Larry Sanders Show:
The Complete First Season
(2002) - HBO (Columbia TriStar)
by Adam "Mojo" Lebowitz of The
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
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
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
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