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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 3/14/01

The Larry Sanders Show:
The Complete First Season

1992-1998 (2002) - HBO (Columbia TriStar)

review by Adam "Mojo" Lebowitz of The Digital Bits

The Larry Sanders Show: The Complete First Season Program Rating: A+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C/B/C

Specs and Features

322 mins (13, 24-minute episodes), NR, full frame (1.33:1), 3 single-sided, single-layer discs (4 episodes per disc), custom gatefold packaging, 20-minute interview with Garry Shandling, film-themed menu screens, scene access (none), languages: English (DD 2.0), subtitles: English and Spanish, Closed Captioned

The Larry Sanders Show is already a classic. Ten or twenty years of hindsight aren't necessary to recognize that this show deserves to sit alongside M*A*S*H, All in the Family and Soap in the Sitcom Hall of Fame. Truth be told, few programs of ANY genre in the last decade have been as fresh, innovative or original as Larry Sanders.

The stories revolve around a fictional late-night talk show hosted by Larry Sanders (played by series co-creator Garry Shandling). Sanders is very much the show business animal, constantly trying to balance his on and off camera personas. Hank (Jeffrey Tambor), his trusty sidekick, desperately wants to one day be king himself, and Rip Torn, in a tour-de-force performance that shall go down as one of most colorful characters ever to grace the small screen, portrays Arthur, the producer who must keep them all in check.

The innovative storytelling and unique plot lines constantly take the viewer in front of and behind the camera, giving an insider's look at what lies beneath the surface of a glitzy Hollywood talk show. Guest stars ranging from Sharon Stone to Elvis Costello would routinely play themselves, often with a great sense of humor about their role in tinsel town. The end result was a program that actually made you feel like a fly on the wall of a major TV show, complete with a cast of unique, well rounded characters that you loved and despised all at the same time.

The series was heralded as a creative triumph, while simultaneously doing it's fair share to shake up the industry. After earning volumes of critical praise, a boatload of Emmy Awards and discharging a thousand volts of buzz, Larry Sanders put pay-TV original series on the map. Series such as The Sopranos, Sex in the City and Queer as Folk owe a great deal to the success of Larry Sanders. What began as one, quirky little sitcom has turned into a full-blown television renaissance, full of programming that is unbound by the usual creative restraints of network TV. The Larry Sanders Show proved that the major television networks could be beat at their own game and, more importantly, paved the way for a new era of television.

And so it was with great anticipation that fans of the series awaited its release on DVD (fans with a lot of patience, I might add, since the first disc of episodes was announced two years ago, only to be canceled when the popularity of season-by-season box sets began to grow). After all this time, certainly a groundbreaking milestone in television history such as this would be worthy of the red-carpet treatment! Alas, this first season DVD boxed set has gotten what is closer to the Mop 'n Glow treatment.

Up front, the packaging is lackluster but adequate, providing little more than a proper, foldout home for the three discs included (totaling thirteen episodes). There is no informative booklet provided, but there is a color leaflet, which provides episode titles and production credits for each show (be careful not to lose it, however, since there's no pocket or folder anywhere in the packaging to keep it safe). The discs themselves are adorned with a plain, white picture logo on a solid color background. A nice touch has each DVD with a different color but the second disc (which sports white lettering on a bright yellow background) is nearly illegible.

The visual and audio quality of the episodes themselves can also be summed up as 'adequate.' The Dolby 2.0 Surround sound (which is how the series was aired) is the better half, and comes across crisp and clear. Aside from the studio audience, there really isn't much surround activity, but the front soundstage presents everything it as should and gets the job done nicely.

The video, on the other hand, could be better. Larry Sanders was unique in that it was shot on both film and video, giving the series two very distinctive visual signatures. Both were shot in a 4x3 ratio, which is how the episodes are presented here, but there is a noticeable difference in quality between the video and film segments. The video is crisp and clean and looks very much as it did when it aired on HBO. The filmed scenes, however, do not hold up as well. Compression artifacts appear regularly, mostly due to overcrowding the discs and the high amount of grain present in the original film.

To give the series a more authentic, documentary feel, much of the filming was done using handheld, 16mm cameras. In addition, the low-contrast, 'available light' feel of the photography resulted in an image with noticeably more grain than average (a deliberate choice which suited the show). MPEG compression works best when there are fewer differences between frames, and high amounts of film grain tend to make every pixel of every frame completely different. What all this boils down to is that grainy filmed images (like Larry Sanders) need a higher bit rate to look good, but these discs are squeezing nearly two full hours (four 25-minute episodes) onto a single layer DVD! The result? Less than spectacular video quality for the filmed scenes. I can only hope that the remaining four box sets (when they eventually arrive) will take this into account and Columbia TriStar will switch to dual-layered discs.

One mysteriously absent feature are chapter stops - this is pretty standard for DVD, yet each episode of The Larry Sanders Show goes on for the full 25 minutes as one, uninterrupted chapter. I would have welcomed even a few so I could more easily skip to my favorite scenes upon repeat viewings. First Larry asked for "No Flipping," now it's "No Skipping!" Celebrities, I tell ya.

The extras for the entire set amount to a single, 20-minute (newly recorded) interview of Shandling with TV critic Tom Shayles. No, it's not much as far as extras go, but it is a good interview. Although Shayles comes off as more of a fan than a critic (his questions never dig very deeply), Shandling is very forthcoming and has plenty to say about the origin and production of the series. Many interesting insights are to be had, and I suggest you watch the interview first - it may change the order in which you decide to watch the episodes!

One extra I would like to see in future sets is the full, in-show interview footage with Larry's guests. Although we usually only see a few minutes (or even seconds) of the celebrity interviews in the final episode, very often an entire segment was shot, just like a real talk show. Shandling and the guest star would sit and talk and eventually hit on the subject that was relevant to the plot - the rest of the material would be improvised (an area Shandling excels in). This means there are tapes sitting in a vault somewhere, containing potentially hours of wonderful material with some of the top names in Hollywood! I implore Columbia TriStar to dig up these tapes and get some of this footage onto the future releases (besides, with the show constantly being repeated on HBO, you need to give people an extra reason to buy these DVDs). If you need someone to sift through the hours of footage and help assemble it all, hey now - I volunteer!

Although this boxed set should have (and easily could have) been better, the bottom line is that the entire first season of one of the best shows in a decade is on DVD. The picture and sound are adequate and there's at least one good extra. If you're a fan of the series, you have to have them. If you've don't have HBO and have never seen The Larry Sanders Show, by all means pick it up - the price is right and you'll be in for a very unique, and thoroughly entertaining, television experience.

Adam "Mojo" Lebowitz

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