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Sony Pictures Home Entertainment presents
"I'll tell you one thing: if they ever ask you to put on a pair of green tights, no matter how much they offer you, you just walk away. Walk away."
DVD ReviewSo where has Garry Shandling been, exactly? Aside from the occasional bit of voice-over work (cf. Over the Hedge), he's been almost weirdly reclusive since 1998, when The Larry Sanders Show went off the air, still at its comic apex. There was odd chatter at the time—the series aired on HBO, and the broadcast networks still vaguely condescended to cable; the trades were full of suits and countersuits concerning Shandling and his manager over control of the series, which was never covered in Emmy glory in the manner in which it deserved. The first season of the show was released on DVD five years ago in a package essentially bereft of extras, but offering the promise of full-boat Sanders season releases to come. And even this release was delayed a couple of times, raising questions among those of us still paying feverish attention to such things.
This, then, is simultaneously a weirdly obsessive document and a significant disappointment. Rather than churn out all the subsequent seasons on DVD, Shandling and HBO bring us this greatest hits package instead, roughly a quarter of the show's total output—the four-disc set holds 23 of the series' 89 produced episodes. But Shandling has lavished an extraordinary amount of time on the set and the ample extras that come with it, making it an odd sort of video-psychological self-examination, DVD production as therapy. There's an obvious amount of preaching to the choir, then—you're unlikely to want to spend hours and hours behind the scenes of a show you never watched or only dimly remember, and there's plenty of online grumbling about not getting all the goods. But there's no doubt that, even in this truncated release, Sanders holds up as maybe the funniest television show of all time.
For the uninitiated: Shandling stars as Larry Sanders, host of a late-night talk show up against Leno and Letterman, and the series focuses on the star of the show and his staff as they produce an hour of network television five nights a week. Along with Shandling the linchpins of the show are Jeffrey Tambor, as Larry's sidekick, Hank Kingsley; and Rip Torn, as Artie, the show's producer. It's hard to say enough about the comic talents of these two guys. Tambor's Kingsley is a man of middling talent and enormous ambition—he'll happily shill for anything, though he's a man with absolutely no sense of humor, about himself especially. Tambor continually emphasizes Kingsley's oversized pain and easily bruised ego—it's all very much on the line for Hank, and in taking him absolutely seriously, Tambor is just toweringly, relentlessly funny. Torn's Artie is the consummate show business insider, the guy who knows where the bodies are buried because he buried them himself. Shandling is a riot having fun with his own public persona—it's the show that comes first, even in bed with his wife.
One of the reasons you commit to a series is getting to watch characters evolve over time, and we don't get to enjoy all the pleasures of that with this set—instead, we're riding the carousel with a changing cast of supporting actors, all of whom are excellent. Beverly Johnson is on board for the whole run as Larry's tortured assistant; Wallace Langham replaces Jeremy Piven as the show's head writer, and Scott Thompson does the same for Linda Doucett as Hank's assistant. Janeane Garofalo is around for a while as a talent booker, though she wafts in and out, as does Sarah Silverman later on, as another writer on the show. But whoever is on board, Shandling knows how to bring the funny, and man, does he ever.
Obviously not everything holds up as well as it might—there's a raft of Arsenio Hall jokes throughout, for instance, and no shortage of punchlines about Bill Clinton. But what hasn't changed are the ways of show business, and the documentary feel of the show, along with the roster of A-list guest stars, gives it a kind of verisimilitude that you couldn't even dream of if you were required to go to break, or kowtow to the network, or produce a Very Special Episode for sweeps week. What's great is seeing the notable guests having fun at their own expense—you had to be game to guest on a Sanders, and Sharon Stone, David Duchovny, Carol Burnett and particularly the late Bruno Kirby deserve a world of credit for not taking themselves so seriously. Every episode holds up to re-viewing, and the set will entertain you for hours. No flipping.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: The transfer is adequate if unexceptional, though it's a technically noteworthy show, especially for the contrast between backstage and on-air footage for the show within the show.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: It's all audible, but the documentary-style approach means that clarity isn't always a priority. The transfer is all right, but bring your room tone love.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 23 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in Spanish with remote access
17 Deleted Scenes
4 Feature/Episode commentaries by Garry Shandling with Peter Tolan (2), Todd Holland, Judd Apatow
Packaging: Box Set
Shandling also tracks down and reminisces with many of his most prominent and favorite guest stars—he and Alec Baldwin literally go a couple of rounds, in the boxing ring; he shoots hoops with David Duchovny, drops in for breakfast at Sharon Stone's, and chats it up with Ellen De Generes on the set of her talk show. He talks story with Judd Apatow in a featurette entitled The Writers' Process, and reaches Jon Stewart by phone at his Daily Show office—they can't see one another, but a two-camera shoot allows us to see them both. You get the sense maybe that Shandling doesn't think life is worth living if it's not captured on videotape, and even if that's a bit extreme, you can see how he cultivates and wallows in awkwardness. Which is fun for us, maybe, but not for those in conversation with him—that's very much in evidence when he invites Tambor and Torn over to his house for what's scheduled as a memory piece, but a conversation that Garry seems to want to turn into group therapy.
Four of the episodes come with commentaries from Shandling and their respective directors—Apatow talks about his experiences on this, his first time behind the camera; Shandling and Peter Tolan go over finding the voice of the show, which took a few episodes to evolve; and Todd Holland focuses more on the technical aspects of the shoot. The deleted scenes are grouped with the episodes from which they were cut—lots of them are extended sequences from the pretend talk show. And reproduced on the third disc are the ads that ran in the Hollywood trade papers, designed to drum up Emmy support for the show. Truly the only thing you could want after wading through all these extras are more episodes of the show itself.
Extras Grade: A
Final CommentsHey now! This wasn't just a landmark series, though it certainly was that—it paved the way for cable excellence and risk taking on shows like The Sopranos and Sex and the City, and providing a style to riff off of for shows as great as The Office—it's also some of the very best and funniest television ever produced. Everybody loves a look inside the Hollywood sausage factory, and the only disappointment here isn't about how the sausages are made, but that we only get to skim the top of the show's output.
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