The Sarah Silverman Program season 1 DVD review

A hit-and-miss affair that makes a lot of noise but frequently fails to bring the funny...

The Sarah SIlverman Program

What is it with Sarah Silverman? It’s not as if she seems to want you to like her. In fact, she seems hell-bent on flipping you the bird. But just as you’re just about to reach for the remote, she produces a solid by randomly tapping you in the vicinity of your funny bone with some crackling dialogue and a cheeky grin. If only she didn’t try so hard.

Early reviews of the show used words such as ‘crass’, ‘narcissistic’ and ‘juvenile’, so I was looking forward to some irreverent, weather-worn sass and gumption. Silverman nails her colours to the mast early, with a title sequence in which she flicks through a slideshow of her life, outlining the parameters of her character on a need-to-know basis. Yet behind the sardonic shrug is a none-too-subtle display of the indulgent prima donna determined to juxtapose the controversial and the inane without apology or apparent logic: “My parents are dead, I like cookies… Oh look, balloons!”

In just six episodes, Sarah Silverman becomes a lesbian, announces that she has AIDS, pretends to have a daughter to fulfil her ambitions of winning a beauty pageant, adopts a homeless man, gets high on cough syrup and has a one-night stand with God. What’s cool is that she can carry off the outlandish and surreal with a twinkle in her eye, impeccable comic timing and a fine supporting cast including Mad Men‘s John Hamm and Heroes‘ Masi Oka, plus Jay Johnston as a copper (he also played a copper in Arrested Development, which is a nice little in-joke.) What’s not so cool is that she seems determined to piddle all over her own cornflakes by being as obnoxious and unpleasant as possible.

In the show, Silverman is accused of seriously overestimating her own cuteness, and this observation is bang on. Some of the best ideas get steamrollered beneath her character’s all-consuming ego. To be fair, there are some funny moments happening beyond the noise – if you can catch them. Laura Marano does a memorable turn as the adopted daughter to Sarah’s pageant mummy. Her audition piece as Gordon Gekko from Wall Street is as glorious as it is brief. Some of Silverman’s interactions with her mini-me are knuckle-gnawingly brutal, particularly when she rebuffs the girl’s affections with the news that hugs are for winners.

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But for every sharp, pithy moment perfectly realised, there’s a glut of ‘shocking’ material taking up space. The ribaldry takes a particularly regrettable turn when Silverman wisecracks about abortion, the joke being that she didn’t really have one but instead left the baby at the hospital. Telling a small child to “go, and have the abortion of your dreams” is a low note. Presumably the point is not whether you find abortion funny, but whether you think she has chops for daring to go there. But it comes over like badly dressed agenda. Those who may not ‘get it’ are warned that the show is not suitable for viewers of a sensitive disposition – which begs the question: who is the show suitable for? When the comedy’s so-called edge is this pointy, it serves only to undercut its own value.

Can anything save this show from itself? Possibly Sarah’s gay neighbours (gaybours) Steve Agee and Brian Posehn, whose badinage provides a definitive heartbeat to keep pace amidst all the ego trips. In one episode, Steve gets beaten up and is bitching that Brian stood by and watched even though he knows karate. Brian explains that he cannot sully the integrity of his belt and Steve relents sarcastically, gesturing to his own face while admitting that “It would be a shame for your belt to look like Beetlejuice.” Brian later offers him a steak to put on his face, complete with eye holes and a mouth hole. This visual gag tickled me more than anything else in the whole episode, particularly when Steve deadpans that “This really kicks ass. Shame you don’t.” When Brian insists that he is very good at karate, Steve’s response through the holes of his steak is exquisite: “Excuse the look of scepticism on what’s left of my face.”

The simple but tangible rapport between the two actors turns a simple slip-up over a drinks order in a restaurant into some inspired one-upmanship in a series of farcical attempts to see whose poker face cracks first. Even a gag about yet another fart becomes more engaging as they alternate between befuddlement and sardonic weariness. I swear, if it weren’t for the chemistry between these two guys, I would have given up after episode two. Sadly, in earning every great bit of scene-stealing from Agee and Posehn, you have to swat away at endless vulgarity from Silverman along the lines of “I stubbed my vagina” (usually with that much preamble).

Silverman’s heavy-handed approach risks bludgeoning the viewer into a comedy coma. One character sums up my thoughts entirely when they say, “Sarah, stop. Please stop.” Ideally, shock tactics must be used sparingly to have real impact. Used in every other line of dialogue in a succession of smack-downs, it feels laboured and lazy. Marking her card so wantonly on every iffy subject from ‘retards’ to lipstick lesbians makes Silverman look desperate. Without some humility and empathy to balance things out, her character is just a caricature – and not a particularly funny one at that.

As with all manic, abrasive types, her behaviour is suggestive of someone insecure and needy but also dark and complex – but we don’t get to dwell on that, because she is too busy making gags about front-bottom farting. Who cares about creating a character with light and shade? One suspects it doesn’t matter if you pay her any attention at all. Silverman is like the person who waggles their hands and insists, “I’m really crazy!” It all winds up feeling contrived and one-dimensional. A brief Google search suggests someone with more complexity and charisma, and I can’t help feeling ripped-off that the real Silverman – comedienne, writer, musician and general force of nature – didn’t bring a little more of that to the table. Some depth would have been nice. As it is, her disdain is contagious. I find myself waiting for the come-uppance that never comes.

The bonus material consists of commentaries, musical performances, sing-a-longs and extras featuring three storyboards (two ideas for title sequences and one chase sequence from episode six). It’s generous, but the sing-a-longs will be appreciated only by those with a yen for karaoke. Having said that, the storyboards are charming and suggest some classy talent working behind the scenes. The bonus musical performances showcase Silverman’s more endearing, laid-back side; it’s a pity this gets crushed in the full thrust of the main show’s headstrong dynamic.

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The Sarah Silverman of this DVD is cocky, self-obsessed, dismissive, insensitive and overbearing. Fair enough if you go along with the idea that this is a construct, an alter-ego. But then what? Take out the contrasts in humour provided by her cohorts and the show struggles under the weight of its own attitude problem. If there is a dark side, it is superficial and serves only to further Silverman’s dependence on shock value at the expense of all else. Real characterisation never gets more than a cursory outing. Silverman makes the case for ‘keeping it real’ but in the end there is not quite enough substance, let alone material, to justify even six episodes.

Those who favour subtlety and variety will easily tire of the single setting of ‘whatever’‚ until the whole thing folds in on itself. Silverman taps away at her own self-titled creation until all you see are the limitations. Which is fine if you’ve got likeability or chops (like Seinfeld or Larry David), but to base a show around a belligerent lead, only to binge on scatological references? That’s just disappointing. I find myself wondering what happened to the courage and fearlessness I’ve heard attributed to Silverman as comedian. I also find myself wondering what happened to the funny? Will the real Sarah Silverman please stand up? Either that, or just give Steve and Brian their own spin-off show and have done with it already.


2 stars
3 stars

The Sarah Silverman Program season 1 is out now


2 out of 5