoughtful, good-natured responses to Shales's rather tentative line of questioning. Shandling does not limit his reminiscences to the first season--a shame, as that probably means we won't find the equivalent on subsequent collections of "The Larry Sanders Show". Originally published: February 26, 2002.