'Larry Sanders' returns, as sharply vacant as ever


If this really is the so-called summer doldrums, how come the smartest and funniest sitcom on television starts a new season tonight?

Because that sitcom, "The Larry Sanders Show," is on HBO, and the premium cable channel does not march to the networks' beat of starting new seasons in the fall. As long as HBO has products like tonight's episode of "The Larry Sanders Show" -- titled "Roseanne's Return" -- it can start its season any time it wants. The viewers will come.

For those not familiar with the celebrated sitcom, which starts its fourth season, it stars Garry Shandling as late-night talk-show host Larry Sanders in a perfectly wicked spoof of talk shows, celebrity, television, show business and a culture that has become mesmerized by the visual images manufactured for our small screens.

The series appears to be constantly playing in a postmodern way with image and substance, or reality and appearance. But after a while, you realize it's all image and appearance. The ultimate joke of "The Larry Sanders Show" is that there is absolutely no substance anywhere in Larry or Larry's world. It's narcissism and neuroses multiplied by as many monitors as Larry can find on which to watch himself.

In tonight's episode, Larry is driven into therapy when his lip-smackingly vile producer, Arthur (Rip Torn), books Larry's ex-girlfriend, Roseanne, on the show hoping for "sparks" and ratings. Roseanne and Larry broke up last year, when Larry walked out of the Golden Globe awards show and found Roseanne making love in the limo with her driver-bodyguard. (If you need the Roseanne/driver-bodyguard reference explained in terms of Roseanne's marriage, this series is probably not for you.)

Roseanne is all-Roseanne tonight, which means I can't repeat her funniest lines in a family newspaper. But she raises the let's-mock-Larry level, one of the great delights of the series, to a new high with constant assaults on Larry's manhood.

Thanks to his new Hollywood shrink, Larry thinks he's found the stuff to stand up to Arthur and Roseanne, putting an end to the manipulation and mockery. I won't tell you how that turns out, but here's a hint: One of the shrink's other patients is Chevy Chase, who is still trying to make sense out of his career as a talk-show host.

Intercut with all this -- 30 of the richest minutes of sitcom we're likely to see this year -- are clips from the O. J. Simpson trial, which has Larry mesmerized. As Larry watches the trial, his sidekick, Hank (Jeffrey Tambor), laments the fact that everyone's forgetting about "the real victims" -- folks like Hank who live on Rockingham Drive and have seen their property values sink since Simpson's arrest.

And, of course, Larry has another date. This one is with a supermodel named Ivanka (Marina Maximova), who is even more self-absorbed than Larry. Dinner conversation involves her complaining bitterly about not being pictured on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition.

But, then, Larry once thought he and Roseanne had a pretty good relationship.

"Good relationship? All we did was sit around and watch tapes of your show," Roseanne says tonight.

"Hey, that's not fair. We watched some of yours, too," Larry whines right back at her.

"Yeah, but mine were funny."

"The Larry Sanders Show" airs at 10:30 tonight, with the episode repeated Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.

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