In Shandling's Final Season, 'Sanders' Doesn't Miss a Beat


Get out the therapist's couch.

Garry Shandling is back for his last hurrah on HBO as a TV host so encumbered by neuroses on "The Larry Sanders Show" that you envision him some day winding up in the fetal position.

This is the comedy series that since 1992 has made angst, insecurity and back-stabbing at once hilarious and symbolic of what "Entertainment Tonight" doesn't tell you about show biz. Oh, did I leave out cynicism and superficiality?

Deciding to move on, Shandling is yanking his extraordinary series after this batch of shows, the first of which is typically an extremely funny juxtaposition of fiction and reality so seamless that it's hard separating one from the other. Who even wants to?

Basically, the half hour goes like this: The network is again hounding Larry, this time aggressively lobbying for "some fine-tuning to get the numbers up." A new hairstyle, a new opening, a new theme.

More to the point, possibly even a new host in the person of Jon Stewart (playing himself), whose ratings as substitute host were as good as Larry's--and, as one network suit says, "he's a lot cheaper."

Meanwhile, Larry's old comrade and protective producer, Artie (Rip Torn), appears almost resigned to life without Larry. And Larry's kiss-up sidekick, Hank (Jeffrey Tambor), is as insincere and mean-spirited as ever, this time fixated on stopping a fan, who is Hank's look-alike, from using his trademark expression "hey now" on a license plate.

Brilliant moments are routine for this series, but here are two that are especially a hoot. One finds Hank and the look-alike gabbing worriedly about the future of the show, the other has Hank fawning over Stewart when it appears Larry may be out.

And the episode's surprise ending is truly inspired.

TV has its bad, mediocre and good comedies, the latter being those that make you laugh just about all the time. Then there is "The Larry Sanders Show," which occupies a universe of its own, a comedy that's remarkable because beyond being merely consistently witty, it takes you to places you've never been. Hey now, indeed.

* "The Larry Sanders Show" airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on HBO. The network has rated it TV-MA (may not be suitable for children under the age of 17).

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