When we last left Larry Sanders, the talk-show host was feeling burned out and had decided to toss it all and retreat to a cabin in Montana. In the season premiere of The Larry Sanders Show, three months have passed, and Garry Shandling's Larry is going stir-crazy, sitting in his cabin watching tapes of his old shows whenever he's not trying to make friends with the neighborhood whippoorwill. Realizing he's made a terrible mistake, and that talk-show hosting is in his blood (''You're like a figure out of Greek mythology,'' roars Rip Torn's Artie the producer, ''half-man, half- desk!''), Larry plots his TV comeback.
Heather Locklear aside, there is no sight on television more pleasurable than Larry Sanders in mid-squirm. Whiny, self-absorbed, and profoundly insecure, Larry offers the perfect antidote to the poisonous blandness of celebrity culture. He's so screwed up, he's lovable.
The great thing about this episode is that lovable Larry has also screwed up the lives of everyone he works with. The star having taken a powder, sidekick Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor) is reduced to announcing the daily lottery numbers; talent booker Paula (the newly, vivaciously blond Janeane Garofalo) is seriously considering a job offer from Conan O'Brien. Artie decides that the only way Larry can get his job back and justify his long absence is to say that he had a drug problem that needed an extensive cure. When a network executive, played with malicious brusqueness by David Warner, asks Artie whether Larry is now ''clean,'' Artie says fervently, ''He's as clean as Louie Anderson's dinner plate!''
After you watch a Larry Sanders show, the rest of television seems like it's on Prozac smooth and edgeless, where Sanders is prickly and nervous. At the same time, this must be the quietest sitcom on TV: Except for the brief scenes of Larry hosting his show, there's no hee-hawing studio audience stepping on punchlines. Thanks in part to director Todd Holland, some of the show's funniest moments occur during someone's speechless, quizzical look, or a silent pause in an awkward conversation. Profoundly cynical in its view not just of show business but of corporate life in general, The Larry Sanders Show is also tremendously respectful of its audience. The episodes are crammed with details about Larry's life, and the scripts refuse to spell out many small inside jokes and media references.
In the coming weeks, Larry will try to romance guest star Mimi Rogers, coming oh-so-close to kissing the nape of her neck; a Montana woman will show up in L.A. and claim to be carrying Larry's child (the truth is much more satisfyingly humiliating for our hero); and, after a taping, dimwit Hank will apologize to guest Jason Alexander, ''Hey, I'm sorry I kept calling you Kramer out there.'' There will finally be an episode that fleshes out the character of Larry's long-suffering assistant, Beverly (Penny Johnson). We'll even meet Larry's father and find out why Larry never returns his calls. It's going to be a great summer. Don't flip around. A+